I have always been surrounded by ambitious, extremely capable women, but often in surprising positions. When I entered a major trading company called Sumitomo Corporation after college, there was only one woman out of 130 positions available for promotion track. On the other hand, secretarial positions were all women, most of whom were English proficient, talented graduates of Keio, Waseda or other elite Japanese universities. I always felt strong discomfort in seeing such highly qualified women in positions that promised no promotion opportunities. In Japan, management does not expect or want women to work long-term. Five years is considered a maximum. There is also a sense that women are “winners” if they get engaged and quit their jobs early (“kotobuki soutai”). With such low expectations and little potential for promotion, even the most ambitious women at Sumitomo left one by one. The fact that women managers are extremely rare in Japanese corporations is a wasteful (“mottainai”) reality for both talented women and for the future of corporations.
During my MBA years at the University of Chicago, I was again surrounded by ambitious, extremely capable women. Here, these diverse women from around the world appeared bolder, proactively self-asserting and openly discussed their future ambitions. Their energy was contagious. I soon learned however, that these ambitions led to a whole other set of issues. When I started working at Goldman Sachs in Japan, women and men worked side by side with far fewer gender divisions across ranks compared to the typical large Japanese corporation. But the extreme working conditions of the trading world often meant working until 3 or 4am and being back at work at 9am, seven days a week. One night, I saw a colleague sitting at her desk at 2am with an ice pack on her forehead, prescription fever medicine and an oxygen inhaler (commonly sold at convenience stores in Japan for energy boosts), wheezing through a report. When I suggested she take it a little easy, she (half) jokingly said, “Are you saying this isn’t a woman’s job?” and insisted that she was fine. This constant pressure to perform like a machine is not unique to men or women, but it was clear that women felt an extra need to overly compensate for their gender.
When working side by side with men, it is easy for both men and women to expect too little from women. But trying to “do it all” and setting too high expectations for women can also be hazardous. When I started Alpha Leaders, advancing women’s status in the Japanese labor market was a key pillar, captured by our “αWOMAN” initiative. Initially αWOMAN events began with women gathering to gain leadership skills, but they often ended up becoming three to four hour venting sessions about their workplace complaints. Through realizing their common struggles and learning to become each others’ advocates, these women eventually moved onto obtaining MBAs overseas and our community of αWOMAN leaders continues to expand.
In marketing our goals to expand αWOMAN to work with women and men to advance gender equality in Japanese businesses, we certainly encounter blank stares. But when I look to my daughter and her friends, who at the age of 12, already exhibit too many stereotypical ways in which gender norms hinder their potentials for leadership, I cannot help but think that this is the moment I am meant to partake in these actions. When I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative, I was inspired and finally felt that someone high up understood. There needs to be more of a global movement and I am so grateful for her igniting the fire. I have strong hopes and visions for women in Japan and the role that men can play in promoting these initiatives. This is why I am leaning in to αWOMAN and Alpha Leaders in Japan.