Developing women leaders in Japan

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Written by Hiromi Nezaki on 1 April 2014 in Features

Hiromi Nezaki asks how L&D can help

After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defined the movement of women into society as one of his growth strategies last year, the media has picked up on the issue and many major Japanese organisations have publicly committed to increasing their percentages of women managers.

What kind of action do we need to take to have a measurable outcome?

The statistics

When looking at every statistic in Japan, one really wonders how did it happen? and why has it not improved for so long? According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan’s percentage of women managers was 9.1 per cent in 2005 and still only 10.6 per cent in 20101. It does not show remarkable improvement in five years. A Japanese Cabinet Office study of 12 countries around the world showed the percentage of women managers in Japan ranked eleventh2. The Philippines ranked at the top, with 52 per cent, and the US, at 42 per cent, ranked second.

In the Davies Report in the UK, International Comparison of Women on Boards 2011, Japan was at 0.9 per cent and, compared with industrialised Asia Pacific’s figure of 3.6 per cent, again it is showing low numbers3. The highest percentage is Sweden at 23 per cent.

Gender role consciousness

There is a glass ceiling. When we know it is a glass ceiling, we can set a strategy for breaking it or we can ignore it. In Japan, there are many cases where things are decided ‘behind the scenes’; the bias exists that leaders should be men. In the Japanese name for your job title, if it was historically rare for women to be in that position, the word ‘woman’ is put in front of it, such as a woman president, a woman doctor or a woman lawyer.

Consciousness of gender role has penetrated firmly into the Japanese people’s minds. At school, boys learn how to make bookshelves and girls learn how to sew skirts. No one has claimed otherwise. In research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in a family with children aged under five years, men’s time spent on household and child care is only 0.7 hours per week in Japan, in contrast with Norway at 5.45 hours4. One reason Japanese men gave for not taking childcare leave is that “there is another person who takes care of the child” (57.3 per cent).

When coaching women leaders, I often hear stories of work-life balance. Even at home, they are always exhausted by having to engage in household tasks after a hard day’s work. They say that it is difficult to obtain their husband’s help. The gender role image is pretty much fixed among Japanese people. Women’s roles are to take care of the household and children, far from taking charge of, and leading, teams and organisations.

Japanese people’s construal of self

Why do Japanese men spend a lot of time in ‘chosei’ (meaning to obtain consensus among various departments in the company and internal co-ordination before a meeting) and going out for a drink?

A research study by family therapists T Tamura and A Lau contrasts British and Japanese families5. The most significant difference in value systems between the two cultures is the Japanese preference for connectedness. The Japanese person is seen as a part of embedded interconnectedness of relationships, whereas the British norm is to prioritise separateness and clear boundaries in relationships, individuality and autonomy.

Other research has been done on culture differences6. Westerners define themselves as independent, and communicate their opinions as their own. For Japanese people, we tend to adjust opinions and our views of ourselves compared to others.

The Westerner is ‘independent’ and the Japanese is ‘interdependent’.

It seems to me that Japanese women who wish to develop their careers as leaders are generally independent. These women who are promoted work three times harder than men, polish their careers day and night, and deliver tangible achievements.

Perhaps many Japanese men who generally spend a lot of time on drinking and ‘chosei’ activities find their identities within an organisation. They might select their successor as one who can share similar values or ways of thinking. A piece of research by the Management Research Group showed that leaders tend to promote someone who is similar
to themselves7.

Japanese women devote a lot of time to building their own identity but do not take time for unnecessary things, such as going out for a drink with their managers and colleagues, if they find no value in it. Many women leaders cannot spare their time for ‘after five’ activities because they have
a child.

Therefore, Japanese women managers’ risk of developing a negative reputation with senior management could be higher than men. Sometimes it leads to career drifts and they may give up on further promotion.

Let’s reframe our bias toward gender leadership

We have a bias that men leaders are aggressive and persuasive, while women leaders are sensitive, caring and/or emotional. Recent research by MRG reset our beliefs and bias. The company’s 360° tool LEA360 has been translated into 14 languages and comprises 22 behavioural leadership practices. According to MRG, women and men have different leadership behaviours but there is no gender difference as it goes up to C-level (Graph 1 below).

Female leaders spend a lot of time motivating direct reports, measuring progress (which MRG defines as ‘control’) and providing feedback to get the desired outcome. Male leaders spend a lot of time delegating to others and defining strategy (Graph 2 below).

The LEA360 Part B Questionnaire finds that female leaders show a total of 12 comparative advantages, such as obtaining trust and having a view for future potential, and are able to make decisions effectively (Graph 3 below). Male leaders’ advantages are business aptitude, financial understanding and big-picture perspectives.

How can we help develop women leaders in Japan?

Reputation management For the Davies Report 2011, a survey of 2,654 people who worked in organisations (88 per cent women, 25 per cent on the organisations’ boards) was conducted. To the high-level question why are women under-represented in the boardrooms of UK-listed companies?, 30 per cent responded “attitude in the workplace”. Bias, prejudice or stereotypical behaviour were the top factors of attitude. The second theme is to do with the work environment, which had another 30 per cent of respondents.

Considering these findings and what I mentioned earlier about the difference between Japanese men and women’s time to devote to being leaders, women leaders need to avoid doing all the work themselves. It is also effective to delegate and to get other departments involved. Communicating team results is effective for improving their reputation as leaders although, typically, Japanese people are not good at communicating team results. It is also important to be aware of others’ views once in a while, when defining a successful leadership development strategy, rather than having an attitude of ‘I believe what I am doing is right’. Regular 360° feedback is useful, too.

Being strategic When coaching women leaders, I find that many of them can be strict with themselves and with others. The MRG research showed that women leaders spend more time on obtaining results. From these findings, women leaders can be viewed as providing feedback often. People view women, overlapping the image of motherhood, as tactical, only taking action to achieve short-term aims. It is important for women leaders to frequently communicate their team’s strategy and vision, and that of the organisation, during presentations and meetings.

Establishing support It is important to seek professional support, such as human resources, mentors and coaches, once in a while, as many women leaders are independent and find it difficult to ask for support. Organisations need to establish a system for developing potential women leaders, such as mentoring support and coaching, when necessary, to avoid career derailment. Providing workshops for women can only deal with a part of the issues that they are facing, because it takes time for those independent Japanese women to speak up from the heart.

Stanlee Phelps, senior master coach at Lee Hecht Harrison, said: “When we coach women leaders, we need to help them reframe their beliefs and values in a one-to-one setting to transform them as effective leaders.” The transformation takes time and should be done in a safe environment.

It is not only an issue for women Many Japanese men’s gender role beliefs are that the household is for women. Is the role of developing women leaders for a diversity department or is it a female human resources matter? The CEO of Daiwa Securities Group, Takashi Hibino, said in the Nikkei newspaper that we are already left behind, while adding: “Let’s increase [the number of] women leaders.” This is the issue for Japanese organisations and people are working to face it.

When women are accepted as leaders, men may change their leadership style8. The MRG research mentioned that, whether men or women, effective leaders keep working on their inner selves. But the work environment and those people full of prejudice and bias can make it difficult to create a creative and pleasant work environment and satisfactory services to the customer.

Some stock-listed Japanese companies have started to report a number of women board members, according to the Nikkei newspaper last year. I hope that it will not end up like the international joke that ‘the Japanese jumped out of the boat because other people did’. This is the time to think about the reason why we need to create a gender-free world of work.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Hiromi Nezaki is master coach, talent development Asia, at Lee Hecht Harrison. She can be contacted at


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