David Blecken
Mar 8, 2019

How working mothers can win in Japanese advertising

And how the industry can put the odds in their favour.

Long commutes in Tokyo add to the challenge of balancing career and family. Photo: Shutterstock
Long commutes in Tokyo add to the challenge of balancing career and family. Photo: Shutterstock

Despite a show of effort by the government, senior female professionals remain scarce in Japan. The World Economic Forum in December ranked Japan the lowest of the G7 countries in terms of gender equality; in a recent independent study, McKinsey scored the country “extremely high” for inequality in leadership positions; and while the authorities have set a target of women occupying 30% of all managerial positions by next year, the figure is still languishing at 13%.

“The government has probably given up on this target,” says Jun Matsumoto, planning director at McCann Erickson Japan, which recently conducted a study into attitudes to gender equality in the country.

There is a lack of reliable data for female leadership in advertising, but women who work in the sector are quick to cite an imbalance in the ratio of female to male leaders. In that respect, Japan is far from unique. In the field of ad tech globally, for example, just 2.9% of CEOs are women, according to Annalect.

It’s an uninspiring picture, brought on partly by deep-rooted, often unconscious gender bias at the top and partly by the fact that it’s difficult to have a family and have a career. But things don’t have to stay this way. The upcoming launch in April of the 30% Club, which aims to promote gender balance at senior management and board level, suggests there is real appetite for change. There are also signs that advertising companies are starting to try to solve the issue, and examples of individuals who have managed to pursue their careers without letting it undermine family life.

These stories bear looking at as a way forward. But first, people must acknowledge the challenges that working mothers face. Individuals Campaign spoke to highlighted the following: Japan’s lack of childcare facilities—arguably the biggest challenge facing any working parent, which the government has done little to solve; continued pressure to put in long hours, or the challenge of cramming a high volume of work into fewer hours; no backup when a child falls ill; lack of flexibility or remote working options; and a general lack of opportunities for working mothers to advance without making sacrifices.

Making it work

Some have found advertising an accommodating industry. Yukiko Ochiai, president and chief executive of Grey Group Japan, had an intense but rewarding job at Fuji Television for seven years before she decided to stop working to have children. She found she missed having a career and decided to go into advertising, but was insistent about maintaining a balance between family and work from the beginning.

Yukiko Ochiai. Photo: Grey Group

That isn’t to say it was easy. “You need tons of family support in Japan to be a successful working mother,” she says. “Husband, mother, in-laws, sisters and brothers all helped me to get to where I am. So you need to take time and make an effort to build understanding so all concerned know how important your work is to you.”

Ochiai says the best advice she received from her boss when becoming a working mother was “never to apologise to your child for working hard”. Instead, “take the time to explain the exciting things that you are doing at work and the great achievements.”

Apart from that, she says it helps to live within walking distance of the office and her son’s school. “Having this triangle can be very helpful towards achieving a good work-life balance and is an effective way to cut the stress of commuting down,” she says. She also makes her schedule, including personal appointments, available to everyone “so everyone is aware of my priorities and work meetings are efficiently managed.”

Ochiai shares her experience with young women in the office to convey that it is possible (a frequently-cited problem is a lack of female leadership role models).

“Having said that, it was my personal decision to keep working. It may not be what everyone chooses and that is absolutely great too. Having the choice is what is key,” she says.

Returning to work after a hiatus is not always straightforward, but is possible. Naoko Yoshii, marketing manager at Integral Ad Science, used to work at Microsoft, was laid off when six months pregnant, and struggled to regain full-time work after taking time out of the “rat race”. Things finally changed when her present employer offered an arrangement with flexible hours. “I wish similar openings could be made available to working mothers on a larger scale in the industry,” she says.

Mai Ohki, who has two children and works at production company Omnibus, says looking for nurseries early on in her pregnancy helped ensure she was able to continue working later—although finding the right nursery is often a matter of luck. She says involving her husband in the process was a big help as it enabled her to “organise my feelings and thoughts”.

Sharing child care with her husband and parents also enabled Noriko Takahashi, who has two children and is director of trading at an ad tech company, to continue her career. But there has also been a degree of personal upheaval: she moved in order to be close to a nursery. She is able to return home by 6pm every day and says her company, Heartlass, is supportive of working mothers, offering perks such as Taskaji, a housekeeping service; Fast Doctor, a home medical care service; and Officepass, a network of shared office spaces enabling remote work. This employee-friendly approach combined with her own efforts to streamline her life has helped cut inefficiency and maximise family time.

Company efforts

Proactive measures by advertising companies to help working mothers are still the exception rather than the rule. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to say our industry is doing very well” in supporting them, Yoshii says, but notes that companies are starting to do more to stop them from “dropping off”.

