Womenomics at a Crossroads

Written by BCCJ
September 14, 2015

Written by BCCJ
September 14, 2015

The BCCJ is fully committed to supporting diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace. On Sep 10, as part of our D&I programme of events we hosted “Womenomics at a Crossroads”.

BCCJ members and invited guests heard from BBC World News Reporter, Mariko Oi, who was the first Japanese national to report for the BBC, and Professor Danielle George, Engineering professor and Associate Dean at the University of Manchester, who last year became only the sixth woman to present the Royal Institute’s Christmas Lectures in its 180-year history.

The session was moderated by Suzanne Price, Representative Director of Price Global, a consultancy firm that designs, facilitates and implements diversity and inclusion training initiatives in multi-national companies.


Corporate culture and societal attitudes in Japan need to change in tandem if women are to fully participate in the workforce.

At the BCCJ’s Womenomics at a Crossroads discussion forum, held on September 10, BCCJ members called for changes in working practices that would allow women to successfully juggle the responsibilities of their jobs and family life.

While the Japanese government through Prime Minister Abe’s Womenomics agenda, is pushing for an increase in female participation in the workforce and aspires to have 30% of Japan’s leadership positions filled by women by the Olympic year of 2020, research has found that the percentage of Japanese women looking to become stay-at-home mothers is actually on the rise.

Panelists and audience members agreed that traditional gender roles need to be questioned and challenged in order to make progress.

Womenomics at a Crossroads

Mariko Oi, BBC reporter who was nominated as a 2009 Nikkei Woman of the Year, says:

“I was surprised to see the result of a recent survey – by Japanese advertising and public relations company Hakuhodo – which showed that more than one-third of single women in their 20s want to become a housewife. Even more surprisingly, the number of married women in their 20s who think women should stay at home and focus on housework has risen from 35.7% in 2003 to 41.6% in 2013. That’s according to the National Survey on Family by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Two thirds of them think mothers shouldn’t be back at work until the children are three years old, and about the same percentage of women give up their jobs after having their first child.”

The above, perhaps, does not bode particularly well for PM Abe’s aspirations.

Womenomics: for women?

Growing up in Japan, said Mariko, gender roles are clearly assigned from an early age.

“I wanted to become a stay-at-home mum until I was 16. All our mothers were – and our grandmothers. I’m not saying it’s in our DNA, because it’s clearly not in mine, but it’s a model that worked so well after the war: the hardworking salary man supported by the housewife at home.”

For Mariko, it was a home-stay experience during her student years in Australia that set her on course to be a working mother. “My host mother asked, ‘What will you do if your husband cheats on you? Are you not going to leave him because you don’t have the financial means to support yourself?’ It took me a while to realise that juggling was actually possible, but looking back that was definitely a life-changing moment.”

In her BBC News article, Women at a Crossroads, Mariko, who recently became a mother herself, explored why Japanese women were not big fans of PM Abe’s Womenomics agenda.

“The women surveyed were in their 20s and I think they underestimate how hard motherhood is. They think they want to be stay-at-home mum before they get married and have a child.”

Mariko’s friends had been supportive of her decision to return to work, she said, but she continued to have reservations about whether it was the right thing to do.

“Growing up I don’t think I knew any working mums. I want my daughter to grow up here [Japan] but I think ‘Will she be a target because I work? I can’t attend events at school at 3pm or 5pm like other mums.”

Still, returning to her job felt right. “Mutual respect is something we should aim for regardless of our choices. Now I feel real respect for stay-at-home-mums; after two months I was definitely ready for some adult interaction. I really think society could be kinder to mums. When you get on public transport and your child starts making a noise, you get the hard stares here. Japanese society is not exactly kind to women and mothers.”

Gender bias

Suzanne, 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year at the British Busines Awards, explained the huge influence cultural norms have on people’s perception of their options and their expected roles in society. “We have grown up surrounded by biases about gender roles. In Japan, for example, husbands are ranked among the lowest in terms of the amount of domestic work they do. I think it’s around 20 minutes a week on average. And that’s accepted as the norm. So women continue to shoulder much of Japan’s domestic work, although things are said to be changing.”

She went on, “These assumptions about gender roles and housework play into the guilt women feel about returning to work after having a child. They feel guilty about upsetting their child, not supporting their husbnd, and then also for not being able to stay late at work and not fulfil professional responsibilities.”

