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Japan’s ‘womenomics’ pioneer says mindsets must change

TOKYO (AFP) – Three million women joined Japan’s workforce in the past decade, and it’s at least partly thanks to top executive Kathy Matsui, who coined the ‘womenomics’ catchphrase that inspired government policy.

But with many women holding precarious part-time jobs, often in sectors hit hard by COVID-19, she said the world’s third largest economy must try harder to tap underused talent.

That means chipping away at managers’ sexist attitudes and challenging Japan’s long-hours work culture, as well as encouraging start-ups with “more diverse founders”.

“We have a very low ratio of female entrepreneurs in this country,” Matsui, the former vice-president of United States (US) investment bank Goldman Sachs in Japan, told AFP.

“But if you want to be driving 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 co-director of a firm founded last year that invests in ethically minded young companies.

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

To her surprise, the ideas were adopted by former prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2012 as part of his signature plan to revive the ailing Japanese economy.

Founder and general partner of MPower Partners Kathy Matsui. PHOTO: AFP

Since then, the proportion of women in Japan who work has risen from 60 per cent to over 70 per cent, equivalent to around three million people, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures.

But even now, only 15 per cent of managers at Japanese companies are women, compared to around 40 per cent in the US.

“Trying to change the mindset and behaviour of very established organisations… is not impossible, but it just takes a long time,” unlike start-ups which can be more flexible, Matsui said.

Recent progress has been so slow that Japan’s government was forced to postpone its 30-per cent target for women in management positions by a whole decade in 2020.

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

Worldwide, women were more likely than men to report a loss of employment in the pandemic’s first 18 months, according to a University of Washington study published in the Lancet that analysed data from 193 countries.

In Japan, many women juggle looking after children or elderly relatives while working part-time, often in the COVID-hit service industries, Matsui said.

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

Evaluations should be “much more focussed on output and performance, as opposed to the time factor”, and managers should undergo training to tackle prejudices.

“A lot of times I come across women who are passed over for promotion, because they just got married” and their boss doesn’t want to “risk” them taking maternity leave, she said.

And it’s urgent – as Japan’s rapidly ageing population causes its workforce to shrink, “the fastest thing you can do is try to tap into the talent that is staring you in the face”.

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

She studied at Harvard, where she majored in social studies. After graduation, 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 ‘womenomics’ argument struck a chord with ministers because it offered a new perspective on the benefits of equality, she believes.

As well as targets 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, from a niche issue to a “daily topic of conversation”.

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

“You cannot manage what you don’t measure,” she said.

Now, as co-director of the venture capital company MPower Partners, which invests in businesses that prioritise environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), Matsui wants to grow Japan’s relatively small start-up scene.

“Part of why it’s so small is because there’s not enough diversity, or because (the companies) don’t think globally enough. Those are two angles where we at MPower really want to help change,” she said.

But firms seeking investment should beware of resorting to superficial tactics like so-called greenwashing: “We’re not so interested in companies just trying to tick the box.”