Four decades behind

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2002

Recruiter explains why today's Japan resembles the US "30 or 40 years ago" for working women.

by Takehiko Kambayashi

SAKIE T. FUKUSHIMA IS representative director and regional managing director for Japan at Korn/Ferry International, the world's largest executive search firm, headquartered in Los Angeles. Fukushima, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1978 and the Graduate School of Business Administration at Stanford University, where she got her MBA in 1987, joined Korn/Ferry in 1991 and has been a member of its board of directors since 1995. She is the author of the Japanese book The Marketable Executive. She spoke to us in the company's Tokyo office about why Japanese corporations just don't seem to get it when it comes to using female employees effectively.

The global economy has changed Japanese labor markets a lot. However, female representation on Japanese corporate boards is still very low. What do you make of that?
In 1997, women comprised only 0.18 percent of the members of the boards of directors of all Japanese companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and I have not seen a significant increase since then. So, Japanese female representation in corporate Japan is still very limited. I understand that this 0.18 percent includes female executives in their husbands' companies or their fathers' companies, which means that they did not work their way up the ranks to attain executive status. The situation for women executives in Japan today resembles that in the US 30 or 40 years ago, so we still need to see changes in the Japanese labor market. It appears that, over the last three to five years, female representation has been increasing slightly in major Japanese companies.

In Singapore and other parts of Asia, women are given more opportunities, it seems. What is it about Japan that makes it unwilling to tap the potential of women workers?
I think we should classify Singapore and Hong Kong a bit differently from Japan, Korea and China. The latter have strong feudalistic and Confucian roots, whereas Singapore and Hong Kong have had more Western influence, partly through colonization.

In recent years, we find that many of the top graduates of major Japanese universities are women. They are very bright and capable, but once they enter a major Japanese company, their talents are not utilized. So some of them prefer to work in foreign-affiliated companies, where they can apply their talents. Many of the female board members in their 40s, 50s and 60s are entrepreneurial people who decided to give up on the established corporate world and started their own companies. So from the standpoint of an executive search consultant, it's quite difficult to find Japanese women who have managed even one unit of a major Japanese company. When we recruit people, therefore, we often look to younger candidates, who in general have more international experience. People in their 20s and even in their 30s have changed significantly from their elders in terms of their outlook on life and what they consider to be an ideal career path.

Can you quantify how much the Japanese economy has been hurt by not utilizing women effectively?
I think you may be asking, "Could women have prevented the 10-year stagnation of the Japanese economy?" On the one hand, more than 50 or 60 percent of Japanese women are in the labor force, if you include part-time workers. So we have relatively high rates of female participation in the labor force. But they are unfortunately not fully utilized. The first cuts in the work force are normally targeted at part-time female employees.

As a result of the economic stagnation that has led to the restructuring of major Japanese companies, many male employees have been encouraged to take early retirement or have even been laid off. This has forced more wives than in the past to seek jobs to make up the income lost as a result of their husbands being laid off. Even before the current economic downturn, many wives were already working part-time to supplement their husbands' income because a single income was often not enough to support a family. The number of working women in Japan has almost certainly risen as a result of Japan's economic stagnation.

But the problem is that these people are underpaid and often used as a 'buffer' during economic downturns. When the economy is doing well, they are treated nicely and encouraged to work. But once the economy starts to slow down, these are the people who are hit first. I think it's a waste of valuable resources. By artificially segmenting the work force into male and female, we are losing the highly educated and competent female work force that could have replaced less competent male workers.

If major Japanese companies had utilized very capable women 10 or 15 years ago and developed them to become general managers to head business units, the Japanese economy may have had more flexibility and resilience to change and deal effectively with the downturn. One thing I've noticed when I speak with various male business executives in major Japanese companies is that nearly all of them have been working for their company for 25, 30 or 40 years. They are very set in their corporate ways, so they are not as flexible as they may need to be to cope with rapid changes in the global marketplace. From our perspective as search consultants, these men are not very marketable because their skills are too company-specific. They may be fine working in one company, but how flexible can they be when they leave to work for another company?

