I’ve been meaning to post about the appointment of Mitsuru Chino as the first female to take an executive position at a major Japanese trading house for a while now, and International Women’s Day seems like a good moment to do this. Is this the harbinger of change in Japan though?
I get weary of being asked by people in Western companies whether Japanese companies or businessmen aren’t sexist and do we therefore need to appoint men as the customer liaison. Most memorably, this was asked of me by a bunch of German men (no women) at a leading car parts company – who then proceeded to spend most of their spare time on the course I was facilitating in Japan working out which girlie bar they should visit next. I so wanted to turn the mirror on them and say “physician heal thyself”.
But my own country (the UK) is even worse than Germany in terms of women in senior positions, according to this survey I saw in the Financial Times today. Japan is right at the bottom of the ranking of 20 countries, below the UAE. So, even with the appointment of Chino, Japan has a long way to go to catch up.
Chino has a very impressive CV – a graduate of Cornell Law School, a semi professional classical singer and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. She was born in the Netherlands and lived in the UK and the USA as a child. I saw the same pattern amongst the highly impressive women who joined Mitsubishi Corporation when I worked there in Japan – one woman was a scratch golfer, fluent English and Mandarin Chinese speaker. She left a while ago however, to join a start up. Chino only joined Itochu in 2000, so was a mid term career hire.
What we are seeing both in Japan and elsewhere, it seems to me, is that women are given senior positions because of their specialist knowledge, and to add a touch of diversity, not just in terms of being female, but because they have a non traditional career path. However I get the sense that this means we are “useful to have around, but no need to take too seriously” when it comes to dishing out the senior executive, general management roles, which continue to be the preserve of men with one track CVs. The question that we women ask ourselves is, do we want those jobs anyway?
A couple more senior female appointments have been announced – at JAL (ex cabin attendant who turned around customer satisfaction issues and controlled costs) and TEPCO (she was the person in charge of damages compensation for victims of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster ). Those useful women again – do the people facing dirty work the men don’t want to do.
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