Editor’s Note: The author of this post is co-head of a commercial litigation and trial practice group in Tokyo.
The recent landslide win for Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Japanese general election is not only a victory for Abenomics – a combination of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms – but is also a positive sign for women in Japan. During the past three years, the number of senior business women in Japan has risen and, even though one can debate whether Abenomics is the cause or the fortunate beneficiary of the trend, most agree that it looks set to continue.
In 2013, Abe set an ambitious goal for all companies to have 30 percent of their leadership positions filled by women by 2020. There is now widespread acknowledgment that Abe’s goal was overly ambitious. But as a working mother in Japan for over 15 years, I have noted there have nevertheless been several positive developments that have become even more prevalent over the last few years.
Now, I personally work with over half a dozen very talented women legal department managers who all took over their positions from a man, indicating a growing recognition of female talent within the Japanese business community. To start, all of the legal department managers I worked with fifteen years ago were men. Now, I personally work with over half a dozen very talented women legal department managers who all took over their positions from a man, indicating a growing recognition of female talent within the Japanese business community. Some of the women, as head of the legal or IP department, are the highest ranking legal advisors in their organizations.
The placement of women in senior positions has gone hand in hand with another change that has become increasingly prominent over the last decade and especially since Abe’s endorsement of “womenomics,” namely more women at the negotiating table. My first all-female participant business meeting in Japan took place just last year. It was almost shocking to walk into a room with six businesswomen in Tokyo. Good — but shocking.
I vividly recall waiting desperately outside my daughter’s daycare one day for drop-off so that I could attend a morning meeting and then rushing back to make the pick-up time. Despite these new experiences, there is still much work to be done to enable a working mother — lawyer or otherwise — to maximize her productivity and output in the workplace. For example, Tokyo has very limited daycare options and, even when you secure a place, there are significant restrictions around pickup and drop-off times. I vividly recall waiting desperately outside my daughter’s daycare one day for drop-off so that I could attend a morning meeting and then rushing back to make the pick-up time. More support options need to be available. This is particularly true for lawyers who have unpredictable and occasionally long working hours.
One of the main reasons cited for women dropping out of the work force, however, is lack of career opportunities. According to the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, in 2014 only 9.2 percent of private corporate directorships were held by women. That percentage is targeted to be 15 percent by 2020. To reach that goal, there will be need to become more widespread acceptance of a society in which all women have the chance to shine. I recently went to an event sponsored by OECD for executive level women in Japan attended by impressive women attendees who have broken through the glass ceiling. The fact that, in one of the largest economies of the world, the women at such a premier event easily fit into one room still illustrates how rare executive-level females are in Japan.
The largest four Japanese law firms average approximately 11 percent female partners in a market where about 18 percent of all lawyers are female. Female partners in law firms in Tokyo could also probably fit into one room. The largest four Japanese law firms average approximately 11 percent female partners in a market where about 18 percent of all lawyers are female. International firms are often more of a meritocracy when it comes to promotion and thus they attract higher percentages of female-qualified lawyers to their ranks. Some international firms have as many as 30-40 percent Japanese-qualified female lawyers as part of their team.
Despite the somewhat glacial speed, Japan is changing. I look forward to seeing what’s in store in the coming years.