“How can I have more women in my management team? There are thirty-five team members and all of them are men”.

My answer to this Japanese manager during my tour in the land of the Rising Sun to talk about MAAM. A business trip at prestigious universities and big companies enthusiastic of the revolutionary ideas behind our program. Despite the cultural distance, I discovered that Japanese women are very similar to us: natural allies in the effort to work increasingly necessary change. A birth rate is at an all-time low, a very low percentage of women who don’t go back to work after maternity leave and a culture, even more clearly traditionalist and outdated. It’s considered a national emergency, but it could be a good moment to change the rules and perspectives about the world of work.
I opened a window on a new world, that speaks the same language of emotions because life is the common denominator of all of everyone.

There are fifteen women (and one man) in the room: all managers of big companies. The theme of the workshop is stereotypes. I say, “Raise your hand if you have power“. They look at each other, smiling, embarrassed, and not one single hand goes up. It’s the first time this has happened in all the years I’ve been asking this question, always in different classrooms. I’m in Japan and, for the first time, I understand that, despite the numerical similarities in terms of employment and presence – or should I say “absence” – in economic and political decision-making positions, Japanese women are even worse off than their Italian counterparts.

So I try to see if the “empowerment” mechanism that I have experienced so many times with other women in Italy and Europe works here in Tokyo too. Then I say: “Raise your hand if you have responsibilities“. They all raise it up and smile again. This time, however, it’s a liberating smile: they’ve already understood. I don’t need to say it, but I say it anyway: “You can’t have areas of responsibility if you don’t have power in those same areas”.

Yet this is typical of women: they don’t link power and responsibility, and they think they have the second but not the first. While the exact opposite is quite typical of the prevailing power model: many of those in power fail to link that power to responsibility.

Lastly, I ask them to raise their hands again if they think they have power, and this time every time goes up. So it works in Japan too, I could almost say that it’s a universal principle. As a result, women accept an idea of power more easily if it is clearly linked to the concept of responsibility. Really, I’m learning a lot about Japanese women during this trip, which started just three days ago but is bringing me together with companies, students and the media.

Meanwhile, now I know that they’re very similar to us. Natural allies in the effort to work increasingly necessary change. In Japan, 60% of women don’t go back to work after maternity leave and the birth rate is at an all-time low. It’s considered a national emergency: the definition is explosive, the measures put in place by the Government are almost invisible. As often happens, companies react faster: the mechanisms of the market don’t forgive those who lag behind and it’s now quite clear that not having women in the decision-making mix is tantamount to losing the competitive edge. Especially because we are talking about the only case in the world of a majority which is treated as a minority.

I’ve also realised that the Japanese are probably angrier than us. Because they are ultimately locked into an even older culture, even more clearly traditionalist and outdated, which makes it hard even to enjoy motherhood in addition to working. My fifteen “students’” eyes were shining at the end of the workshop. Perhaps it’s easier to accept that the formulas for activating change come from far away, or perhaps it’s actually necessary for it to be this way.
Shortly after the workshop I was talking to a second-generation Japanese businessman who had come specifically to meet me and ask me this question: “How can I have more women in my management team? There are thirty-five team members and all of them are men”.

I gave him the answer that I’m never brave enough to give when I’m “at home” replied to him as I never dare to do “at home”: “If you really want the table to be surrounded by women too, you have to change everyone’s habits. Yours first. If you don’t want women who are the same as men, you’ll have to be ready for different requests, different incentives to encourage them to work with you. A nice car, for example, might not work. Women prefer to have the benefit of time, of flexibility. Women are different (as young people are too!) and they’ll shake everything up: are you sure that’s what you want?”

He listened carefully. His father is head of the company and he’s going to be retiring in two or three years. He wants to make a lot of changes and women can be his best allies. Possibly the distance between Italy and Japan (an eight-hour time difference and a twelve-hour flight) allowed him to ask bolder questions. In addition, he allowed me to give braver answers than either of us would have accepted from our own countrymen. In short, it’s the same with the women I meet: less mistrust than we often find among Italians, a more immediate desire for alliances. Perhaps precisely because we are so different in appearance yet so similar in substance.

Author: Riccarda Zezza, post written for Alley Oop