In one example, Hakuhodo last year set up a nursery, Hanasakasu, alongside the TV station TBS, to cater to employees with children. Under national law, companies are obliged to offer staff the option of reduced hours for reduced pay. But companies like Dentsu also offer their own schemes to modify working hours for staff with young children. In theory, this means that staff should be able to continue to work full-time, but according to their own schedules rather than a fixed company one.

The Hanasakasu Nursery School. A shortage of day care is a perpetual problem. Photo: Hakuhodo Kettle

Ochiai says Grey has implemented “more than 30 new measures” over the past two years to promote gender equality, including policies enabling working from home, flexi-hours and company-wide days off, especially around family festival seasons. She says these efforts are “not perfect” but have resulted in a relatively high ratio of working mothers in the office and working fathers with “a mindset of supporting their wives with child care”.

Asked which companies she thinks are doing a good job, Yoshii notes that DAC has operated a group-wide project to support diversity and female empowerment since 2011. But she thinks advertising can learn a lot from the broader tech industry. She highlights companies such as Cybozu, a software developer, for its “super flexible” working style; Mercari for its support system for working mothers, which includes 100% paid maternity leave and support for private nursery fees; and Yahoo Japan, which allows parents to shorten their working day to five hours until their child graduates from elementary school, as well as a flexi-time system for childcare and leave to care for sick children, among numerous other initiatives.

As well as offering immediate support, some companies are working to raise awareness of the challenges working mothers face. Recruit operates a boot camp that sends employees into families with young children to gain first-hand experience.

What the advertising sector needs to do

Advertising talks a good game when it comes to technology, but it often does a poor job of applying it to its own processes. Yoshii thinks widespread adoption of AI would help reduce time-consuming filing and paperwork. (Dentsu has seen some success in this area since implementing a system in the wake of its overwork scandal.) Miki Suemasa, sales director at Adara and a mother of two, wants companies to also offer online training sessions during maternity leave. This would enable longer time off without the fear of falling behind, she says.

A certain amount of investment in technology is obviously required to enable remote working. It’s more straightforward than many companies imagine, but a hurdle in Japan is extreme concerns around security that mean more traditional companies prevent staff from using the cloud or even email outside the office. Before addressing that though, Ohki points out that the industry needs to stop evaluating people in terms of how many hours they put in.

Working women: a nationwide challenge

  • Total female employment in Japan is close to 73%, but only 13% occupy leadership positions
  • 53% of Japanese mothers were part of the workforce in 2016, up from 38% in 2011.
  • Men are entitled to over 30 weeks of fully paid paternity leave in Japan, the highest amount in the world
  • By 2020 the government aims to have 13% of fathers take paternity leave. Currently 2.6% do
  • In April 2017, more than 26,000 children were on the national waiting list for childcare

Source: McKinsey Global Institute, April 2018

“For our industry to nurture female CEOs and senior management, we need to aggressively rebuild our business model to one that doesn’t rely on crazy hours and schedules,” agrees Ochiai. Focusing on deliverables instead, while enabling everyone (not just working mothers) to work from home as needed removes any feeling of guilt, Yoshii says.

Empathy is as valuable as technology. Yoshii says it helps that many of her colleagues also have young children, which creates an understanding and supportive environment. Unrelenting client demands remain a challenge, but Ochiai says Grey’s clients have been unexpectedly supportive of a move towards a more flexible way of working.

“I had thought there may be a push-back, but it was the opposite,” she says. “Some clients have even offered to review the progress together, and some have also developed specific action plans to help us achieve our goals.”

Individuals can also take steps to improve things for themselves. Yoshii advises connecting with other working mothers, learning from them and experimenting. But a change in mindset might also help, at both an individual level and ideally in reshaping the industry into something more in tune with modern life. Ochiai says:

“My advice to women advertising professionals is not to get too fixated with the general male-oriented career patterns and be more flexible with a long-term vision of where you want to go. It is OK to slow down to focus on your family, and it is OK to even take some time off if necessary. Don’t compare yourself with men of the same age. Instead find your own career path that best suits your needs and lifestyle.”

She also sees trying to conform to ideals as counterproductive. “It is OK to be strong and have an opinion,” she says. “The old-fashioned perception in Japan that successful businesswomen are not feminine enough or can’t have a successful personal life is just not correct. Femininity comes in different forms, and women should free themselves of expectations and evolve themselves towards a new type of femininity that suits their own personal needs.”

Campaign's Women Leading Change

We'll be discussing gender equality and attitudes towards women in media and marketing at our annual Women Leading Change conference in Singapore on 4 June, 2019.

Register your interest and find out more about entering our Women Leading Change Awards (early bird entry deadline: 8 March; hard entry deadline: 8 April) at www.womenleadingchange.asia.

Campaign Japan

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