The modern office: Japanese business practices have come a long way since the 1980s, when many books about working in the country were written. | GETTY IMAGES

A question I’m asked quite often by non-Japanese women working in professional and managerial roles is, “Will Japanese salarymen treat me with respect?”

It’s not a surprising question, given the many stories they may have heard about the challenges faced by Japanese women in the workforce, and sexism is undeniably a problem here. However, it’s important to also acknowledge that the days of women serving tea have been largely relegated to the past. And as a female executive who has successfully worked with Japanese colleagues for her entire career, I’d hate for other women to deliberately avoid working in or with Japanese firms based on old stories they’ve heard.

For example, I consulted for an American company that was in the process of being acquired by a Japanese firm and was teaching a seminar on Japanese corporate culture to the executive team. During a break, one woman on the team approached me and told me that what I presented in the seminar had matched what she had found in her own research, but that I had left out one key point — she had read that Japanese men don’t like to work with women and, based on that, she was planning on skipping a key meeting with the new Japanese owners of her firm. I told her that if Japanese men didn’t like working with women, I wouldn’t have a job. But I also pointed out that a lot of the information out there on how to work with the Japanese is from books that were written in the 1980s when the situation of women in Japan was very different. In short, I advised her to definitely attend that upcoming meeting.

Far from perfect

It is true that Japan is hardly a paradise for working women. Many Japanese women drop out of the rat race rather than climb their way up the corporate ranks, leaving the upper echelon dominated by men.

The difficulty of combining a career and child-rearing, especially with a lack of day care options available, causes many Japanese women to give up trying to do both. In addition, tax rules that favor stay-at-home spouses make continuing to work after marriage financially less appealing. Long hours at the office and the heavy responsibilities that come with management posts are also a deterrent.

Therefore, many workplaces in Japan have overwhelmingly male leadership, creating an environment that can be inhospitable to women. This pushes many women toward opting out when the logistical factors become overwhelming. Surveys by job recruiter En Japan found that 72 percent of women have experienced some form of harassment at work, and 54 percent feel that they are at a disadvantage in their companies because they are female.

Despite these challenges, more Japanese women are in professional and management positions than they were in the past, although the numbers are still far below levels you might see in other countries. I can honestly say, however, that what I’ve seen in my own experience working in Japan has been promising. Members of the generation of women who got on the career track after the country implemented its equal opportunity employment law in 1986 and who have continued to stick it out in the corporate trenches, are now in their 50s and taking on senior roles. I’ve had many meetings with Japanese firms in which most or all of the key decision-makers were women.

One significant exception to this is in manufacturing and engineering, areas that are still mostly male (though that tends to be the case outside of Japan as well).

It is true that as a non-Japanese woman in a managerial or executive role, you might often be the only woman at your level at the table. Generally, I would recommend not to worry about it, and just be yourself and conduct business as usual.

Keep in mind that there are also advantages to being a woman when working with Japanese colleagues. The Japanese will tend to presume that any woman in a senior position must be really great at their job, an assumption that can work to your advantage. Typical female communication patterns in Western cultures — less confrontational and more collaborative — tend to be naturally closer to those of the Japanese. You may even find yourself put in the spotlight as a role model for Japanese women in the company.

Establish your position

All that being said, some women may encounter situations where they feel that they are not being taken as seriously as they would like. If that’s the case, then it’s important to be practical and approach the situation with knowledge of the culture you’re working in. From my years of working with Japanese clients, I have a few suggestions, based on my own experiences and theirs.

The first is to make sure the people you are dealing with understand your work background and your current role. The Japanese tend to categorize people in a hierarchy based on status and, if they don’t have sufficient information about you they may slot you into the wrong spot in their heads. This may be because they do not expect to see a woman (or a non-Japanese person) in a senior position, and this might be especially true if you look young for your age.

I recommend preparing a brief profile of yourself that makes clear your position in the company, how many years you have been with the firm and/or in the industry, your current responsibilities, and your education and qualifications. This should be sent ahead of time, with the request that it be distributed to those you will be meeting or working with.

A second piece of advice is to dress the part of a professional in accordance with the norms of Japanese culture. Although you may have seen recent news stories about some companies in Japan requiring that female employees wear heels or not wear glasses, those stories are exceptions and likely not something you need to be concerned about. However, this recent attention to dress codes underscores the fact that the standard attire at a Japanese workplace is much more traditional than it is in Western countries today.

Conservatively speaking, it’s important to wear a suit jacket with a skirt, dress or slacks. The jacket is what conveys the idea of “professional.” Japanese women in professional positions will likely steer clear of short skirts and anything too low cut or form-fitting. Colors and patterns tend to be subdued, so save your most dynamic prints for the weekend. Go easy on the accessories and makeup, and skip the perfume. Many Japanese people find perfumes and colognes bothersome — so much so that a term, sumehara (a portmanteau of “smell” and “harassment”), has come into fashion describing the annoyance.

Getting your point across

Last month I wrote about how the Japanese tend to react negatively to aggressive debate when discussing an issue, no matter what your gender is. Not surprisingly, some Japanese find it particularly grating when the confrontational approach is coming from a woman, due to traditional cultural expectations of women in Japan.

How do you deal with this situation productively? Definitely make your points as needed, but be aware of your word choice and tone of voice so that you come off as calm and firm.

As a woman working in business in another country, you may have developed habits to be better heard by your male colleagues. These may not work well in a Japanese environment, particularly interrupting. The Japanese are very good at taking turns in conversation, so getting a word in edgewise is not likely to be a significant problem when working with them.

Finally, if you do find yourself in a situation where you think you are not being treated well because of your gender, be careful not to jump to a hasty conclusion. Rather than having “this must be happening because I’m a woman” be your first assumption, step back and consider whether there might have been some other reason instead. In many cases, I’ve found that something that at first looks like it might be gender discrimination turns out to be a cultural misunderstanding instead.

By Rochelle Kopp, The Japan Times

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