Many of my clients who have Japanese customers have been asking me recently whether there will be a problem if they put a woman in charge of a Japanese client account. Being female myself, I instinctively want to support other women in business and declare that there should not be a problem.
I never felt discriminated against or even any resistance from clients in the nine years I worked in a Japanese company, selling to Japanese customers for many of those years. No doubt it helped that I clearly had the endorsement of my blue chip Japanese company, and that I spoke fluent Japanese. Also, as I described in my previous article, the “person in charge” role I had, known as madoguchi or tantosha, is understood to have a team behind it, including a team leader and general manager, so if there was some need to have a senior, male person involved, this could easily be arranged.
I also thought there were some positive advantages to being female. I sensed the clients enjoyed the novelty of having a young, foreign female to deal with and that they also felt more relaxed and were more open with me than they might have been with a male salesperson. Showing that you are intelligent and competent is of course key, as well as making the most of the perception that (rightly or wrongly), women are more detail oriented and accurate.
It is harder for Japanese women than foreign women to gain management roles, as there is a widespread assumption that that any Japanese woman must be in an administrative role. This is based in harsh reality – Japan has the lowest percentage of companies with a woman in senior positions, according to a worldwide survey published by Grant Thornton this year. Nonetheless, Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey and PwC all have or have had Japanese women as partners or in senior positions in their Japan offices and Accenture Japan makes a special point of welcoming women graduates in its recruitment.
Even Japan-headquartered companies are having to change the way they treat women employees. “Tayousei” (diversity) has become a buzzword, and is taken to mean giving equal career opportunities to women. Most major companies stopped graduate recruitment of so-called ‘Office Ladies’ in the 1990s and now outsource most of their administrative staffing needs to temp agencies. Although the number of women in the management track at major companies has not increased dramatically, with an ageing population and a dearth of middle management due to hiring freezes in the 1990s, making the best use of half the population has become a necessity rather than window dressing.
I have heard Japanese men say that the reason they don’t put women in client facing positions is that women “don’t drink”, which is a euphemism, I suppose, for the client entertainment, in hostess bars and so on, which are deemed by some in Japan to be necessary for good business relationships. This may be so, but frankly, if the main reason your customer chooses you as a supplier is because of your in-depth knowledge of girlie bars, you have a problem!
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly. This and other articles are available as an e-book “Omoiyari: 6 Steps to Getting it Right with Japanese Customers”
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