Few Women Ascend Japan’s Corporate Ladder. Is Change Finally Coming?

TOKYO — When Naomi Koshi was elected in June to the board of one of Japan’s largest telecommunications companies, she became one of the few women in the country to reach the top of the corporate ladder.

东京——今年6月,越直美(Naomi Koshi)被选为日本最大电信公司之一的董事会成员,让她成为日本为数不多进入公司高层的女性之一。

Now that she’s there, she wants to pull others up with her.


“In Japan now, in most companies, only old men make decisions,” Ms. Koshi, a partner at the law firm Miura & Partners, said during a recent interview. “If we have more female votes on boards, we can change companies,” she said, adding that “if more people join the decision-making process, that will change the culture and create innovation.”

“现在在日本,在大多数公司,能做决定的只有年长男性,”三浦法律事务所(Miura & Partners)的合伙人越直美在最近一次采访中说。“如果在董事会中有更多女性投票,我们就能改变公司,”她说。“如果更多的人参与决策过程,那将改变文化,创造创新,”她补充道。

Japanese companies are under growing pressure both at home and abroad to elevate more women to positions of authority. Next year, the Tokyo Stock Exchange will adopt new rules that push companies listed in its top tier to take steps to ensure diversity, including the promotion of women, a move that aligns it with other major stock markets. This month, Nasdaq received U.S. approval for a similar, albeit more far-reaching, policy.

日本公司面临着国内外越来越大的压力,要求将更多女性提拔到掌权职位。东京证券交易所(Tokyo Stock Exchange)明年将实行新规定,促使顶层上市公司采取措施确保多元化,包括提拔女性,此举将使东京交易所与其他主要证券市场保持一致。本月,纳斯达克(Nasdaq)获得美国政府的批准,推出一项类似的但影响更深远的政策。

The efforts in Japan are intended to overcome decades of unkept promises from political and business leaders to increase opportunities for Japanese women, who face some of the starkest inequality in the developed world. They remain less likely to be hired as full-time employees and on average earn almost 44 percent less than men. Many leave their jobs after having a child, and making up the lost time is almost impossible under Japan’s seniority-based system.


With this constricted pipeline, Japanese companies often complain that they cannot find enough qualified female candidates from their own ranks to fill their boards. Only 6 percent of directors at listed companies in Japan are women, according to government statistics, compared with about a quarter among Fortune 500 companies in the United States. In Japan, almost all come from outside the companies on whose boards they sit.


Believing the moment is ripe for change, Ms. Koshi and a co-worker, Kaoru Matsuzawa, this year started OnBoard, a firm aimed at training hundreds of women for board positions and seeking to match them with companies.

越直美和同事松泽香(Kaoru Matsuzawa)认为,改变这种情况的时机已经成熟,她们今年创办了OnBoard,这是一家旨在为董事会职位培训数百名女性、并为她们寻找合适公司的事务所。

As changing corporate governance standards require more diversity on boards as well as more external directors, slots will open that Ms. Koshi’s company can fill.


Still, Japan has a long way to go to make up for its unfulfilled commitments. In 2003, the Japanese government declared that by 2020 women would occupy 30 percent of all management positions, the equivalent of the corporate vice president level and up. The pledge languished, but Shinzo Abe, after becoming prime minister in 2012, prominently resuscitated it as part of an economic agenda that he said would make women “shine.”


The year 2020 has come and gone, and Japan, while making some progress, is still less than halfway to its goal. With just over 13 percent of its management jobs held by women, Japan barely edges out Saudi Arabia, according to data from the International Labor Organization. The administration gave itself a 10-year extension, promising to achieve the goal by the end of 2030.

2020年来了又过去了,日本虽然取得了一些进展,但与实现目标还差了一多半。据国际劳工组织(International Labor Organization)的数据,日本管理层职位中女性所占比例略高于13%,勉强好于沙特阿拉伯。日本政府给了自己一个10年延期,承诺在2030年底实现这一目标。

Japan’s largest business lobby, Keidanren, also joined in. In November, it published a growth strategy for the country in which it noted that “given the male-to-female population ratio, it would be a natural conclusion for women to account for around 50 percent of leadership positions.”


It was not, however, prepared to make such a bold recommendation. Instead, it called for companies to renew their efforts to achieve the 30 percent goal by the end of the decade, in line with the government’s plan.


Such disparities run the length of the work force hierarchy. In 2019, more than 44 percent of women worked in part-time or temporary positions, compared with just under 12 percent of men. When the coronavirus pushed Japan into a state of emergency in May 2020, women were the first to lose their jobs.


