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What it’s like to be a working woman in Japan

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Two years ago, I arrived in Japan from Australia with a stomach full of butterflies—and not just because it was a new job, a new country and a new culture for me.

I was also four months pregnant.

Given all the things I’d heard about Japan—including its legendary long working hours—I was worried about how I would be perceived.

Would it be frowned upon that I took maternity leave? How long could I take off without upsetting my colleagues?

My concerns were soon dispelled. In addition to being quickly reminded by many Japanese colleagues that I was still working for a company committed to supporting working mothers and fathers around the world, albeit in a new role, I was also coming to Japan at a very interesting time.

As a significant portion of Japan’s population has been moving into retirement age, there has been a concerted effort to drive greater levels of female participation and advancement in the workforce. There’s even a term for it: “womenomics.” It’s actually part of a larger government economic revival strategy focused on leveraging the untapped female talent pool by doing things like encouraging corporations to publicize their voluntary diversity targets.

Leaders from many companies, including Johnson & Johnson, have also endorsed a special declaration in support of women in the workforce. In fact, Johnson & Johnson just ranked 7th out of 534 Japanese companies for gender diversity in a recent survey conducted by Nikkei Woman, a magazine geared toward working women.

Crunching the gender diversity numbers

One of the key survey measures looked at gender representation across executive leadership teams—an area where Johnson & Johnson really excelled.

In Japan, our female representation at the executive board level is 34% versus the national average of 2.7%, and our middle management levels are also very healthy—18.7% versus 11% nationally.

The survey also focused on how companies are working to create cultures that embrace flexibility, enabling employees to manage family commitments.

This was an important factor in our strong rating: Johnson & Johnson has supplemented publically-committed diversity targets with several work-life balance programs that encourage employees to use flexible work practices, such as working from home, reducing long hours on the job and focusing on energy management.

The influence of Ikumen on modern day workplaces

In Japan, many men and women continue to adopt traditional gender-based views. A 2014 government survey found that 44% of citizens support the concept of “men at work and women at home,” which inevitably impacts workplace culture.

There is still a deeply held view that a “good” father is one who is solely dedicated to his work, providing stability for his family. So increasing the adoption of paternity leave among men in the workplace is a critical element to creating sustainable cultural change. Ironically, even though the Japanese government funds 60% of a man’s salary for 12 months of paternity leave, only 2.3% of eligible fathers actually use the benefit.

The challenge Japan faces is how to remove the social stigma associated with being a “modern family man.” The concept of “ikumen,” or men who actively participate in helping out with domestic chores and child-rearing, is gaining popularity in Japan—and many men now see that they can be both successful in their careers and contribute more at home.

At Johnson & Johnson, we have seen this shift over the past few years. In 2015 alone, 22% of new dads took paternity leave—far outpacing the 2.3% national average.

Forging and leading the way

It will take many small steps to drive comprehensive change across Japan, and we are fortunate to have a number of committed leaders who recognize the need for this—leaders who have been asked to assist with government initiatives focused on more inclusive workplaces and to participate on boards of organizations focused on women in the workplace.

Our leaders have also supported special rooms for breastfeeding mothers, and our Women’s Leadership Initiative (celebrating 10 years in Japan) continues to make great progress in developing awareness around subconscious bias and the importance of inclusive leadership.
But just like many organizations in Japan, we still have more work to do.

The more that leaders can visibly encourage and support working mothers, as well as the growing number of young fathers who want to take on a greater role at home, the more they can help the next generation realize their personal and professional aspirations.

Sarah McKensey is a Human Resources Director for Johnson & Johnson’s Supply Chain function in Japan. She and her husband welcomed their son, Hugh, into the world in January 2015.

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