Lean In Tokyo’s Rena Suzuki on Japanese women in leadership
Female empowerment has become a major topic of discussion globally in recent years, and Japan is no exception. Despite the longstanding tradition of male dominance in Japanese culture, both men and women are now picking up on the importance of this issue. More than ever, a dialogue has opened up across Japan, and one can see tangible changes occurring. However, young women that we encounter through various projects seem to have a different take on the issue. In order to better understand this mismatch, we met with the Co-founder of Lean In Tokyo, Rena Suzuki.
Lean In Tokyo is a global community based on the philosophies outlined in the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg. Its mission is to build a society where all women can pursue their ambitions.
How are female leaders portrayed in Japan today?
For many people, especially young women, a “successful woman” means a perfect woman who excels at work and at home – someone in a managerial position, who also fulfils the roles of loving wife and mother of three (adorable) children. However, when you meet these women in real life, they all say how impossible it is to “have it all.” They are juggling their lives by outsourcing and delegating the work.
A woman who is portrayed as a successful business leader in the media is, in reality, also just another woman. Of course she has charm, but she also has imperfections just like everyone else. Nobody is perfect, and I hope people start looking at that side of the story instead of just her career and accomplishments.
What barriers exist to realising female empowerment?
One thing is what we call “unconscious bias.” It is a filter that influences one’s perception of others when making important decisions that are supposed to be based in facts and fairness. For example, many Western companies hide job candidates’ name and gender on resumes in the recruiting process; in Japan, face pictures and names are a requirement on professional CVs. Gender indeed comes into play in many situations, and carries significant weight in areas like recruitment and promotion. This is true for both males and females – it needs to be considered at an individual level.
Another barrier is the power of media, though it can also be leveraged to promote female empowerment. If you take a look at any fashion magazine today, you will realise that all the recommended fashion items or behavioural advice is centred on the male perspective. “How to appear and act cute to be attractive to guys” is often the main message. Media helps to construct social norms, so advertisements, TV programming and printed articles are all influential in the national discourse. I hope more brands acknowledge this and use their power to encourage and support women.
What role do brands have in female empowerment?
Individual choices and ways of thinking are very important when it comes to making changes at the societal level. This is why I am working to promote ideas from Lean In – what each person thinks and does has an impact. It might be easier to implement system or policy within corporations, but that won’t change the greater picture. In order to create a society where both men and women can have confidence in their lives, we all have to change our own personal perspectives.
This might sound contradictory, but I believe men are going to play an important role in this social change, especially in a country like Japan. Men hold more than 80 per cent of leadership positions in Japan. We need to listen to what they think, and work together to promote female empowerment.
Can you tell us more about your experience playing an active role in this cultural change?
I tell people that I am a feminist. This might sound negative for many people, but when you look at the actual definition, feminism is “the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” When I spoke at an event last month and asked the audience if they were feminists, only a few people raised their hands. But when I asked them if they supported gender equality, almost all the audience put their hands up. I don’t think being a feminist is a negative thing at all.
Through Lean In activities, I want to create an environment where women can say what they want and do what they want without any hesitation. I hope this will empower and also encourage more and more Japanese women, and eventually change society as a whole.
- Article by Naoko Okada