Table Speech

Is Your Management Strategy Tailored to Foster Female Managers?

August 28, 2013

Ms. Reiko Okutani
President, The R Co., Ltd.

 Our company has been undertaking the overall human resource producing business for 33 years, including temporary personnel service, business process design as well as recruitment and staff training consultation. Having worked as the Japan Airlines flight attendant for 7 years, I had many chances to meet leaders of different companies who inspired entrepreneurship in me. We started our business with only female members, which was quite rare back then. We toiled in the so-called male-dominated world, breaking through some biased prejudices and adversities.

 I was often called the “woman of radical words”, as the media distorted some of my wordings. For example, I was criticized for having said “you are self-responsible for dying from overwork”, when my true intention was to advocate for the promotion of “white-collar exemptions” to ease labor regulations on white-collar employees.

 We live in an increasingly globalized world, where you are expected to work around the clock in a global time frame. The key element will be how to enhance intellectual labor productivity. Each employee is responsible for his/her self-management, including time-management on a global scale.

 The greatest challenge Japan faces is the issue of population decline, which will trigger market shrinking and downsizing in all aspects of our life. Prime Minister Abe developed his growth strategy with the goal of having women account for 30% of senior positions in government and private sectors, with the calculation to push up the GDP by 8% and generate positive economic effects worth 60 trillion yen.

 Another target announced by the retailer Aeon Group at their shareholders’ meeting was to make the ratio of female executive officers 50% by 2020. I was astonished by this ambitious figure and became rather skeptical, as having worked with female colleagues over three decades taught me both the merit and demerit of women in the workplace and some difficulties experienced in fostering female senior managers.

 Today, women still make up a low percentage of the senior positions in Japan, just 1.7% of the executives among major companies with over 5,000 employees. It does not make sense to set numerical targets, without taking into account the types or scope of business. It just seems unrealistic and unfeasible.

“Let’s utilize women’s potential abilities” is a much used set-phrase that I find obsolete now. I recall the same cliché during the bubble economy that ended in one-time boom without much result. Now, why do Japanese companies fail to foster female senior managers? The key element seems to be the attitude of male managers who hesitate to be a straightforward and strict boss for female employees. The greatest challenge is how to build a corporate culture that enhances the development of female human resources.

 As the mandatory retirement age will be raised to 65 years old, companies must prepare for various risk factors that await in the different life stages of female employees, while securing and improving their productivity. Marriage, childbirth and childcare have been major challenges, to which the factor of menopause disorder is added for middle-aged female employees.

 The latest announcement by All Nippon Airways to break away from hiring flight attendants on a renewable contract basis and to resume full-time hiring made me question its sustainability. The experience of Japan Airlines taught us a difficult lesson that higher labor costs, including pension payment and retirement allowance, can translate into a company’s fateful crisis. If I give you some figures, when I became a flight attendant nearly 40 years ago, the labor costs were calculated on an average length of service of just 1.3 years. By 2000, the years have been extended to 20 years, which came to impose much higher labor costs to the company and eventually led to file for bankruptcy protection in 2010 under the Corporate Reorganization Act of Japan. Over-emphasis on securing full-time workers may not meet the needs of different types and functions of business. I believe the employment system must become more flexible and diversified that will make an effective use of contracted employees who qualify to meet different job requirements.

 Before closing, let me reiterate that each company is urged to incorporate female workforce into one’s management strategy and further enhance their human resource development up to the management level. We are entering an age when the skills of senior managers and the corporate climate are called into question whether and how far they foster both male and female professional staff with management skills. Companies have to fulfill the mission to secure both the “targeted number and quality” of female senior managers.

 Drastic measures must be taken to achieve these social missions. They include the fundamental change in corporate climate as well as changing the mentality of both genders. To be frank with you, how far a company is prepared to utilize female employees is proportionate to the willingness of top company executives in redirecting its corporate climate and culture. We must not follow the same path taken during the bubble economy that proved quite fruitless. I sincerely hope the momentum today will bring about considerable achievement.