Diversity & Inclusion in Japan – Speaking with D&I champions on the ground

How do the Head of Talent at Toys "R" Us Japan and a person with a disability experience and think about Diversity & Inclusion in Japan?

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In the first part of our “Diversity & Inclusion in Japan” series we looked at the current status as well as the legal framework of D&I in the country. For this second article, we’ve talked to two professionals who are working to create a more diverse and inclusive environment in their organizations.

The first D&I interviewee is Yuki Minami, Head of People Division at Toys “R” Us Japan, who is championing the advancement of women in her organization. The second professional is M.N. (he asked us to only use his initials) who talked with us about his experience of working in a global IT company as a person with a disability.

Empowering women in Japan


Profile

Head of People Division, Toys “R” Us Japan. Joined AIU Insurance (now AIG Property Casualty) in 1993 after graduating from NYU (USA). She held positions at a US-based Investor Services company, Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson) and an HR Strategy Consulting firm. In 2012 she joined Walmart Japan as their HR Vice President. From 2017 she served as HR Director at Chubb Insurance. In 2020 she joined Toys “R” Us as Head of Talent. Boyd & Moore is proud to have helped her with these recent two, important career steps.

Q: Minami-san, in your current role, you are part of the leadership team within a big organization. Did you see yourself in such a position when you had just started out in your career?

After graduating university in the US, I joined a foreign-owned company here in Japan. It was common to put new graduates into the Sales department and I thought that I would go there too. But to my surprise, I ended up in HR. I did not really understand what HR was actually about. So instead of having a goal or career strategy, I just tried my best to keep up with the job at hand. I did not think of becoming a leader. I just wanted to not disappoint my manager and my colleagues who supported me.

Despite women making only 20% of the workforce at my company back then, there were many women in the HR department, so I didn’t think much about issues of gender inequality.

When I went to university in the US, I also never felt disadvantaged because of being a woman. I guess, joining the workforce in the way I did was just a natural continuation of this experience. Looking back at it now, I can see that this might have been quite an exception. I am very grateful that I was able to start my career in such an environment.

Q: When was the first time you moved into a leadership position? What expectations or concerns did you have?

I majored in Finance back in university and after a while in my first job I felt that I wanted a job where I could apply what I had learned. That’s why I joined a US-based firm that provided information services to investors. This company was growing rapidly and, before I knew it, I managed about 10 people. That was in my late twenties. I just thought I’d give it a try and see how it goes. Of course, there were a lot of issues and hurdles, but I took them one by one as they came up. I believe that I could have this more relaxed approach because I didn’t have any expectations to begin with.

Until to this day I am still struggling with managing from time to time. Organizations and people are all unique. So even if a certain strategy worked once it doesn’t mean that it will work again. I think meeting new challenges with more of a “let’s try and see how it goes” attitude can make things easier in general. It’s just important to make the first step. 

Q: There are still many people including politicians and government officials who use phrases such as “women should behave like this or that”. In your experience, what kind of approach has been effective to change the mind of people who think like this? 

As I said before, initially I didn’t feel very conscious about being a woman in the workplace. However, there was one particular situation where I was made painfully aware of it.

This was an incident that happened in my 30s after I had already 10 years of experience in Organizational & HR Consulting and had been involved in a variety of projects. A client had apparently asked if they could replace me with a male consultant. I was the only women on the project team. I heard about this from my manager a few days after the conversation had taken place. He told me that he was not planning on changing the team and that he wanted me to show them what I was able to do.

To be honest, I was shocked by the client’s request and thought it would be better to step down from the project as requested. But I changed my mind thanks to my manager’s encouragement and the trust he had in me. In the end, I was able to build such a strong relationship with the client and delivered such outstanding results that they not only decided to keep working with us but also requested me by name to be part of the team when they extended the contract.

I think this kind of result-driven approach might be the best response to any discriminatory behavior. It’s about making others – whether clients, colleagues or managers – see you as a fellow human, a colleague or partner, by building trust.

