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Women ride a commuter train in Tokyo. Japan's cultural attitudes toward women in the workplace have slowly shifted over the years, but for many, barriers still remain in the high levels of corporate power.Shiho Fukada/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

When Kaori Sasaki, one of the most influential businesswomen in Japan, started her first company in 1987, she faced truly uncharted territory for a female entrepreneur.

Four years after graduating from university, she founded Unicul International, a communications consultancy offering translation and interpretation in 70 languages. “There were no role models, no textbooks, no workshops or seminars,” Ms. Sasaki said. “All the journalists came to me asking why a woman in her 20s, being single, started [this] business.”

At that time, Ms. Sasaki recalled, it was common for unmarried women in their mid- to late-20s to be referred to as “Christmas cakes” – discounted after Dec. 25 or “past their prime” after the age of 25. When she had her first baby at 35, it was so remarkable that she was interviewed by The New York Times a few years later, when it was announced Japan’s crown princess was pregnant in her late 30s.

Ms. Sasaki went on to launch the largest conference for working women in Japan, now in its 24th year. Today, she says, while there is still much progress to be made around gender equality in the workplace, “people’s beliefs and way of thinking [are] dramatically changing … not only in Tokyo, but all over Japan.”

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has championed policies to increase women's participation rate in the Japanese work force.Koji Sasahara/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

Since 2013, as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” strategy, the Japanese government has actively promoted policies meant to narrow the gap between men’s and women’s labour-force participation rates in order to stimulate economic growth. Japan’s population is one of the fastest-declining in the world, owing to a high proportion of elderly citizens, a low birth rate and women having children later.

While cultural attitudes are slowly shifting and Mr. Abe’s policies are credited with adding three million women to the work force in the past six years, the business sector remains a stubbornly hard nut to crack for women with managerial aspirations.

A key feature of Mr. Abe’s plan to create a “society where women shine” included the goal of having 30 per cent of leadership positions filled by women by 2020. But in 2015, the government was forced to adjust the target to 10 per cent for private-sector managers (according to a 2018 Reuters poll, only one tenth of Japanese firms said women accounted for 10 per cent or more of management roles). The government also aims to increase the proportion of women in board positions at listed companies to 10 per cent by 2020 (according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2017, the last year where data is available, that number sat at 5.3 per cent).

Today, the pejorative “Christmas cake” moniker has gone out of fashion, but according to female business leaders and entrepreneurs, many women in Japan are still faced with a discriminatory corporate culture that requires them to choose between having a family and climbing the career ladder. It’s a culture that mirrors society as a whole: In a 2016 Cabinet Office survey, 40.5 per cent of respondents agreed that a husband should be expected “to work outside the home,” while a wife should be expected “to take on domestic duties.” According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, about half of first-time mothers return to work.

The positive correlation between diverse leadership and corporate performance has been well-documented (a 2018 report from McKinsey & Company, for example, found that companies with gender-diverse executive teams were 21 per cent more likely to outperform on profitability). Women in leadership positions can also go a long way toward influencing corporate culture for the better — as Katsura Ito, Microsoft Japan’s chief learning officer, knows first-hand.

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Katsura Ito is chief learning officer at Microsoft Japan.Shiho Fukada/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

When Ms. Ito was a young girl, her parents encouraged her to think about her future career instead of putting pressure on her to get married and raise a family. After graduating university, Ms. Ito held various positions at IBM, Adobe and Microsoft Japan, rising through the ranks to become the latter’s most-senior female executive.

She believes the biggest impediment to a more welcoming environment for women in business is the “immature” outlook of Japanese male managers, who, owing to a system that historically promoted lifetime employment, are stuck in their ways, and don’t necessarily value diversity and innovation.

Once in a position to hire her own team at Microsoft, Ms. Ito made it a point to put together a varied group of employees, hiring a female sales manager and a female marketing manager, along with a non-Japanese-speaking, American male manager from Microsoft headquarters. She says this came as a big shock to others in the organization, demonstrating how far even Western companies operating in Japan have to go in terms of diversity.

Ms. Ito does think it’s getting easier for female business leaders to advance their careers “because a lot of companies are newly thinking about how to empower the female.” Conscious of the need to focus on impact rather than hours worked, Microsoft Japan closed its office on Fridays during the month of August last year, so that employees could “learn something new or spend time with the family and think about how to improve productivity.”

“Still there are some perceptions that working hours equal impact [and] productivity,” she said. While late-night drinking with clients is less frequent than in years past, she is often out for work dinners until 9 p.m. — which she acknowledges is easier without a husband and kids of her own.

As a recruiter in Tokyo, Amee Xu encountered many highly-educated, married women who turned down positions they were well-suited for, citing, among other reasons, a lack of daycare or the need to be flexible in case a spouse, as is often the case for Japanese businessmen, is relocated.

That got her thinking about alternatives for women wanting to advance their careers, while still being able to get married or have children. “What came to my mind is entrepreneurship — being your own boss and really not having to adhere to the system and rigid rules of the company,” Ms. Xu said.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2018/2019 report profiling 49 countries, the rate of female entrepreneurs and new business-owners in Japan is still extremely low: four per cent of the adult population, compared with around 17 per cent in Canada and 12 per cent in Korea, for example. The rate for male entrepreneurs isn’t much higher, at 6.7 per cent. Just more than 20 per cent of Japanese respondents considered entrepreneurship to be a good career choice — the second-lowest percentage next only to Puerto Rico.

In 2016, Ms. Xu co-founded Startup Lady Japan, a network that offers support to aspiring female entrepreneurs by helping them access business trainers, mentorship, co-working space and more. “This is a risk-averse society. I would say the hardest part is telling your family [or] partner that you want to do this,” Ms. Xu said. The network’s members, she added, are often met with doubt and told that they are “going to throw away a great career to start something that will fail.”

Rie Kagaya, Ms. Xu’s fellow Startup Lady board member, experienced this personally when she recently left a career in strategy consulting, where she says the long working hours in her Tokyo office were particularly “deadly.”

“Especially if you’re in your 30s, [it’s] really, really hard to get a full-time job again in a company,” she said. After she quit, she was “left with the option of working alone.”

Both women would like policy makers to be more open minded about the benefits of experience gained from going out on one’s own.

“I think Japanese companies are very scared of these crazy, wild people who just couldn’t fit into the company culture. There should be a better education system for companies to make them understand that it’s actually okay to recruit people who decided to be independent, ” Ms. Kagaya said.

Catherine Tsalikis is a 2019-2020 Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada media fellow. The fellowship offers journalists support to spend time in Asia researching stories. The foundation did not review or approve this story.

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