The Rebirth of the Japanese Office Lady

shutterstock_290042417About 20 years’ ago I wrote an article proclaiming the death of the Japanese Office Lady (OL).  The company I was working at, along with many other Japanese companies at the time, had stopped hiring new graduates into the so-called “administrative” track, abolished the OL uniform, and encouraged existing OLs to transfer across to a management track.  Future administrative needs would be filled by temporary agency workers.

I was quite pleased about these developments, as the old OL system offended my feminist sensibilities.  The companies themselves had ended the OL system more for financial reasons.  OLs were meant to join at age 20 or 22 and only stay in the company until their mid twenties, when it was expected they would leave to get married.  In the meantime, they cleaned the desks, emptied the bins, made tea for the team, answered the phones and processed the team’s paperwork.  By the mid 1990s, however, it became clear that more and more OLs were staying in the company into their late 30s, and due to the seniority-based pay scale, were being paid well over the odds for such basic administrative tasks.

A tough decade followed, for every young Japanese leaving university and trying to find a job, but especially for Japanese women who did not want to join a temping agency.  Many joined foreign companies and some braved the management track of mainstream Japanese companies. It was tough for the women who were still in the administrative track too.  They often ended up being paid less, as the quasi-management track they had been forced onto was not as seniority based as the administrative track they had been on.  Almost all of them were working harder than ever before, as they were now having to manage teams of temporary staff.  They had to train a constant stream of new temps, check their work and take the rap for any mistakes the temps made.

I was initially surprised to hear that the administrative track is now being reintroduced at my former company.  Apparently the mistakes being made by temps and the strain on the remaining ex-OLs (many of whom who have now taken early retirement) are having a significant impact on the business.

On reflection, it should not have been a surprise.  When I conducted a series of customer satisfaction survey interviews with Japanese companies last month, more often than not, the female administrative staff had also been invited to meet with me, and their (mostly male) managers were very careful to ask for their opinion and comments.  The Japanese customers expected their criticisms of the administrative capabilities of the supplier company to be taken seriously.  Administrative mistakes are not trivial in Japan.  Not only are they seen as an indication that there may be problems elsewhere, but there is a view that a small slip can have major consequences.

I was being snobbish in viewing administrative tasks as demeaning, and declaring that it is sexist if women are assigned to such tasks.  I doubt I am alone in this prejudice. I wonder how many Western companies would invite their secretaries to participate in customer satisfaction survey meetings.

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