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In a country that expects long hours at work and family duty from women, raising the female labour participation rate leaves some burning the candle at both ends. But a number of innovative businesses are trying to help

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Mariko Magnan watches her daughter draw at the Tokyo offices of TPO, a corporate concierge service Ms. Magnan founded in 2016.Shiho Fukada/Photography by Shiho Fukada/The Globe and Mail

After 13 years in Tokyo’s male-dominated financial sector, Mariko Magnan decided it was time for a change.

Having experienced life abroad in France and the United States, a particular aspect of Japan’s corporate culture was getting harder to ignore. Despite her past achievements – studying at Paris’s HEC business school, landing jobs at Société Générale and Goldman Sachs – she felt unable to perform to her full potential in her own country, constantly pulled between the demands of raising two young children and the expectations of her more senior male colleagues.

Most nights, she would stay in the office until 8 p.m. But even so, she recalls, the following day, someone would inevitably comment on how the rest of the team was working “so hard until midnight.”

Japan is notorious for the punishingly long hours both male and female staff are expected to dedicate to their employers. However, the challenge is even more acute for working women, who are still largely considered to be responsible for household and family duties on top of their day jobs.

“The whole society is based on this model of men working and women supporting the family,” Ms. Magnan said. Now, with a record number of women participating in the labour force, Japan is facing a “gap in what society has been designed for and what’s happening today.”

This disconnect, in a way, is a result of the success of Japan’s efforts to reboot its lagging economy.

In a 2013 address to the United Nations, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the world that he wanted to create “a society in which women shine,” framing women’s participation in the workplace as the greatest potential source of growth for his country’s economy.

The Prime Minister’s “womenomics” plan appears to be paying some dividends: The labour-participation rate for women has risen from 65 per cent in 2013 to 71.3 per cent in 2018, overtaking the United States and the euro zone. According to official figures, Mr. Abe’s government has added 535,000 spots in child-care facilities, and daycare services are now free for children up to two years old from low-income families. As with new mothers, new fathers can now take up to a year of paid leave, and the government has raised the child-care leave benefit to 67 per cent of wages, from 50 per cent, for six months.

But overall progress remains slow: Last year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranked Japan 110th out of 149 countries when it comes to progress toward gender parity, the lowest among G7 countries. According to the latest figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, women earn 24.5 per cent less than men – the third-largest wage gap of all OECD countries.

A lack of daycare options is still a major barrier for mothers wishing to return to work, and despite a campaign to encourage more men to take paternity leave, only 6 per cent of fathers are doing so.

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Ms. Magnan believes changing Japan's traditional corporate mindset will take time and hard work.

In 2016, Ms. Magnan launched TPO, Japan’s first corporate concierge service, with the aim of narrowing the gap between traditional cultural attitudes toward women’s place in society and the country’s new reality, where almost three-quarters of women are working.

She also hopes to bridge the divide between the personal and the professional – two worlds that have long remained separate in Japan – bringing more harmony and happiness to employees’ lives along the way.

“Our service of providing personal support at the workplace is very new in Japan,” Ms. Magnan said. “For some people, it could be very shocking. Why would we need to talk about employees’ private lives at work?” But with more and more women working, she says, “someone has to take care of the home, and we need to talk about it.”

A staff of around 30 currently serves 10,000 employees at various companies that have contracted with TPO. While requests come in all forms, the team is increasingly being asked for recommendations related to household cleaning, child care, health care and elderly care – areas generally associated with women and mothers.

The concierge service is based out of a third-floor walk-up in Tokyo’s bustling Roppongi district. Its cozy main room is accented by several armchairs the colour of egg yolk. A sign on a wall reads "­TPO – Your Concierge for New Happiness.” Ms. Magnan hopes the company can contribute to a “mindset shift” where employees feel more comfortable asking for support, and managers are more amenable to feedback on what would make their staff more productive.

But Ms. Magnan also has higher stakes in mind than happiness for happiness’s sake. “It’s not about, ‘we’ll help you have an easy life.’ It’s more like, ‘we’ll help you work at your full potential,’ ” she said. “In Japan, the economy is not going to grow if we continue like this.”

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Women check their phones at a busy Tokyo commuter train station. Almost three-quarters of Japanese women are working, but there is still a 24.5-per-cent pay gap and limited daycare options are a barrier for many mothers who want to return to work.

Corporate culture slow to change

News stories over the past couple of years indicate Japan has a long way to go when it comes to gender parity in the workplace. Among those headlines, several medical schools were found to have sexist admission policies favouring men; Japan’s Labour Minister deemed high heels “necessary and appropriate” after nearly 20,000 women signed a petition demanding the government bar companies from requiring female employees to wear them; and women were being told not to wear eyeglasses to avoid appearing “unfeminine;” an Osaka department store was forced to walk back a plan for employees to wear badges identifying themselves as menstruating.

Despite the government’s “womenomics” push, “the status of women is very low in Japan – in politics, in business, in society in general,” said Mari Miura, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

Like Ms. Magnan, she believes true advancements around gender equality will require a meaningful change in Japan’s corporate culture, noting that, while the government has moved to limit overtime, the legal framework protecting employees is still weak.

“You have to be available 24 hours to companies,” Ms. Miura said. “This kind of ‘presentation’ of yourself is very important and highly appreciated in Japan. You cannot use telework or Skype. You have to be there. Face time is very important.”

