How do you keep pace with the changing contours of allyship?
KM: It takes listening to people who are facing challenges on both ends — allies and those in underrepresented groups — plus initiating conversations, keeping up the drumbeat of your own intention. If your intentions are clear, you begin building a network of people who may select you as the person who pushes the DEI initiative.
We continue to focus on learning and awareness building. Just because we don’t speak about female empowerment in a particular month doesn't mean it is not being practised. We need to ensure we are being proactive as leaders and as organisations.
WS: It helps that we work with brands who want to ensure their communication is relevant. Gender biases and allyship with underrepresented audiences are topics that brands take very seriously. In helping brands understand the pulse of the market, we help ourselves. I'm not exposed to only my echo chamber on allyship and equality but can keep pace with what's being discussed in Japan and globally.
AY: Female leaders play a big role in this by being mentors. Depending on the culture of the organisation, younger talented women sometimes feel they shouldn't stick out or have upwards mobility. But female leaders can lead by example and listen. They can conduct ongoing checks, to ensure their younger colleagues are heard and have opportunities.
According to the World Economic Forum's most recent Gender Gap Index study, Japan was among the lowest-ranking nations when it comes to economic participation and opportunity in the East Asian Pacific region. What role can male allyship play in bringing these numbers up?
WS: It’s important to have male allies who challenge deep-seated practices embedded in culture. And on the flip side, help by not supporting habits that might either exclude female colleagues or put them in uncomfortable situations.
AY: For companies, especially Japanese firms to grow and thrive, they need to truly believe that women are the future and can benefit the company. Respecting their skills and giving opportunities to women will bring better results and ultimately contribute to the economy.
HH: The key is to lead by example. I'm grateful that I could have six months of parental leave, when we had our second child years ago. My wife could return to work to pursue her career in a Japanese company.
KM: I couldn't agree more as somebody who also took paternity leave for the birth of both of my sons. It is our job as global citizens living in Japan, working at companies that embody global standards.
Apart from the data that you shared, a statistic that I quote quite often is that Japan had a goal of increasing the female leadership count to 30% by 2020. But unfortunately, we had to extend that by a decade. This is embarrassing, and we should not hold back from saying so. We need to feel the urgency to make this happen.
We need to deconstruct the problem and identify specific barriers to design actionable solutions, such as devising specific talent development programmes in areas not optimised for women.
There are also environmental factors at play at the market, government, industry, company, and family levels. Every decision either encourages or deters females from pursuing career options. Gender roles unfortunately still exist in Japan. Breaking that cycle requires effort from all angles.
Is there a significant difference in the conversation around male allyship at multinational companies based in Japan compared to local firms?
HH: Agencies like us with team members all over the world assume everyone has their own perspective. It's always key to over-communicate with each other. It's the only way to understand each other and build trust. Even traditional Japanese companies now have diverse talent with different mindsets. I encourage everyone to not assume we live in a high-context culture.
AY: I've been working in multinational companies throughout my career and have been quite lucky to be in an open culture with direct influence from the Western world. The people I dealt with are mostly very internationalised and more open about gender equality and fairness. A lot of friends who work in Japanese companies are still struggling. That’s because Japanese companies have a long history and their own culture, which is very difficult to change. It's important that the management leads by example, but also have this encoded in policies as well. Leadership should show them the benefits of the change and why it should happen.
KM: We don’t have a choice anymore. We are in a new phase of our economy where domestic demand alone will not deliver growth. Not just revenue growth in terms of consumers, but also due to declining birth rates and population. The talent pool that we can tap into as a business is shrinking.
It makes sense to look at very talented people who want to make an impact. They demand higher standards than the market norm in all aspects of the job, including DEI. We need to be able to manage at a global standard to be able to do that. We are taking baby steps to get there as a country.
This is not to be treated just as a HR, PR, or marketing responsibility. The business leaders need to be talking about it also as a business-critical challenge for survival. It’s time to take it seriously — more than this market has ever done before, or it's going to impact our ability to stay relevant as a business.
What are some of the best examples of male allyship from within your organisation?
AY: EssenceMediacom is unique and an example of an ideal state of male allyship and gender equality. That’s demonstrated by the leadership including Kota who besides leading the company, has his own policies on ending a day, because of his responsibility towards his children.
Several young women in the company have been attracted to EssenceMediacom because of the culture and the open-minded leadership. I've seen women have an equal opportunity and get recognised if they do well. That's a culture that I hope will spread to others.
WS: GroupM has a semi-flexi hours arrangement. We have protected work time from 10 to 3 in which we work with team members and get consistency and certainty. But before and beyond that, we have the flexibility on planning our day. It has been helpful — not just for women, but fathers among the teams. It helps juggle taking kids to school or getting dinner ready.
The trust works both ways. Even teams who take some time off work, deliver. That value exchange has been very important and beneficial.
