In a certain way, FURUYA Satomi muses, she was lucky her father’s business went bankrupt.
Now an ambitious young entrepreneur, Furuya grew up in a deeply conservative household. Her father owned a print shop in downtown Tokyo and provided for the family, while her mother took charge of household duties. “My dad always made comments, like, ‘Because you are a woman, you don’t need to study hard. You should acquire female-oriented skills like cooking.’ And my mom was very proud of being a full-time housewife,” Furuya said. “I didn’t question that because all my friends, my family, we all shared the same values.”
But things changed when she was 14. Her father’s shop fell into dire financial straits, and her mother began supporting the family through a graphic design business. After a while, Furuya’s father took on more of the cooking and cleaning responsibilities—something he’d never done before. Seeing her parents share these roles had a profound impact.
“I learned a lot from that time,” she said. “From a young age, girls internalize an unspoken societal pressure that they just have to be attractive enough to find a rich guy. That’s the [measure of] success of a woman’s life. However, if you believe in that, you give up the chance to be economically independent.”
Furuya knew she wanted more for herself—and for other women who hope to prove themselves in Japan’s male-dominated work culture. This ethos sparked the idea for her startup, Clarity K.K. The company, which Furuya launched in 2018, aggregates key data from nearly 20,000 private firms into a single platform—information such as HR policies and benefits—to help women make informed decisions on where best to take their talents.
Furuya and her startup are part of a growing movement dedicated to women’s empowerment in the workplace. Yet the movement is notable not only for its mission, but also its tactics. Like Furuya, entrepreneurs, advocates and executives all over Japan are using innovation to help realize the goal of employment inclusion. Nowadays, mentor-matching apps help women connect with others who can advance their careers. Digital networking platforms aid female job seekers looking for leads. Collectively, these advancements are providing women with novel tools to help overcome the enduring barriers to meaningful employment.
Closing the gender gap
SASAKI Kaori can say with some confidence that she was the first Japanese woman to use the internet to advance the cause of workplace diversity. It was in the mid-90s, still the infancy of the online communication network, when Sasaki launched Japan’s first networking website for working women.
“Then, working women were just as ambitious as they are now, but they couldn’t aspire to climbing the corporate ladder, because there wasn’t a glass ceiling—it was solid rock,” said Sasaki.
The founder of ewoman Inc., a diversity consulting company, and the International Conference for Women in Business, a prominent inclusion conference, Sasaki is a leading advocate for employment equality. According to her, there are many reasons for traditional gender barriers. Like in countries all over the world, women are expected to be caretakers of children and elderly family members. Yet Japan’s unique employment customs also play a role, she argues. Promotions, for example, have typically been based on time served rather than on merit, putting women who leave to have children at a disadvantage. These factors have long contributed to a gender gap in the workplace. In 2013, less than 50% of Japanese women participated in the labor force—a full 20 percentage points lower than the rate for men.
Recently, however, things have begun to shift. In 2012, the government of Japan began implementing an economic reform effort, known as womenomics, that sought to boost female employment. Over the subsequent six years, more than 3.3 million Japanese women entered the workforce, leading to a 20% increase in dual-income households. By 2018, the country boasted a female employment rate of nearly 70%—outperforming many of its peers, including the U.S., France and Korea.
According to Sasaki, the moves have been nothing short of historic. “It has pushed companies to open doors for women, including the boardroom,” Sasaki said. “Women now aim to go higher.” Yet labor policy isn’t solely responsible for this shift. These efforts have also been quietly buoyed by another important factor: Some 25 years after Sasaki created the first bare-bones networking website for women, female leaders are leveraging advanced digital tools and platforms to accelerate workplace empowerment.
Innovation is empowerment
Furuya had long harbored entrepreneurial ambitions. Yet it wasn’t until 2015, when she visited some friends living in Silicon Valley, that she realized how tech could support her mission-driven professional goals. She was sure she wanted to use innovation to empower working women, but she didn’t totally know what that looked like. “The first idea we had was a qualitative company review platform for women,” she recalled. “We’d collect anonymous assessments about company culture.”
That concept eventually morphed into the company’s current database, which is geared toward providing a centralized hub for publicly available information. These days, Furuya is also working on rolling out a new mentor-mentee matching program. The digital product aims to help working women connect with female business leaders who can share advice and job leads.
“The most important thing is that women are surrounded by the right people,” Furuya said, “and that they stay encouraged and motivated.” She added that the program is important because transparency about company policies isn’t enough; working women in need resources that nurture their professional growth.
This type of innovation is becoming more common in Japan. Sasaki, for example, is leveraging digital conferencing tools to ensure an upcoming employment equality event can continue during the covid-19 pandemic. Yet the island nation isn’t alone.
Tiffany Pham has a unique perch to evaluate how innovation can empower working women around the globe. Pham is the founder and chief executive of Mogul, a community network that connects more than 30 million active users in close to 200 countries worldwide. Similar to Furuya’s digital service, the platform lets women search for job opportunities and share insights about different employers. Drawing a connection between the two digital hubs, Pham emphasizes the universal value in providing the specifics on workplace culture. No matter where women are based, she notes, “having a platform that helps them make more informed choices is something that we know is important.”
Innovation has played a critical role in making this happen, adds Pham, who taught herself to code in order to build the very first iteration of the Mogul platform. The company’s profound reach is built on the accessibility and ease of its digital product.
“Technology is the engine that propels our community to grow to its greatest potential,” Pham said.
A new world for working women
Pham is quick to note that there are challenges left to overcome. While many businesses around the world have improved in terms of recruiting more women, they often fall short when it comes to designing company cultures that welcome them.
Another challenge that remains consistent across borders, she notes: “Closing the gender gap toward the top, at the vice president-level and above. Top-down change in business is powerful and placing diverse talent at the top will help pave the way for the next generations.”
Sasaki agrees, though this certainly remains a hurdle in Japan, where women still only account for 13% of management positions. Yet still, the longtime diversity advocate is hopeful. Innovators like Pham and Furuya have demonstrated with their respective platforms that innovation has the power to drive systemic change. And there’s no reason to suspect these advancements will stagnate. In the next five years, Sasaki envisions more women in the boardroom and more women executives.
After all, she said, “we know that diversity is linked to innovation.”
The Washington Post newsroom was not involved in the creation of this content.