Japan’s ‘womenomics’ pioneer says mindsets must change

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Three million women joined Japan’s workforce in the past decade, and it’s at least partly thanks to top executive Kathy Matsui, who coined the “womenomics” catchphrase that inspired government policy

Three million women joined Japan’s workforce in the past decade, and it’s at least partly thanks to top executive Kathy Matsui, who coined the “womenomics” catchphrase that inspired government policy.

But with many women holding precarious part-time jobs, often in sectors hit hard by Covid-19, she says the world’s third largest economy must try harder to tap underused talent.

“We have a very low ratio of female entrepreneurs in this country,” Matsui, the former vice-president of US investment bank Goldman Sachs in Japan, told AFP.

Matsui, 57, is one of the few women at the top of Japan’s male-dominated business world, as co-director of a firm founded last year that invests in ethically minded young companies.

To her surprise, the ideas were adopted by former prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2012 as part of his signature plan to revive the ailing Japanese economy.

But even now, only 15 percent of managers at Japanese companies are women, compared to around 40 percent in the United States.

“Trying to change the mindset and behaviour of very established organisations… is not impossible, but it just takes a long time,” unlike start-ups which can be more flexible, Matsui said.

And like in other countries, the Covid crisis has not helped.

In Japan, many women juggle looking after children or elderly relatives while working part-time, often in the Covid-hit service industries, Matsui said.

Evaluations should be “much more focused on output and performance, as opposed to the time factor”, and managers should undergo training to tackle prejudices.

And it’s urgent — as Japan’s rapidly ageing population causes its workforce to shrink, “the fastest thing you can do is try to tap into the talent that is staring you in the face.”

Matsui grew up in California as the daughter of Japanese immigrants who ran a flower-growing business, which taught her the “value of work”.

Her “womenomics” argument struck a chord with ministers because it offered a new perspective on the benefits of equality, she believes.

But she remains committed to her original principles of crunching data and finding solutions, rather than just talking about the problems faced by women in the workforce.

Now, as co-director of the venture capital company MPower Partners, which invests in businesses that prioritise environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), Matsui wants to grow Japan’s relatively small start-up scene.

But firms seeking investment should beware of resorting to superficial tactics like so-called greenwashing: “We’re not so interested in companies just trying to tick the box.”

Originally published as Japan’s ‘womenomics’ pioneer says mindsets must change


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