By Marie Sakonju, U.S. Embassy intern

On January 26, I attended a symposium held at the American Center Japan entitled “Sustainable Women’s Leadership in an Age of Longevity: Women Helping Women Across Generations.” U.S. Embassy Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs Margot Carrington and Tokyo Kasei University Professor Emerita Keiko Higuchi participated as co-panelists, and Ryoko Akamatsu, who drafted Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Law, attended as a special guest.

The symposium focused on ways to enable women to pursue careers and develop networks to support each other across generations. The participants actively exchanged views on the changes that have taken place in Japan, as well as the obstacles that continue to hinder women’s advancement. Mentoring systems and telecommuting were discussed as first steps toward resolving the issues.

Ms. Carrington has dedicated herself to promoting the advancement of women in the United States and Japan. After the symposium, I had the opportunity to interview her. When I asked her how she felt about the idea of discussing the subject of women’s advancement in the context of an aging society, Ms. Carrington said: “I thought it was very interesting to talk about aging societies. It was a new perspective on the topic of women’s advancement.” Drawing on what I learned from Ms. Carrington, I will explore in this article what kinds of American systems and values Japan should adopt to promote women’s active participation in the workplace.

U.S. Embassy Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs Margot Carrington and Tokyo Kasei University Professor Emerita Keiko Higuchi speak at a symposium at the American Center Japan on January 26, 2017.

U.S. Embassy Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs Margot Carrington and Tokyo Kasei University Professor Emerita Keiko Higuchi speak at a symposium at the American Center Japan on January 26, 2017.

Women helping women across generations

“Women helping women across generations” was the central theme of the symposium. Ms. Carrington cited mentoring as a useful framework to foster this kind of intergenerational support. “I think we’ve seen that there isn’t as strong a tradition of mentoring in Japan,” she said. “At the U.S. Embassy, we’ve been very proactive in trying to introduce a more American-style mentoring system through, for instance, the TOMODACHI MetLife Women’s Leadership Program (TMWLP).” Run by a public-private partnership known as the TOMODACHI Initiative, the nationwide TMWLP pairs Japanese female mid-career professionals with promising Japanese university students and encourages their development as the next generation of leaders. “To build that culture of mentorship, I think it’s very important to be aware of the fact that it doesn’t happen naturally,” said Ms. Carrington. “You have to really put in a system and train people on how to be effective in that role.”

Making it easier for women to “lean in”

In her discussion of the importance of women continuing to pursue their careers, Ms. Carrington used the phrase “lean in,” which is also the title of a book written by Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg, who is the chief operating officer of Facebook and supports the promotion of women’s advancement, gave a TED Talk in 2010 entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” In that talk, she said that women systematically underestimate their own abilities and “lean back.” She also said that men tend to attribute their success to themselves, while women attribute it to external factors. Because of this, Ms. Carrington says, leadership training for women is essential. “You need to have leadership training just for women, because the challenges for women are different. Leadership training helps women zero in on their own capabilities and gives everybody some space in a supportive situation. Women often want everybody to win, so in a negotiation setting, they might be a little bit less assertive. That’s why we need special programs just for women’s leadership development.”

Message for Japanese women who want to advance professionally

In the interview, Ms. Carrington offered Japanese women the following advice: “Be confident in your abilities, don’t undersell yourself, consciously identify the value that you bring, be willing to reach a little bit higher, and stay positive.”

One topic that Ms. Carrington touched on in the symposium that left a strong impression on me was her assertion that “unconscious bias really exists in a lot of organizations.” “These practices can be very detrimental to women and they’re very hard to identify. One example is caregiver bias – the assumption that many employers have that women are not putting as much effort into their careers as their male counterparts because they’re caregivers. As a result of this, the employers don’t give women the same opportunities as men.” In the interview, she added, “Even women can have caregiver bias towards other women, so we need to enhance our own awareness.”

As I listened to her explanation, I realized that it is important to be conscious of caregiver bias and to create workplace cultures in which women respect each other’s lifestyle choices and help each other across generations. Despite having the best of intentions, the people around me sometimes say things like, “You should get married and become a housewife. You can spend time with your children and have an easy life.” They make these comments with no ill will, but it sounds like they are saying that a woman must choose between marriage and work, or between children and a career. Today, women have as many different lifestyle choices as men, or perhaps even more. It’s not that difficult for women to be economically independent these days. Raising children while working is an option, as is focusing solely on pursuing a career.

The symposium made me think about whether I am unconsciously putting up barriers that keep me from attaining my goals. Do I sometimes give up on things because I convince myself I am not capable of doing them? Reflecting on these questions made me realize that I, too, am guilty of underestimating myself.

At the end of the interview, Ms. Carrington asked me about my plans for the future. She suggested that I apply for a Fulbright scholarship. Before I knew it, I found myself responding, “That’s sounds too difficult!” My comment triggered a burst of laughter from everyone in the room, including me when I saw that I was putting up barriers for myself even while conducting an interview about women’s advancement based on my interest in the subject. My discussion with Ms. Carrington made me realize the importance of having confidence, not underestimating my own abilities, setting goals that are slightly higher than what I am comfortable with, and staying positive.