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Promoting the role of women in corporate Japan is not just good public policy, it is also good business and a good investment opportunity, according to experts speaking at the Women in Business Summit held recently by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
One leader in this area is the financial services firm State Street Corp., which is using the vast share ownership through its asset management division to pressure companies in Japan and elsewhere to give a greater voice to women in the boardrooms.
“Gender diversity to us is really a matter of value,” said Benjamin Colton, Head of APAC, Asset Stewardship, State Street Global Advisors. “We were the first large U.S. asset manager to explicitly link gender diversity to our voting guidelines, so that we are now voting against companies if they are not responsive to our engagement efforts to put at least one female on the board.” While one is not enough, he said, it is part of a longer-term drive.
“The results are increasingly encouraging,” he said. According to data from the firm, 281 Japanese companies have been targeted with a total of 54 either adding or committing to the addition of a woman on the board.
Taking the concept of betting on women a step further, BNY Mellon Asset Management has established a Womenomics Fund in Japan.
“It’s very good to invest in something where you see a big change happening. And second, it‘s even more interesting when not all investors are aware of it,” said Miyuki Kashima, Head of Japan Equity Investment Management Division at BNY Mellon Asset Management Japan Limited.
The fund focuses on three main elements: companies that hire and promote women, companies that benefit from the extra spending that comes from more women working, and companies that benefit from offering services needed by dual wage-earning families.
Kashima said that the Abenomics program launched by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when he took office in late 2012 had made a difference. She noted that Abe had specifically targeted increasing the number of women in the workforce. “In the last six years, we’ve accomplished almost double what we had in the last 20 years,” she said.
Other panelists noted that while progress has been made in Japan, much remains to be done.
“The change that I’ve seen in Japan is actually astounding when I consider from 2001 to today. It is easy for us in the field to get a ‘little annoyed’ that things do not move faster,” she said.
“There has been a lot of change. What I like is that the government is actually saying the right things and companies are doing the right things to move forward. Are they perfect? Far from it, but they are moving in the right direction, and I think that is a very positive sign for the market,” said Heather McLeish, Director, Financial Services Advisory, with EY Japan.
[See McLeish interview with Japan Up Close here]
Part of the burden rests with women themselves, the panelists added. One issue, they said, is that women tend to be too tentative in accepting greater responsibility.
Emi Onozuka, Head of Stewardship Responsibility Group, Vice President Goldman Sachs Japan Co., said that changing the approach in HR terms is one way to help nudge women into taking on more responsibility. “They used to say ‘would you like to have a promotion?’ But now they changed the conversation to “When would you like to take on more responsibility?’ So the conversation has changed from a question of ‘if’ to ‘when.’ And I think that’s really fair,” she said.
The Summit, the latest event taking place in ACCJ member cities over the past five years, was held under the slogan of “our job is not done,” It said that while a strong Japanese economy has created an opportunity for women to progress more quickly, “many companies still struggle with the implementation of these objectives.” Aside from the issues facing women in Japan, the Summit also examined broader workplace issues affecting both women and men, including flexible workstyles, increased participation of older workers, increased use of foreign workers, and training.