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Global Japan
OCT 6, 2016

Lean In! Why Japan Needs More Women Leaders

By Yoshito Hori

I attend a wide variety of conferences around the world every year. Wherever I go, from Switzerland to Singapore, there is one depressing constant; Japan gets criticized for failing to empower women and having too few women leaders.

The statistics support this negative view. In its 2015 Global Gender Gap Rankings, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 101st out of 145 countries for “effective leverage of its female talent pool.”

In fact, the only developed country to rate lower than Japan was Korea at 115—but even Korea has a female president in the shape of Park Geun-hye.

There isn’t much I can say in Japan’s defense—only that the “mood music” around the issue did definitively change when Shinzo Abe became prime minister in 2012.

Abe has made no secret of his commitment to increasing opportunities for Japanese women. As well as being a worthwhile goal in itself, it’s one way to address the country’s shrinking labor force and overall lack of diversity.

As part of his “womenomics” agenda, Abe set a target of getting women to occupy 30% of leadership positions by 2020. He also founded the World Assembly for Women (WAW!), a forum where women leaders from around the world gather to discuss how to foster and promote women leaders in Japan and globally.

So far, though, there is not much in the way of tangible results.

Critics also point out that Japanese women who are promoted tend to be in PR and HR roles, rather than at the forefront of actual company management.

That’s why I was so thrilled on July 31, the day that Tokyo elected its first ever woman governor, Yuriko Koike.

Ms. Koike will be in charge of “a political unit larger then many European states,” (as one commentator observed) and its preparations for the 2020 Olympics.

The good news for Japanese women was further compounded by the appointment of Tomomi Inada as Minister of Defense, a key government ministry, on August 3, and the election of Renho Murata to lead the opposition Democratic Party on September 15.

In my mind, a woman becoming Tokyo governor represents as significant an inflection point for Japan as the election to the presidency of Barack Obama, an African-American, did for the United States.

Japan needs women not only in positions of authority, but in positions of authority that are visible and high-profile enough to change society’s attitudes.

I spoke on behalf of Ms. Koike before the election and I voted for her. But I’m also doing my best to effect direct change in my own sphere of influence. In 2013, GLOBIS, the business school which I founded, committed to clear numerical targets for female empowerment across five areas with a deadline of 2016.

Our aim was to have women representing:

1. At least 30% of board members

2. At least 30% of the executive committee

3. At least 30% of all managers

4. 30% of faculty

5. 30% of students

I’m pleased to say that we achieved or exceeded our targets for the board, the executive committee and for management positions one year ahead of schedule. And the women are often performing better than their male predecessors.

The Japanese Business Federation gave GLOBIS an award for hitting the 30% threshold. (Only one other company out of the Federation’s 1,340 members was also recognized.)

In some areas, though, we are lagging. On faculty, female representation is only around the 10% to 12% level. As for the student body, female participation varies by program. For instance, women represent 40% to 50% of students on our English-language MBAs. With our popular part-time Japanese MBA, however, they account for only around 20% of students. This is an area that needs work.

And working is what we are doing. We have launched special websites, seminars and events to target potential female students. We even offer childcare for students with children.

Our new online MBA can accommodate women on maternity leave (and men on paternity leave!) as it gives them the freedom to fit their studies around looking after their children.

I, for one, am sure that the overall quality of Japanese management will benefit from a higher rate of female participation.

The data supports me on this. A 2015 MSCI study showed that firms with strong female leadership delivered a better return on equity (10.1% versus 7.4%) than those without. Likewise, management consultancy McKinsey found that companies in the “top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the national industry median.”

The more female MBAs that GLOBIS can graduate, the sooner Japan will achieve Prime Minister Abe’s target of women in 30% of all leadership posts, and the better Japanese companies will be managed.

I’m hoping that Japan will at least make it into the top 100 in the next round of WEF Global Gender Rankings.

Brunei (No. 88) and Albania (No. 70) must be quaking in their boots!