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Japanese womenomics pioneer says mindsets need to change

Three million women have joined Japan’s workforce over the past decade, and it’s at least partly thanks to leader Kathy Matsui, who coined the feminist slogan that inspired government policy.

But with many women in precarious part-time jobs, often in sectors hit hard by COVID-19, she says the world’s third-largest economy needs to do more to tap into underutilized talent.

This means eliminating sexist attitudes from managers and challenging the culture of long-term work in Japan, as well as encouraging start-ups with “more diverse founders”.

“We have a very low ratio of female entrepreneurs in this country,” says Matsui, the former vice president of US investment bank Goldman Sachs in Japan. “But if you want to drive your own destiny, becoming an entrepreneur is one of the best ways to do that.”

Matsui, 57, is one of the few women at the top of Japan’s male-dominated business world, as the co-director of a company founded last year that invests in ethical start-ups .

The Japanese-American was at Goldman Sachs in 1999 when she began publishing studies on the economic benefits of increasing women’s participation in the Japanese workforce, which she dubbed womenomics.

To his surprise, the ideas were embraced by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012 as part of his signature plan to revive Japan’s struggling economy.

Since then, the proportion of working women in Japan has risen from 60% to more than 70%, equivalent to around 3 million people, according to OECD figures. But even today, only 15% of executives in Japanese companies are women, compared to about 40% in the United States.

Pandemic issues

“Trying to change the mindset and behavior of very established organizations…isn’t impossible, but it just takes a long time,” unlike start-ups which can be more flexible, says Matsui.

Recent progress has been so slow that the Japanese government was forced to postpone its goal of 30% women in leadership positions by an entire decade in 2020.

And like in other countries, the COVID-19 crisis has not helped.

Globally, women were more likely than men to report job loss in the first 18 months of the pandemic, according to a University of Washington study published this year in The Lancet that analyzed data from 193 countries.

In Japan, many women juggle caring for children or elderly relatives while working part-time, often in service industries affected by COVID, Matsui says.

She believes that helping women move into full-time positions where they are more likely to be promoted is not just the responsibility of government, but also that of managers.

Appraisals should be “much more results and performance oriented, as opposed to time oriented”, and managers should undergo training to combat biases.

“A lot of times I meet women who aren’t promoted because they just got married” and their boss doesn’t want to “risk” them taking maternity leave, she says.

And it’s urgent – as Japan’s rapidly aging population leads to a shrinking workforce, “the quickest thing you can do is try to tap into the talent staring you in the face.” “.

New perspectives

Matsui grew up in California as the daughter of Japanese immigrants who ran a flower-growing business, which taught her the “value of hard work.”

She studied at Harvard, where she majored in social studies. After graduating, she won a scholarship to study in Japan – her first time in her parents’ home country – and stayed to build a career in finance.

Her argument on feminology struck a chord with ministers as it offered a fresh perspective on the benefits of equality, she believes.

In addition to goals and requirements for large companies to disclose data on gender balance, Matsui has also seen a shift in how the issue is viewed in Japan, moving from a niche issue to a ” topic of daily conversation.

But she remains committed to her original principles of processing data and finding solutions, rather than just talking about the problems faced by women in the labor market.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” she says.

Now, as co-director of venture capital firm MPower Partners, which invests in companies that prioritize environmental, social and corporate governance, Matsui is keen to grow Japan’s relatively small start-up scene. .

“Part of the reason it’s so small is because there isn’t enough diversity, or because (companies) don’t think globally enough. These are two angles that we at MPower really want to contribute to change,” she says.

But companies looking for investments should be wary of resorting to superficial tactics like so-called greenwashing.

“We’re not so interested in companies that are just trying to tick the box,” she says.

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