Yale World Fellow Discusses the Condition of Women in Japanese Business
In Japan, the second-richest country in the world, women hold less than seven percent of management positions. They comprise less than twenty percent of the workforce, despite a twenty-year-old law intended to open up more Japanese companies to women. Each year, the World Economic Forum releases a report on the gender gap in the workforce for most of the world’s countries. In 2006, Japan ranked 80th out of 115 countries surveyed for the report. This year, it ranked 91st out of 128 (the U.S. ranked 31st).
“This is a very depressing report,” said Claire Chino, a Yale World Fellow who spoke at a panel on women in Japanese business on November 13 at Yale SOM. Chino is corporate counsel for Itochu, one of Japan’s largest corporations, and was the guest of honor. She is spending the semester at Yale as part of the Yale World Fellows program, which brings individuals from across the globe to New Haven. She was joined at the talk by Connie Bagley, a visiting professor at SOM, and Deborah Davis, a professor of sociology.
In her role at Itochu, Chino has worked to make Japanese businesses friendlier to women. Part of the problem, she said, is the nature of the Japanese corporation, where people rise almost exclusively through seniority and gruelingly long hours are the norm. (Suicide, she said, is common among overworked employees.) There is little room in the equation for women interested in having a family. By contrast, in Hong Kong, where she lived for a short time, women populate the management class at a much higher rate.
“When I worked in Hong Kong those were the golden days,” she said. “I could afford a domestic helper from the Philippines for a very inexpensive rate. In Southeast Asia women are helped because they can hire the help that allows them to work more. It’s impossible to do in Japan because in most cases hiring foreign domestic help is illegal.”
Chino has been working with her company to make the environment in Japan easier for women and all employees with families. The company is aggressively hiring women into the management track, something almost unheard of before at Itochu. A new mentoring program is intended to keep women at the company and help them advance. And the company has introduced “flex hours,” meaning that employees must be at work during the core hours between 10 am and 3 pm, but can be out of the office during the other hours if they need to drop a child off at day care. She pointed out to her audience that some of these issues might sound familiar. “These are not Japanese-specific issues,” she said.
To illustrate this, she spoke of her time at a California law firm, where her mentor somehow managed to work crazy hours and raise two children. “One time she had to be carried to the hospital sick,” she said. “In the ambulance, she was negotiating with clients on her cell phone.”
Despite the twenty-year equal opportunity law in Japan, Chino stressed that it’s up to big corporations to foster real change. Bagley underlined this point by referencing a newspaper article about the Japanese health minister calling women “baby-giving machines.” “Isn’t this the ministry that’s supposed to be looking out for woman?” she asked Chino.
“People were outraged,” Chino said.