HH: I had a chance to take an extended break for parental leave. My direct report and all team members were very supportive in making that happen. It literally changed my life. It makes me committed to support team members in a similar situation.
Parental leave while a great step in the right direction, doesn't account for the full-time nature of parenting. Can allyship create a flexible environment where employees have adequate work-life balance to cater to either families or other interests?
KM: It depends on the phase of parenting — my children are still young. At times there is no balance. The children are crying, but there’s an urgent call I must attend to.
It goes both ways: when I have work that I cannot finish, having brought my day to an end at 6:00 pm or 6:30 pm to pick up my kids, there are often times when I must be on my laptop later in the night and work through emails, presentations, etc.
But that is not to say that I expect people to reply when I send these emails. I am simply choosing to work on them late because that is my own work-life balance. It should not apply to all, and they should be entitled to deliver their output within their balance.
WS: I can't relate to parenting but it’s about respecting work-life balance. It's okay to have a life outside work. It should be perfectly fine to end a call because you are taking a class or heading out to the gym. The company acknowledging that you are not just here to work creates happier, more productive team members.
AY: I've been struggling to balance childcare and trying to deliver maximum at work. The COVID situation has helped a lot of people by installing flexible ways of working. But culturally, organisations should talk about how it's okay to work flexibly. The focus should be on the output, rather than the time you make it to office.
Parenting is hard — not just physically but mentally. You want to give your children 100% but if you are constantly thinking about work, you are not really there for them, and that’s damaging. Flexible ways of working are a key aspect of allyship.
While public endorsements for equality are admirable, especially in markets where it isn't the norm, without consistency they sometimes ring hollow. What are some of the quieter ways that men can ensure that they're being allies?
KM: I am proud to be part of the conversation as a male ally, but I’m also aware that anyone is susceptible to an unconscious bias. With every good intention, it may still show up.
One example of how to combat this is that I have a dashboard with my HR partner which tracks a lot of key metrics including pay and gender ratio. Whenever I make organisational decisions, I want to ensure there are neutral data points to support my reasoning. That's a quiet way in which I recommend leaders and organisations pursue gender equality.
WS: Very often we tend to reward hardworking and proactive people with more work! There is a lot of unofficial work and responsibilities within an organisation. One of the quieter ways is to be a little bit more aware of this, ensuring it does not default to certain team members who just happen to be women or the youngest person.
HH: I'd like to encourage our team members to keep reminding themselves that everyone has their professional and personal life, and to be as mindful of that distinction as they are in their own lives.
Have you ever had occasion to call out harmful behaviour and what has the reaction been? How do you do this without making the person defensive?
HH: We should not accept harmful behaviour in general. But in a work environment, people come from different backgrounds. Someone may believe a statement is harmful while others may deem it acceptable. I encourage team members to speak up, be respectful of differences, and help others understand cultural differences so they can proactively reinforce positive behaviours we want to support at AKQA.
AY: Calling out harmful behaviour is very difficult. Some men and even women are likely to be a bit defensive. Some people are just not aware and very behind the curve. If I observe unacceptable behaviour, I won’t call it out before everyone, but more as a side or personal chat. Maybe not immediately but later, making them aware with examples and delivering the message, at a personal level. That may work especially in a culture like Japan, so that she or he won't look bad before other people.
WS: Sometimes it's about helping an individual recognise harmful behaviour. Or running it through a mediator or the HR department just to make sure that it gets a fair hearing. There are always two sides to a story, especially when there are so many cultures. It is important to give it attention, but so is picking a right time, place, and occasion.
Not everything needs to be escalated. Maybe it would be best to rely on EQ and pick a time to tell someone that what they said didn’t have the intended effect. It's all part of coaching as well. If you come from a perspective with feedback on communication that respects and recognises cultural differences, that really helps.
KM: As a leader, I’m careful about respecting personal choices and circumstances. There are cases where great candidates interview for a job but are expecting children, and so are likely to take paternity or maternity leave. In Japan, many companies still ask for that information and base their hiring decisions on it.
But the question ought to be ‘is this the right person for the job?’ instead of ‘will this person be away because of child birth?’ If the answer to the first question is yes, you should bring them on board. You need to instil this principle into the organisation’s hiring process.
Where are you today as a global agency based in Japan?
WS: We keep a close watch on the ratio of employees when it comes to gender and age distribution and the cultural ratio as well. I strive to have a good balance. We are a Japan-based agency but have a good mix of voices and take inspiration from this diversity.
KM: In our leadership team that consists of directors and above, we are very proud at being way above the market in terms of gender balance.
However, we should not be complacent. There's room to improve and balances keep evolving. People come and go — we need to keep a close watch. As EssenceMediacom officially launches in 2023, there are plenty of conversations that will be had on this.