When Yoshiro Mori, former president of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, stepped down from that post after more than a week of backlash over sexist remarks, social progressives saw it as an important step forward in the ongoing struggle to change outdated attitudes in Japan toward women.

From athletic fields to board rooms, however, Japan has a long way to go toward gender equality. This is more than just a social issue. It is an economic opportunity for Japan.

Closing the gender parity gap could lift Japan’s GDP by 10%, according to a Goldman Sachs report, “Womenomics 5.0.” But gender parity for work is not accomplished in isolation. It requires social gender parity as well.

One critical way to tap into this potential economic expansion is for Japan’s business and political leaders, as well as everyday citizens, to embrace and support female-owned businesses.

Despite academic qualifications and access to financial services and products, female business owners in Japan are still relatively few in number. According to the “Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2020 Report,” the percentage of women-owned businesses in Japan is 17%.

This low figure is despite former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commitment to a program of womenomics policies that were launched with great fanfare in 2013. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet has since approved a five-year gender equality plan in which the government has postponed the goal for women to account for at least 30% of leadership positions until “as early as possible during the 2020s.”

Today, Japan ranks 121st on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020 rankings of 153 economies — falling from 101st when Abe took office in 2012. Beyond continued broad efforts to increase female participation in the economy, Japan will also benefit from a specific focus on women business owners.

The good news is that Japan can benefit from lessons learned at home and abroad, as well as from initiatives of global organizations investing in women-owned businesses. One such effort is that of WEConnect International, a global network that connects female-owned businesses to qualified buyers around the world.

The Washington-based, global nonprofit organization’s mission is to help drive money into the hands of women business owners by enabling them to better compete in the global marketplace. A supporting consortium of international businesses in Japan, including Intel, Johnson & Johnson and P&G, has in turn partnered with WEConnect International on supplier diversity and inclusion efforts to create greater market opportunities for Japanese women.

By registering their businesses with the organization, Japanese female business owners strengthen their capacity to pitch and sell to large corporations. They also gain the opportunity to connect with domestic and international businesses with an interest in buying from women-owned businesses.

To honor International Women’s Day today, WEConnect International has now issued a one-year Rise to the Challenge to its more than 110 global members. Takeda and Nippon Seiki of Japan and Olam of Singapore are among the regional businesses being urged to commit publicly to increasing their sourcing from and spending on women-owned business suppliers.

As with other environment, social and governance commitments, such public pledges to support women-owned businesses must also be quantified to ensure the reality of action follows the ESG rhetoric.

By increasing their spend, large, global corporations, as well as multilateral institutions and governments, could collectively have a multi-billion dollar impact on female-owned enterprises worldwide.

According to WEConnect International CEO Elizabeth Vazquez, roughly 30% of all privately owned businesses worldwide are owned by women. Yet, Vazquez says, female-owned businesses on average receive less than 1% of the supply chain spending from large multinational corporations and governments.

More action and more outrage — quite frankly both in and outside of Japan — at continued gender discrimination and disparity is needed to effect change. Mori’s resignation — and ultimate replacement by a woman, Japan Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto, after initial talk of another 80-year-old Japanese man filling the spot — might well have never taken place if it were not for international attention over his comments.

Mori might now be gone from his post, but Japan’s government and business leaders must go beyond accountability for public comments. The more enduring challenge and opportunity remains that of investing in, empowering and yielding the untapped benefits of Japan’s women-owned businesses too. Meeting that goal will be to the benefit of all Japan, not just its female business owners.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, an award-winning author and advocate for women and international careers, is also an adviser to WEConnect International.

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