EIHEIJI, FUKUI PREF. – The current misuse or underuse of female talent is a widespread problem in countries around the world, developed and developing economies alike. It is particularly salient in Japan, even though the government often announces its support for the promotion of greater numbers of women in positions of authority in governmental offices and businesses, and politicians regularly highlight their desire to see men and women get equal pay for equal work. The recently published Global Gender Gap Index 2015 by the World Economic Forum listed Japan in 101st position, out of 145 countries surveyed.
Obviously, women are as intellectually and emotionally able to hold positions of high managerial responsibility as men. And research suggests that women can actually be better at making managerial decisions than men. At the university level, female students tend to score higher in both intellectual and emotional capabilities and/or exhibit a wider range of cognitive and emotional responses to stimuli, making them better prepared to address the challenges associated with making critical decisions that engage the well-being of large numbers of stakeholders. Only rigid social structures and traditional (read patriarchal) corporate cultures forbid women from climbing the hierarchical ladder.
Of course, there is evidence of successful women in various parts of Japan’s economic and political worlds. But this remains the exception rather than the norm. Women in managerial positions should be a common sight, not a token occurrence, in Japanese offices. To illustrate what Japan could gain from this, here is an example I directly encountered a few years ago.
In 2002, while working as a teaching assistant for the MBA Entrepreneurship course at the University of California, Berkeley, I assisted teams of would-be entrepreneurs and guided them through the idea-formation and business-plan-elaboration process. They would spend a few months in the incubator that the university had recently set up for promoting innovation and business creation.
One of the teams I supervised developed a project for internet marketing in Japan. The two students, later founders of their startup company in Tokyo, were smart and ambitious men. I followed them through the initial stages of their business venture and I remember one interview we did a few months after they had set up their company.
Asked about their biggest challenge as entrepreneurs in Japan, they told me it was definitively the human resources issue. In a nutshell, it was impossible for them to attract male graduates (mostly engineers) from good universities, the appeal of their foreign startup venture appearing quite pale compared with the career opportunities at longtime established large electronics firms.
“They are interested in our project(s), but these guys always end up choosing a job at Sony or (then) Matsushita over our offers,” they said. To which they added, with frowns, low voices and quite desperate tones, that consequently they “had no choice but to hire some women in their openings for junior management positions. …” It was a setback for them, and a challenging one as they thought their venture’s prospects would be hampered by their inability to get the typical ambitious-male salaryman who, arguably, forms the backbone of any corporate success in Japan.
About six months later, I met with the two founders again, and it was quite a different story! When I asked about their hiring issue again, they told me that the curse of hiring women had turned into a blessing. Whatever, if any, technical expertise the women might have lacked compared with their male counterparts was overwhelmingly compensated by their excellent organizational skills, their open-mindedness and their ability to tackle a large variety of professional challenges. In a word, they had all the skills a startup company could hope for. Our two founders were now proud employers of talented, dedicated and ambitious female junior managers.
This is just one example of the many companies that have experienced the curse-turned-blessing of hiring Japanese female managers. So why do companies not do that more often, on a grander scale?
As scholars of organizations have long recognized and documented, the main sickness of business firms is their high level of inertia. Simply put, they don’t like to change! Conservative people make conservative decisions, which in turn maintains the status quo of hiring the same profiles, socializing with them in a stereotypical fashion, and thereby replicating generations of same-minded individuals, with the same qualifications and same intellectual mindset. It is no surprise then that organizations are good at repeating what they already know, i.e., developing their products and processes incrementally, but not at thinking outside the box and coming up with the radical suggestions needed to face a rapidly changing business environment.
What’s the way forward? This is, unfortunately, not a new issue; and many business and political leaders have pondered the inertia of Japanese corporate and political cultures. But efficient solutions have yet to emerge. Let me make a suggestion to all of the male managers in Japanese companies out there: hire and promote the very talented women who are all around you! And guess what? Once in position of responsibility, these female managers will find the solution. Remember, their cognitive and emotion skill sets are wider and deeper than those of their male colleagues.
Dare to give it a try? Your companies will surely benefit from it, and so will the Japanese economy. You will even kill two birds with one stone. Opening more widely the ranks of Japanese corporate ladders to women would also alleviate some of the social issues that workplace gender discrimination has engendered. Will men suffer from this? Well, I trust our new business and political female leaders will know how to promote a genuinely respectful and egalitarian society.
Didier Andre Guillot is a specially appointed associate professor at Fukui Prefectural University.
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