National / Social Issues

First female on century-old Komatsu's board calls on women in Japan to lean in

by Masumi Suga

Bloomberg

Kuniko Urano is the first, yes, the very first woman board member of Komatsu Ltd., a 98-year-old company that is the world’s No. 2 construction and mining equipment maker.

The path that Urano, 63, took to the boardroom and the reason she’s still a solo member on Komatsu’s board say a great deal about Japan’s difficulties in bridging the gender gap in a country that most acknowledge needs more women in positions of influence.

Worries about Japan’s shrinking workforce and aging demographics have prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for years to promote lowering barriers that keep women from contributing fully to the economy.

Though he famously outlined goals to create a “Japan in which women shine” and has been pushing for more hiring and promotion for women, Japan has yet to see real results.

While Japanese women’s workforce participation has reached a record, the country continues to grapple with a number of challenges: The female share of board seats is the lowest in the Group of Seven at 5.3 percent, far below 43 percent in France and 22 percent in the U.S., and there’s a wage gap of about 25 percent, according to the OECD.

In the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, meanwhile, Japan is ranked 121st out of 153 countries.

“Women’s hard work will be the source of the company’s competitiveness,” Urano, who is Komatsu’s senior executive officer overseeing human resources and education, said last month in an interview in Tokyo, citing a company slogan.

Urano says human resources issues such as the “way workers are assigned jobs” matter in terms of developing a pool of women who can rise to be leaders. For instance, she is concerned that women not be promoted too quickly, as there could be a high risk of failure.

And she says women in Japan themselves are part of the problem — they often don’t raise their hands and seek promotion.

“Women should be assigned appropriate work that will enable them to grow step by step rather than giving them difficult jobs that would ruin them,” she said. “I also want to see women themselves change,” saying they shouldn’t quit or “decline managerial positions when offered.”

Urano has taken on a role in Japan’s diversity push to attract women to the male-dominated workplace and promote them to be managers. At issue for Japan’s economy is not only a big gender gap but also a demographic crisis as the working age population is set to fall 40 percent by 2055.

Globally, 27 percent of managers and leaders were women in 2018, and the regional share in the Americas and Europe and Central Asia was higher at 39 percent and 34 percent, respectively, according to a report from the International Labor Organization.

In Japan, the share of women in management positions was 12 percent last year. Komatsu tracks the trend in Japan with women making up 7.2 percent of its management ranks as of last April. The company wants to increase the share to 10 percent by 2021, when it will mark its 100th anniversary.

Women leaders in Japan say the pace of change is too slow and needs to be sped up in business and politics.

Urano, who has been with the company for more than 40 years, wants women to be active when the company launches something new — like changing its business model or introducing a new system — because a lack of existing experts represents an opportunity.

Komatsu holds female-only training sessions several times a year for dozens of workers in their 30s to early 40s. In such meetings, led by Urano and outside experts, the group discusses their career plans, which are reviewed by their managers.

The sessions are also a place to learn how some of the company’s more senior women — including those with children — have figured out ways to juggle work and home life.

In the late 1970s, when Urano was looking for a job, female office workers served tea or spent their day making copies even if they were highly educated. At a job fair held by Komatsu, Urano and other women were told “we don’t expect much from women with bachelor’s degrees.”

Yet she persevered. Joining Komatsu in 1979, she has filled positions in a variety of areas, including HR, European export operations and logistics. She said she was fortunate to have bosses who supported her and enabled her to grow, including the two men who ended up heading Komatsu, Kunio Noji and Tetsuji Ohashi.

She acknowledges plenty of struggles. One was around 2000 when she was general manager of the Osaka plant and Komatsu faced a crisis, reporting its first-ever operating loss. The company implemented a new structure and Urano led a reform effort at the plant, and had to do everything from shedding redundant stockpiles to finding a shipper that offered the lowest prices.

She says she was surprised when she was promoted to be an executive officer in 2011. She says one of the reasons she’s done well at Komatsu is she’s stuck with it, and was willing to do a variety of jobs. She says many female colleagues left the company, some who were more capable than her but ended up being underutilized.

Even now, there are still many women who are struggling in the male-dominated workplace and “telling their situations is my job,” she said.

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