I strongly believe that you can change another person’s mindset over time by treating them in the same way as you want them to treat you. This requires staying humble, listening to different opinions even if they are contrary to your own and trying your best to always keep improving.

Q: Japan ranked 121st among 153 countries in the international gender gap rankings, coming in last place among major advanced economies. In such a highly patriarchal society, is there anything you especially pay attention to when leading an organization?

I personally don’t like the term “female leadership role models”. I try to learn from great leaders regardless of their gender. Looking at male leaders and thinking “I can’t be like this because I am a woman” is just a way of imposing limitations onto yourself.

Also, by putting yourself into a box you risk creating this image of a homogenous “insider” group to which you as the “outsider” group do not belong. Instead of labeling myself I try to be who I am.

As the leader of an organization I am always asking myself if I am doing a god job at managing myself and if I am open enough when connecting with others. Leaders need to be able to motivate every individual one by one in order to bring them together as a high performing team. For this, providing positivity and encouragement even if even in tough times is crucial. I do still have a lot to learn but knowing this makes me even more passionate about my job.

Q: Do you have any success stories regarding fostering D&I, including women’s advancement? 

Yes, certainly. I was participating in a women’s advancement project at a foreign retail company. It was a global initiative with the goal to empower women within the company. The realities in each country’s organization such as the percentage of female leaders or other gender-related issues were of course very different, and we had to develop a plan that was specifically designed to tackle the problems unique to the Japan entity.

One of the issues here in Japan was that the pipeline for female store managers and deputy managers was rather weak. What we decided was to establish a program and a project team comprised of HR and the shop management that would be responsible for nurturing female leadership candidates. While previous programs had just aimed to “nurture”, we set ourselves the ambitious goal to get the program participants promoted within a year.

We also knew that just educating our female leadership candidates wouldn’t be enough. That’s why we actively engaged with their store managers and regional managers, went together with the candidates to their workshops and made sure that On The Job Training (OJT) was provided properly.

To ensure that the managers developed a strong sense of responsibility for their candidates’ success, we decided that the future female leaders would give their final presentation together with their managers. As a result, many participants from that program were eventually promoted.

Q: According to the study “Awareness survey regarding the advancement of women 2020” published by Sony Life Insurance in October last year, only 18.7% of women said they wanted to take on a leadership position. The top 5 reasons for being hesitant were: 1) Too much responsibility (50.6%); 2) Too stressful (42.8%); 3) It doesn’t fit me (42.8%); 4) I am not confident in my leadership capabilities (33.4%); 5) It looks rather exhausting (32.5%). Minami-san, do you think it is necessary to change society as whole in order to get more women into leadership positions?

Looking at these survey results, I feel that being a leader doesn’t have much appeal for women. I think it’s necessary to make management roles more attractive.

For example, in retail the majority of customers are women, but the number of female store managers is still low. There are also a lot of women who even if they did occupy management positions step down having given birth and taken maternity leave because they don’t have the confidence that they will be able to handle both raising children and being a manager.

One solution could be having a trial period to ease concerns and encourage more women to give it a try. In general, it is important to listen to each individual and figure out what holds them back to find a solution together.

Q: Do you have any advice for women who are thinking about becoming a leader but are still not quite convinced?

The world is paying a lot of attention right now on how Japan is tackling its gender gap and empowers its women. This is a great chance for every woman in this country who is interested in taking on a leadership position. And it doesn’t matter if you are ready to take this chance right now or rather wait a little longer.

I would just advise you to not limit yourself, stay humble and face whatever is in front of you as your true self. By doing so, things will become clear over time. Because, if you’re not moving on you won’t be able to discover new places. New places bring new insights and a new drive forward which eventually brings you up the career ladder, step by step.

Leading with a disability


Profile

After graduating from university, M.N. joined the service industry. Due to severe understaffing and irregular hours, M.N. started to develop a depression. Before fully recovering, he took a job in the sales department of a recruitment company where he was awarded top biller. However, after being promoted into a leadership position, his depression returned forcing him to retire. In the following year he learned strategies to cope with his depression at the Center for Employment Transition Support and was also officially recognized as having a psychiatric disability. Currently, M.N. is employed as an assistant at a foreign IT company.

