Yo Omata is an ambitious woman. At 36, she is a medical science liaison with a U.S. pharmaceutical company in Tokyo, a job that perfectly complements her professional experience as a scientist with a PhD in dentistry.
Now, with a brand new MBA from the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University's Japan program, her sights are firmly set on the C-suite.
It's a goal she feels is a real possibility despite Japan's stubbornly poor track record in promoting women to managerial or executive positions.
"Wherever I go, I only see old men, and it seems like they don't trust young women. In meeting rooms or business trips, it is just normal: only Japanese, only old, only men," Ms. Omata said in an interview via Skype from her home in Tokyo.
"But I think I am the exact generation that can change that," she said.
McGill's Japan program has been operating in Tokyo for 16 years. For the most part, students there can expect a classroom experience that mirrors that of their North American peers. The 18-month program is taught in English by many of the same professors and to the same academic standards as is a traditional MBA at McGill's Montreal campus. Professors travel between campuses and stay in touch with students electronically in between.
The biggest difference between the Montreal and Tokyo programs is in the gender of the students attending.
"We have a lot of women, more than we do in our programs in Montreal," said Philip O'Neill, director of the Japan program.
He's not exaggerating. The Tokyo program has experienced year-over-year increases in female enrollment, and the school's Class of 2016 recorded its most impressive statistic yet: an equal split between men and women. By contrast, McGill's Canada-based MBA class has about 30 per cent women while the North American average is 37 per cent.
The Japan program also employs confidence-building strategies such as connecting students with role models who come to the class and speak. High-achieving female alumni act as mentors.
But those who keep an eye on the Japanese labour market say the program's gender-diversity success has more to do with powerful social and economic shifts happening in the country.
Qualified female business leaders, at least in theory, are a hot commodity right now, said Makiko Fukui, president of the Tokyo-based recruitment firm Harmony Residence. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked companies to fill 30 per cent of senior roles with women by 2020.
And while many, including Ms. Fukui, question whether the target will be met, corporate leaders are looking for qualified female candidates.
"There is a movement starting to grow in Japanese corporations, that companies have to get women on the promotion track," Ms. Fukui said.
At the same time, foreign companies operating in Japan are seeking female MBA graduates such as Ms. Omata who speak both English and Japanese, and they are offering attractive benefits that go beyond salary expectations.
"Sadly, Japanese companies are slower in promoting women within their companies compared to foreign affiliates here in Tokyo," Ms. Fukui said.
A recent survey by Toronto-based Catalyst Canada found that just 3.1 per cent of board seats on Japanese companies were occupied by women, the lowest score among 20 countries surveyed. Canada was ninth, at 20.8 per cent, while Norway led the pack at 35.5 per cent.
Japan also scored poorly in a 2012 survey measuring the number of women in managerial positions, with 11 per cent. Among American and Filipino companies it's 40 per cent.
Gender-parity efforts in the Japanese work force have stagnated since the nation's economy took a nosedive in the 1990s, a slump from which the country has yet to recover, said Millie Creighton, a Japan specialist at the University of British Columbia.
"The economy is bad, so gender equality goes somewhere to the back of the closet," she said.
Ms. Omata, who formally graduated from McGill in March, said the degree is helping her shape a business career with unlimited options. She has moved to a U.S. company from a Japanese one in hopes it will allow her to rise up the corporate ladder faster.
"I would like to be in a management role in a company. That was an aspiration from the beginning," she said.
Ms. Omata said she has already talked two female friends into enrolling in the McGill MBA program, adding that if she can serve as a role model for more young women, she's ready for it.
"I do feel that change is coming to Japan," she said. "It's a matter of time, but the new generation, they are changing things."