“Congratulations on your marriage! Fantastic!... By the way… You aren’t planning on becoming pregnant any time soon, are you?”
This response was typical of the reactions from male and female Japanese colleagues at all levels of my workplace last year when I announced my new marital status. I was both surprised and shocked by this reaction – and have been hypothesising that it represents one of the reasons for serious gender inequality in this country. I’m a behavioral scientist and social epidemiologist whose work aims to improve people’s health, and I am writing through this lens.
Since my 20s, I have lived in the United States on and off for more than 12 years, and with a job requiring a lot of travel between Tokyo and the East Coast US, I have found that there are big differences between these countries. In the U.S., office responses to my marriage were purely congratulatory. There people, especially at work, tend not to ask personal questions without being prompted by one’s own initiative in sharing stories.
Some of you may think that in writing this article I am not happy with my work – this is not the case. During more than a decade at the company, I have enjoyed my work, and my time with colleagues and clients. In particular, I like the people around me; I do know that none of them asked their personal questions with malice. However, therein lies the problem. Their attitudes are deeply ingrained in the culture, and people think that there is no problem making such remarks.
Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act has been in place since 1985. Maternity and childcare leave are available. And the law prohibits unfair treatment to women on the basis of pregnancy or child raising. My own company has deployed a range of gender equality programs around the globe. I am grateful to my female predecessors who pushed for these rights. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go in order to achieve gender equality at my workplace here in Japan.
Based on my work experiences in the US, I do not think that companies there provide a perfect example. However, we in Japan still have a lot to learn from them. For example, in the United States I have encountered very welcoming office environments for women raising children. Half of my team members were female. Only rarely did anyone work late into the night; we were mostly out of the building by 6 pm, and on Fridays the majority left around 5 pm. Even supervisors would be willing to work at home on Fridays and during snow days, making it easier for us to do so too. Getting approval to work from home could be as simple as emailing the supervisor ahead of time. We hardly ever needed to deal with business emails on days off. There were no issues with showing up to the office in the afternoon if one had to work late the previous day, such as to teleconference with different time zones overseas. The impression I got in the United States is that everything is based on trusting people to deliver their agreed outcomes by the due date. If someone could not fulfill them on time they might need to leave as a consequence, but there was a trust-based work environment.
As compared to Japan, in the United States individuals enjoy much greater decision-making autonomy, to work out how to reach their goals. In fact, numerous studies show that decision-making autonomy at the workplace affects workers’ stress levels and overall health. I have been thinking, why there is a different work environment in Japan? Why is it that even in the same company, employees can be treated so differently? These are only two of a seemingly endless number of questions that come to mind.
In Japan, one of the keys to promoting gender equality is the use of social norms. These are informal rules and/or standards which govern an environment. A number of studies show the power of social norms – people’s behaviors are both consciously and unconsciously based on them. Japanese tend to give great consideration to what other people think—thus, the influence of social norms can be stronger than in other cultures.
From a behavioral science perspective, the above-mentioned office conversation is impactful enough to affect employees’ actions and feelings, such as choices about family planning, as well as a sense of loyalty to the company. This time the message I received was especially strong, since it was given multiple times, and from different people. In this case, women think that there is a rule to follow—“It’s nice you got married. But make sure your family planning doesn’t inconvenience others.” There is a risk that Japanese women would take this to heart, as they care deeply about what other people think. As a manager, I understand that an employee’s decision to start a family affects work, such as how to make up for the person’s absence. However, this is why we work as a team within a company – an organisation should be able to ensure that there are sufficient human resources to cover personnel shortfalls.
When I shared my experience with other women in my industry, they told me similar stories. As a result, despite rock-solid institutional and legal protections, many women can conclude that they are better off changing their current positions, or stopping work entirely because they don’t want to be a burden to the company or their colleagues.
Alarmingly, Japan dropped from 111th in 2016 to 114th among 144 countries benchmarked in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report in 2017. While nearly half of employees in Japan’s financial services sector are women, the rate is only a quarter in advertising. In its December 2016 report, the Japan Advertising Agencies Association admitted that just 0.2% of advertising firm executives are women. While it is difficult to draw conclusions with this limited data, it is very clear that something is wrong.
What should Japan do about all of this? It needs to change social norms and create positive work environments which ensure that programs to support gender equality perform as intended. To that end, society must embrace a work-life balance. We have to showcase more women who successfully balance their professional and family commitments. Companies should do more to support women’s life stages. And to be fair, this is not just an issue for females. Men also need encouragement and understanding for their efforts to support their wives and children or care for elderly family members, which is a particularly crucial task in a rapidly aging nation. Workplaces must convey the right messages, and to create new norms so people can comfortably and happily take advantage of the rights and programs that are ostensibly already available to them, such as shorter working hours, work at home, and flextime. These days, I assume that many companies already have family-friendly work guidelines and programs. However, their use is sometimes another matter. These rules need to be utilised without employees’ feeling constrained or pressured.
In addition, for the Japanese advertising industry, I suggest a study of workplace covering all employees. We also need to learn from countries that have done more to advance the interests of women in the workplace. We should understand why gaps between men and women still largely remain at various levels, despite the existence of programs designed to foster equality.
One small personal effort I make to change social norms is to try to challenge people, even a little, when they make statements that can be essentially counted as sexist, by telling them that the statement comment is unfair. I cannot always do this, and sometimes say nothing, for the sake of the relationship with that colleague (in these cases, the fact that I accepted the norm is still quite frustrating to me). However, I keep trying to begin to change people around me.
Time spent working is just one part of our lives. Thus, we should all endeavor to create a new social norm which supports a work environment where women are not made to feel bad or sorry about major life events.
(Translated from Japanese by Mark Darbyshire, and edited by Hana Hayashi)
Dr Hana Hayashi is associate director and research director at McCann Global Health, McCann Health Japan.