Commentary / Japan

The roles of women in influential positions

by Toko Shirakawa

Popular interest in sociologist Chizuko Ueno appears to be picking up once again after her speech at the University of Tokyo’s entrance ceremony last April became the talk of the town. In it, she exposed the structural discrimination in Japanese society by noting, “Society that does not reward you, no matter how great efforts you may make, awaits you” — became the talk of the town.

Ueno has since appeared on a TV program in which she engaged in a dialogue with younger women and she gave several media interviews. In a recent article in Seventeen magazine, which is aimed at teenagers, she gave advice to junior high and high school girls about their adolescent problems.

Born in 1949, Ueno has been a driving force of feminism in this country. As a sociologist, she was the first in Japan to launch women’s studies. Each time she triggered one of the various booms she created, Ueno offered stimulus to multiple generations of women. Through the years, Ueno herself has not changed a bit — although society has changed a lot.

The 24th International Conference for Women in Business, held in Tokyo on July 7, offered a first-hand chance to listen to her speak. Ueno said it was her first-ever opportunity to speak at a business-related conference. About 90 percent of the participants were women in business from around the world.

“I initially thought it was a joke and that I should decline it,” Ueno said of the request to give a speech at the University of Tokyo, popularly known as Todai. “I haven’t changed. It is the University of Tokyo that has changed. Various issues such as #Me Too and discrimination against female applicants at Tokyo Medical University have caused those changes,” she said. “Women in their 40s feverishly reacted to my speech. They all must have had hard experiences. On the other hand, I felt old-type men are being reincarnated in some 18-year-old boys.”

Women account for less than 20 percent of students at Todai, while 52 percent of the male students at the university come from unified middle schools and high schools for boys. That may explain the hostile reactions from some men to her speech.

Todai may not engage in gender-based discrimination in its entrance exam, but the reason the number of female students doesn’t increase at the prestigious university is because the number of female applicants doesn’t increase.

This year, women accounted for only 28 percent of the applicants. “Businesses should also disclose the proportion of men and women among those who applied to join them and those who actually got hired,” Ueno said, also questioning why the government would not set a target of having women account for 50 percent of people in leading positions in 2020, instead of 30 percent.

Working women like us have for years heard company executives say that they raise the scores of male applicants in entrance exams so they can hire them because they will end up hiring all women if they choose successful applicants based on test and interview results. It has been an open secret that companies control the male-female ratio in hiring, but nobody has raised a voice against this discrimination.

Ueno spoke at the conference of businesspeople because gender equality has become an important economic agenda. The word “gender” appeared six times and “women” 23 times in the leaders’ declaration adopted at the Group of 20 summit held in Osaka in late June. Ueno, however, raised questions about such a trend.

Today nobody can openly oppose increasing the roles of women in every aspect of the economy and society, Ueno said. At first, increasing the number of women was promoted for the sake of social justice, and then efforts were made to persuade businesses to do so — an endeavor that, it has become clear, would make more profits, she said.

“But we need to go beyond that by discussing what we should aim for” by increasing the number of women in all layers, Ueno said. The goal should be to build a “desirable society,” she said. “We want safe products. We want products that are gentle to children. We need to think about what is desirable. Is it OK just to increase the number of women (in jobs and other positions)?”

Institutional investors overseas view gender equality as a condition for sustainable society and business. Even in shareholders’ meeting of companies in Japan, institutional investors raise the question of why the companies do not have female board members.

Certainly times have changed. But Ueno always focuses on the essential question: What do we want to achieve by pursuing gender equality?

“I kept saying the same thing for half a century. Are you serving tea for your colleagues at work? You are not. Please remember who made the efforts to bring about this change. We owe the present state to the many women who voiced what men did not like to hear and kept doing what they had to do despite the harassment by men,” Ueno said.

Now, the changes that have been achieved must be handed down to the younger generations, she added. “Those individual women who put up their own fight and said ‘No!’ brought about the changes. We have to keep that up.”

Her speech won a big round of applause from the floor, which was filled by women who fought their own battles in male-dominated business fields.

I think Ueno is trying to teach people who have risen to their respective positions in their careers how they should behave and pass on their experiences to future generations.

In recent years, the number of women who began their career as the first generation under the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law and are now filling influential positions such as executives or company president has noticeably increased. Interviews with them give a sense that things have changed. Previously, such people did not like to be called “the first woman” to achieve something or fill a certain position. But now they are willing to talk about the extra hurdles they have to clear as women or their private lives — issues that their male counterparts would not discuss.

Earlier, many of the women in the first generation under the 1986 law would try not to show the problems they’re enduring, saying that they did not face any particular disadvantage because they were women, or that their companies do not have gender-based discrimination against employees. But was that true? Ueno pointed to a weakness phobia, often seen among elite women. The more competent women are, the more they want to avoid admitting their weakness — perhaps all the more because they survived the harsh environment where exposing one’s weakness meant instant defeat.

Nobody would doubt the competence of those women who have risen to the leading positions. I wish that those women would now speak out and say that they have overcome their inner weaknesses as women — or the weaknesses that they had to live with because of the structure of gender-based discrimination. Otherwise, subsequent generations might think that they cannot possibly be superwomen like them. They should try to lower the hurdles for women of future generations by introducing measures and systems for them, instead of dismissing the need for such steps because they did not have any such extra support.

Once they have come to grips with their own weaknesses, they could then think about other people who cannot work hard enough or tenaciously enough to build a successful career. The society built by powerful men has left many people behind. Women now in decision-making positions in the business world are in a position to be able to do what Ueno said in her Todai speech: “Please do not use your efforts and tenacity only for your own survival. Please use your blessed environment and talent not to pull down unblessed people but to help them.”

Journalist Toko Shirakawa is the author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.

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