Q: As a person with a disability, how do you feel about Diversity & Inclusion in the context of Japanese employment?

In my current company I have two reporting lines: one is to global and the other one is in Japan. Both show significantly different levels of interest in D&I related issues.

For example, I felt quite hesitant to come out as having a disability to my Japanese colleagues but not to my global colleagues. Here in the Japan office only very few people that are close to me know about this. Certainly, no one outside of my team.

It’s not just me. When discussing about any D&I issues, my global colleagues will openly talk about their own experiences such as their disabilities, sexual orientation or identity. However, my Japanese colleagues rarely open up like this. I think that companies overseas have made much more progress when it comes to providing safe spaces for people to talk about their disabilities.

I do not feel comfortable speaking so openly in Japan because I believe there would be negative consequences. Although I strongly believe that speaking out would increase performance. There’s research that shows this: when LGBTQ+ people had the opportunity to come out at work, their productivity went up by 15%. It may be reasonable to assume that would be the same for people with disabilities.

Q: Do you have an example of a D&I initiative your company introduced that made you feel more comfortable working there?

My current company has been investing in D&I initiatives for a while now on the global level. Lately, they also established a dedicated team in Japan which gives me hope that D&I awareness is spreading little by little here as well.

There are so called PODs (Power of Difference) who organize events once a quarter, tackling topics such as LGBTQ+, women or people with disabilities. All employees are invited to participate. The company covers the expense for those events.

I myself am one of the founding members of the D&I team. Once a month, we hold workshops and seminars where we educate on the topic. Thanks to those initiatives, I finally feel that I have a place in this company and that there’s meaning in me being a part of it.

Q: There are a lot of companies that complain about having difficulties retaining people with disabilities. Would you have examples for how companies have successfully overcome this issue?

It depends on the disability, but one important point is creating a safe space for people by making them feel heard. For example, managers can ask their reports in one-on-one meetings how they feel, what they need and if they can provide any support. It’s not about making people with disabilities “stick” but rather engaging with them on an individual level, working towards mutual understanding and building trusted relationships. Treating people with respect and listening to them will motivate them to support the company in return.

Q: How would you try to help somebody understand what D&I is about who is maybe not yet on board with it?

First of all, it’s important to understand the reasons why this person is not supportive of D&I. It’s easier to change people’s minds when you know what their motivations are. For example, if that person thinks that it’s not their problem you can try to show them how the issues effects them and what they can do about it. That’s why understanding the reasoning behind a person’s attitude is so important.

Q: What societal change would you like to see that could help create workplaces that are more meaningful and accessible for people with disabilities?

I believe that the key for a more open and comfortable work environment for all would be trying to see everyone as individuals and to understand each other better, regardless of title (manager vs subordinate) or ability. This kind of mutual understanding and acceptance is what changes a society.

Summary

We would like to thank the interviewees Minami-san and M.N.-san who took time out of their busy schedule to answer our questions. When talking to both, two concepts stood out: “individuality” and “reciprocal listening”. While they might seem trivial at first glance, both are crucial for a more diverse and inclusive society.

It is safe to say that the times of life-long employment and “workplace homogeneity” of the bubble era in Japan are over. Many organizations have become more diverse than ever before. That’s why companies who keep following their traditional approach of “group management” will, sooner than later, collide with the expectations of individual employees. In those cases, the best solution is departing from managing people as part of a group and instead shifting to putting more focus on respecting and understanding the individual.

One effective tool is to encourage managers to build stronger, more human relationships with their subordinates in regular one-on-one meetings. Of course, making big investments is one way to achieve greater D&I. However, smaller initiatives such as improving the quality of relationships and conversations between managers and direct reports, team building, strengthening the respect for individuality and diversity as well as creating safe spaces for all employees are the key to development of more diverse and inclusive organizations.

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