On the other hand, Japanese women have been required to be flexible all the time. Whether in their education in schools, growing up in families or adjusting to their husbands' families, Japanese women have been trained to be much more flexible and resilient to survive in difficult times.

This may be a hypothetical argument, but I think a strong case can be made that if capable women had been fully utilized we may have seen less of a downturn in the Japanese economy. Women may have responded in a more resilient and entrepreneurial way to the changing economic realities.

What have been the hurdles in your own career?
I have been fortunate in being able to develop my career progressively over the past 30 years. First, in the 1970s I taught Japanese at Harvard University for six years and also obtained a degree at the Harvard Education School, and this sensitized me to the importance of language, sociology and intercultural communications. Then I was invited to join a management consulting firm in Boston as a research analyst dealing especially with US-Japan business issues. Because I enjoyed that work so much, I decided to attend business school and obtained my MBA from Stanford, after which I joined another management consulting firm in Boston and Tokyo.

Throughout my career, I have often been the only woman on the entire team. In Boston, I did have several very good women consultant colleagues. But when I came to Tokyo, I was the only woman consultant with an MBA in the office. There were several women who were associate consultants, but I was the only woman among the seven or eight full-fledged professional consultants. My boss told me, "Since you are the only female consultant here, I would like you to be the mother of the office." This was such a shock to me. Of course, what he said could now be considered to border on sexual harassment. But in those days, this kind of thinking seemed natural in Japan. To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps what he meant was "please be a good role model for the female associate consultants in our office." I think many women can be successful in consulting because this is basically a job where you have to be sensitive to the clients' needs and try to be responsive. So whether as a management consultant or as a search consultant, I believe being a woman has contributed to my success. But even at Korn/Ferry, when I joined the firm 11 years ago and was promoted after two years to be a partner, there were only about 25 women out of about 200 or so partners around the world. And when I became a member of the board of directors in 1995, I was only the second woman elected to such a position.

To answer your question about difficulties, I have been very fortunate in that being a woman worked for me rather than against me partly because I have been in the consulting profession.

In the late 1980s, soon after joining the Tokyo office of the management consulting firm I mentioned earlier, my boss assigned me to one of our most conservative Japanese client companies because they specifically requested a consultant over the age of 40. I was the closest in age, since everybody else in the office other than my boss, the president, was younger. As a form of shock therapy for the client, he took me along and assigned me to this client. The first two meetings were very awkward. My clients were the CEO and other senior executives of a large traditional Japanese company, so they did not know what I was doing there, sitting next to the boss. I thought, "Hmm, this is not going to work." So I decided to speak up. Once I started to speak, once they realized that I was somebody who could actually add value to the discussion, their attitude changed completely. That was an interesting aspect of being an outside consultant. If I were a member of that organization, I would never have been allowed the chance to speak. So in this case, being a consultant -- an external force to change an organization -- and being a woman was an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

Consulting is very results-oriented. As long as you are performing, as long as you are billing large numbers, it doesn't matter whether you are male or female -- you will probably earn respect and reward for your performance. So in this kind of profession, it is easier to be promoted based on one's business results compared to many large Japanese companies, where accountability and responsibility are not necessarily clear. In such organizations, you may not be properly recognized no matter how hard you work, since there is often no clear and objective measure of performance.

Recently, I have begun to see an increasing number of women managers in Japanese companies who are very capable and considered good potential to move up in their organizations. However, it's still a very small number. Many Japanese companies are now struggling to find ways to utilize the female work force more effectively. One could say that this struggle is still in the experimental phase, since it takes time to develop managers. And if you are not given the opportunity and encouragement to manage from early on and gain adequate experience, it's very difficult to be asked suddenly to become an effective manager. @

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.