Mariko agreed that in Japan it is hard to shake off assumptions about women playing the domestic, supporting role: “When I say that I don’t cook every meal, my friends say ‘Oh you’re very lucky’ and I think, ‘Yes, I am lucky.’ But then I remind myself that he’s eating too – so why can’t he cook as well? Why do I have to feel lucky that I don’t have to cook every night? I don’t want to use the term brainwashing, but we are brought up in Japan to think that our role as a woman is to cook.”

Suzanne pointed out that attitudes such as this could lead to co-dependency. “The question is, can you fend for yourself? In the traditional model, men could find themselves on their own for whatever reason without being able to make a cup of tea or boil an egg. Women could find themselves without financial support. In Japan, traditionally the woman is taking care of the home while the man is at work and not allowed in the kitchen. That chains them together and perpetuates the cycle of co-dependency. There is no progress for either side.”


Balancing work with motherhood was also a concern for engineer Professor Danielle George when deciding whether or not to accept the invitation from the Royal Institute to present the 2014 Christmas Lectures.

“After the press release had been sent out I found out I was pregnant. A fabulous opportunity had come along in my career and at the same time a fabulous opportunity had come along in my personal life, and I thought I couldn’t do both at the same time.” Danielle said it was her husband who suggested she try to do the lectures while pregnant, and that she felt supported in her choice.

“The Royal Institute was fantastic about it. My topic was about energy but it could have very quickly turned into a biology lesson as I was eight and a half months pregnant! Seriously though, I had support from everywhere, my husband, the RI and the BBC, who allowed me to have a lot of rests when I needed them.”

Both Danielle and Mariko said they had benefited from colleagues and employers being genuinely happy about their pregnancies, but were aware that other women might not receive the same supportive response. In Japan, maternity harassment, where women are discouraged from falling pregnant or lose their positions or responsibilities following the birth of their children, has recently become a high profile issue in the Japanese media.

Active outreach

As well being the first pregnant woman to present the RI Christmas Lectures, Danielle was also only the sixth women to speak since Michael Faraday gave the first lecture way back in 1825. The RI’s Olympia George explained that the organisation was actively trying to redress this imbalance.

She said that during the speaker selection process, they had actively reached out to female scientists in a bid to increase the number of women presenters. “It’s definitely a source of embarrassment that we have only had six women out of 186 speakers. One of the issues we face is that we actually get turned down by so many more women than we do men.”

On the theme of self-limiting beliefs, Danielle said that female colleagues and women in general had a tendency to be less comfortable with public speaking, and that family responsibilities often limited opportunities to take part in “out of hours” engagements. She raised a chuckle from the audience when sharing – “Actually, I deleted the first invitation email I got from the RI. It was like one of those ‘you have won a million dollars’ emails, it was too good to take seriously. But luckily they followed up.”

The suggestion that women are more reluctant to take centre stage or to take on more responsibility even when given the opportunity was echoed by a BCCJ executive from the finance industry, who said that when he had offered women promotions in his organisation they had offered turned down the opportunity

Suzanne responded by saying that in her extensive experience working with organisations, she had found that corporate culture wasn’t always conducive to women feeling able to take on more responsibility. She also said that women are often worried about other people’s reactions to any possible promotion, if taken.

Creating a pipeline

A fear of being seen as a token promotion or hire was another common theme among the panelists and guests. Members across a variety of industries discussed how unlikely it was that a straight male would ever consider his sexuality or gender playing a role in any career success, but that for minority groups and women there was a risk their identity would be seen as contributory factor if they were rewarded.

Danielle indicated the importance of putting a pipeline in place to support women across all levels, but agreed there were some possible pitfalls. “We need to make sure we are not simply enforcing positive discrimination. I wouldn’t want to think I was promoted or made a professor because I was a woman. We have to be careful not to bolster a suspicion that we haven’t been chosen on our merits.”

Suzanne agreed it was indeed important to be wary. “If promotions start to look like a token effort then there could be a backlash among the workforce.”

Still, in the absence of targets or a real drive to promote women, the rate of change could border on glacial. The Nordic model has successfully used quotas to pick up the pace of change of D&I in the workforce, and this could be something for Japan to consider going forward.


As a more extreme example of gender quotas, Norway passed a law in 2003 that made it mandatory for at least 40% percent of boards of publicly traded companies to be female. The penalty being that they would be shut down for non-compliance. Such a harsh approach seems an unlikely option for corporate Japan, known for its slow, consensus-building approach to problem-solving.