Ms. Miura describes two tracks for women: a manager track and a non-manager (or “mommy”) track. According to Goldman Sachs, 82 per cent of women in Japan take the latter route, for various reasons: among them, low expectations on the part of managers; a lack of opportunity for upward mobility; and the inability to balance a demanding job while being largely responsible for the household. Japanese men with a child under 6, for example, spend only one hour and 23 minutes a day on average on housework, compared with seven hours and 43 minutes for women.

“If women want to shine, that means women have to do all that work – basically a double shift,” Ms. Miura said.

She insists that the mindset of management – whom she describes as predominantly men over 50 years old – is stuck in the 20th century. “They don’t realize it’s actually 2019 already,” she said. “They don’t really invest in women’s talent, even though the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF, all kinds of international players keep telling Japanese managers that they’ve got to use women’s talent.”

As a result, many women end up going into part-time work, resulting in few qualified female candidates for top leadership positions. In 2018, for example, 44.2 per cent of employed women were part-time and temporary workers, compared with only 11.5 per cent of employed men.

One of the few women to reach the highest echelons of Japanese politics, Seiko Noda – a trailblazing lawmaker who in the 1990s, at 37, became the country’s youngest postwar cabinet minister – served as the country’s gender-equality minister from 2017-18.

During that time, she said, she would rely on data showing that the more women work in the labour force, the more organizations profit, presenting reports to company presidents to try to change their minds.

But she acknowledges that it’s an uphill battle. “Every day, we’re fighting against the old tradition or culture: Man has to work, and woman has to take care of the house,” Ms. Noda said. “Still, many men believe this, but think that unfortunately, because of the weak economy, we have to let women work. It’s a shame, men think; the big man should never let his wife work.”

“And still,” she added, “some women believe that we’re not supposed to work. So that is a very difficult fight.”

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Upward mobility in the work force is still a challenge for many Japanese women, who are more likely to take part-time work and thus less likely to reach the upper echelon of leadership positions.

Toward a society-wide ‘mindset shift’

Ms. Miura sees the beginnings of a generational mindset shift taking place among her male students in their 20s, who she says are open about wanting to be fathers and wanting to share household duties with their partners. But at the same time, she adds, they know that their future employers might not be entirely supportive: “Once they get into companies, they feel like they have to follow the social norm. Otherwise, they’ll be punished – they might not get promoted.”

At TPO, Ms. Magnan is witnessing a similar trend: younger fathers wanting to be more involved in family life – by taking the lead on the search for child care, for instance – but needing external support to do so.

However, she would agree with Ms. Noda that, sometimes, women’s own attitudes are the greatest barrier to their professional advancement. She attributes this kind of thinking to both an education system that reinforces gender stereotypes and deeply held conservative family values.

“I think parents do discourage their daughters to apply to top-notch universities because they don’t think they can get married,” said Lin Kobayashi, the co-founder of UWC ISAK, a Japanese international boarding school. She hopes to be an example for younger female students, as a successful businesswoman at the head of a large organization. “If you depend on the parents,” she acknowledged, “it could take generations.”

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Yuka Mitsuhata employs 40 mothers at her maternity and nursing clothing company, Mo-House.

Yuka Mitsuhata, the founder of maternity and nursing clothing brand Mo-House, aims to make it easier for women to continue with their careers once they start having children themselves. Her flagship store sits on a busy street in Tokyo’s Shibuya municipality, filled with Kimono-inspired nursing outfits and pamphlets with breastfeeding information. She currently employs 40 mothers, many of whom bring their babies to work, assisting customers while carrying the babies in sling wraps.

The idea for Mo-House came to Ms. Mitsuhata in 1997, when she found herself on a busy metro train with a desperately hungry one-month-old baby, uncomfortable at the idea of unbuttoning her blouse in front of commuters in order to breastfeed. At the time, she remembers, there were hardly any mothers out and about in Shibuya; many of her friends found it challenging to nurse outside the home.

“In Japan, unfortunately, many mothers lose their self-confidence,” Ms. Mitsuhata said. Today, by providing nursing-friendly clothing that is both functional and fashionable, she wants to show women that it’s possible to have a baby and a job at the same time – an “alternative choice” for mothers. She also hopes customers might think more positively about the abilities of working mothers after being served by her employees.

While Ms. Mitsuhata is encouraged by the Abe government’s “womenomics” initiatives, she believes that the real power to shift perceptions in society rests with Japanese women themselves, likening the policies to a corset that “supports your back, but weakens your muscles.”

“I want women to believe in themselves – that they have their own power – and step forward,” she said.

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Sayuki Murota works at Mo-House with her nine-month-old daughter Tomo.

To Ms. Magnan, it’s clear that if Japan is going to stave off an economic crisis because of its rapidly shrinking and aging labour force, government policy must dovetail with the mindset shift that TPO has as its goal. For her, that means moving away from the tradition of forgoing work-life balance and personal happiness for the good of one’s company. Today, she said, there are other ways of bringing about both individual and corporate growth, without “sacrificing our lives.”

“In Japan, changing attitudes takes a lot more time. But we think little actions could work. It makes a difference – we say ‘[through] one small happiness at a time, society can change,' ” Ms. Magnan said.

On top of the economic imperative, she has another, very personal, reason to feel invested in a better future for Japan. “I have [around] 10 years until my kids are at working age,” she said. “I want society in Japan to be workable for them."

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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.