By some measures, the situation for Japanese women has actually worsened in recent years. A report in March on gender inequality by the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 120th out of 156 countries. In 2015, it ranked 101st.

从某些方面来看,日本女性的处境实际上在最近几年恶化了。世界经济论坛(World Economic Forum)3月发布的一份关于性别不平等的报告将日本排在156个国家中的第120位。在2015年,日本排名第101位。

With women largely shut out of upper management in Japan, one of the primary paths to corporate boards has been through foreign companies.


Sakie Fukushima became one of the first Japanese women to become a director of a major domestic company when she joined the board of the chemical and cosmetics company Kao in 2002. Since then, she has served on the boards of nearly a dozen other companies, including Sony and Bridgestone.

福岛咲江(Sakie Fukushima,音)于2002年加入化学和化妆品公司花王株式会社(Kao)的董事会,成为在国内大型企业担任董事的首批日本女性之一。此后,她曾在其他十余家公司的董事会任职,其中包括索尼(Sony)和普利司通(Bridgestone)。

To reach that point, she first had to go to the United States, getting degrees at Harvard and Stanford before working her way up to a board position at the American consulting firm Korn Ferry.

为了走到这一步,她必须首先去美国,在哈佛和斯坦福获得学位,然后在美国咨询公司光辉国际(Korn Ferry)工作并晋升至董事会职位。

“I benefited from the fact that I was one of the few women who had served on the board of an American company,” she said. Nevertheless, “I’m sure that my gender was one of the main reasons that some companies asked me to join their boards.”


Ms. Fukushima said she had never experienced overt sexism in her work on the boards. But she said that she had been disappointed by Japanese companies’ slow progress in adding women to their leadership, especially given the abundance of good candidates.


Ms. Koshi, the lawyer and board member, said she first truly understood the inequality in Japanese society in 2000, when she graduated from college. Japan’s economy was in a deep rut, and recruiters were mostly hiring men.


Still, she managed to find a position at a Japanese law firm. Impressed with her performance, it sent her to Harvard Law School to burnish her credentials, and she was later seconded to a firm in New York.


During Barack Obama’s 2008 run for president, she was impressed by young people’s political activism, something that is relatively rare in Japan. She resolved to return home and work to improve conditions for women.

在贝拉克·奥巴马(Barack Obama)2008年竞选总统期间,她对年轻人的政治行动主义印象深刻,这在日本相对罕见。她决定回到日本并努力改善女性的求职环境。

In 2011, at the age of 36, she became the youngest female mayor ever in Japan, elected to lead her hometown, Otsu, the capital of Shiga Prefecture in western Japan. She went on to build dozens of nurseries in the city, providing more child care options for women who had been forced to choose between working and staying home with their families.


After finishing her second term, Ms. Koshi returned to law. When hundreds of women signed up for a seminar on becoming a corporate director, she and Ms. Matsuzawa — who has worked in corporate law and government and serves on two corporate boards — decided to start their firm. Ms. Koshi serves on the boards of two companies, including a telecommunications subsidiary of SoftBank Group.

在完成第二个任期后,越直美重返法律界。当数百名女性报名参加一个关于成为公司董事的研讨会时,她和曾在公司法领域和政府部门工作,并在两个企业董事会任职的松泽香一起决定创办她们自己的公司。越直美目前也在两家公司的董事会任职,其中包括软银集团(SoftBank Group)的一家电信子公司。

The growing pressures to appoint female directors have created an opportunity for Ms. Koshi’s firm.


In addition to the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s new emphasis on governance, Goldman Sachs announced in 2020 a global policy of voting against any board slate that did not include at least one female candidate, joining other investment firms that have adopted similar policies.


While Goldman’s move has had little practical effect on the votes’ outcomes, it has pushed firms to reckon with the problem.


“Most of the companies are receptive; they recognize this is an issue, and they’re hoping to resolve it over the next year or two,” said Chris Vilburn, the head of Asia stewardship in Goldman’s asset management division.

高盛资产管理部门亚洲管理主管克里斯·维尔本(Chris Vilburn)说:“大多数公司都乐于接受;他们意识到这是一个问题,并希望在未来一两年内解决这个问题。”

This June, he said, when most Japanese companies held their annual meetings, Goldman cast 20 percent fewer protest votes than in 2020.


Still, Ms. Koshi said, it is not clear yet whether companies that are bringing on new female directors are actually committed to change or simply trying to meet quotas.


Some companies “just have female directors because the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Japanese government said so,” she said.


They know that they need women, she added, but “they don’t want female directors to speak up.”


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