The audience agreed that quotas are an emotive and complex issue, but the consensus was that they are necessary to catalyse change in a long-standing system. One audience member, the female CEO of a multi-national UK firm in Japan, said she was strongly in favour of quotas as “the only effective way to really change the status quo and allow women to prove themselves equal to the challenges of a senior management role.”

Challenging traditional gender roles in the home, was also mentioned as a way to encourage women to enter traditionally male-dominated industries such as science and technology. Danielle explained that efforts are being made by the UK government to encourage women into these roles.

The Athena SWAN accreditation scheme is designed to encourage universities to adopt diversity and inclusion practices. It originally focused on gender diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) subjects but has spread to arts subjects and to other forms of diversity – in hiring practices, for example.

Danielle said, “It’s good that the work has begun and the Athena SWAN scheme is pushing us to do set and report results. But it’s important that any initiative has longevity and is not just a box-ticking exercise.”

Keiko Hirayama, head of marketing at Google’s Japan and head of their Women Will programme, explained how Google regularly takes female university students on site visits to tech companies around Japan in order to familiarise them with what has been a traditionally male-dominated environment.


Danielle said that even in the UK ideas about careers for men and careers for women were formed at an early age. “There aren’t enough women interested in engineering, and this starts at primary school. I visit primary schools and before I go I ask that the children draw a picture of what they think a science professor looks like. Of course they all draw a grey-haired mad professor in a white coat. When I walk in they can’t believe it’s me! At six and seven they already have assumptions about job roles, and it really surprises them to see me.”

More positively, the UK Government continues in earnest with its campaign to attract more women into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. This campaign aims to address “biases and working practices” that “result in systematic and cumulative discrimination against women throughout STEM study and academic careers”. The target is to double the number of female engineering and technology undergraduates by 2030.

At the September 10 event, Elizabeth Hogben, head of Science and Innovation at the British Embassy in Tokyo, said there was a strong economic impetus in the UK to facilitate women’s participation in the workforce.

“We really need engineers and IT workers, from whatever source. There are women with these talents and it’s important that we focus on that. We already have good female role models in the UK. Women who are thinking about a future career now are wondering if there are people like them that they can look up to. They want to see that it can work for people in their situation. Role models already exist but we need more.”

She added it was necessary to focus on retaining female talent in the workplace, despite changes in personal circumstances, as well as ensure there was a pipeline that allows women to be represented at all levels. 

The British Embassy works continually to challenge the public perception of a traditional diplomat being “a man from a certain background.”


On a personal level, Beth said she had found the support of her husband to be vital in allowing her to be a working mother. She explained that her husband could often be found at the school gates, which was often in contrast to Japanese fathers who were tied to the office or not involved due to societal pressures. “My husband has been very involved in parenting and I wish that more Japanese husbands were able to have the really positive experience that my husband has had.”

Mariko, whose husband is British, said that she too had found that attitudes to fatherhood tended to vary between Britain and Japan. While there has been a rise of the ikumen, businessmen, or hands-on fathers, has been reported, she questioned how widespread this situation truly is. “I wonder if they are actually changing diapers or are they just holding their children for 30 minutes longer each day?

There has certainly been a generational change, Mariko acknowledged. “I can see a lot of differences between my grandfather, then my father and now my cousins. We need to see male CEOs who do actually drop off their children at school and then come to work at 11am. Is that the norm anywhere in Japan? I think this situation is few and far between.”

Fathers in the audience said they had noticed a huge amount of pressure from schools in Japan requiring parents to be involved with activities during the school day, compared with in other countries. There is a particular expectation here that mothers would attend without question.

Changing the system, step-by-step

Rather than waiting for changes in corporate culture to happen, women in both Britain and Japan, are more increasingly setting up their own businesses in order to have greater control over their work hours and conditions.

The panel and guests agreed that flexible working – including scheduling meeting times between 10am and 4pm so as not to conflict with the school run – offering affordable childcare provision, and sharing of the parenting workload between partners was essential to catalyse the change necessary for women to take higher ranking positions.

Danielle concluded, “I think that ultimately the UK and Japan face the same challenges when it comes to Womenomics. It might not be described in the same terms, and the UK might be further along the path, but it’s the same issues that appear again and again in both countries. We can continue to learn from each other.”

On Womenomics, Mariko remains pragmatic, “I think it’s great that more women are being encouraged into the workplace in Japan these days, but if society as a whole is not set up to support them, then any change will be difficult.”

Womenomics at a crossroads, indeed.



Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) at the BCCJ HERE

Womenomics at a Crossroads, by Mariko Oi for the BBC, HERE