The CEO's column

Tuyoshi Niinami ;Talks about his daily thoughts on the Bright and Healthy Japan’s tomorrow.

Empowerment of women to revitalize Japan

June 11, 2013

Decreasing number of working-age population

We are seeing signs of recovery in the Japanese economy, stimulated by increasing stock prices and the depreciating yen. However, it is too early to be optimistic; we are seeing continuous decrease in the number of population in Japan. If we do not face this serious problem and take immediate actions, it is clear that the working-age population in Japan will continue to decrease. This will not be positive to our economy.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the national population of Japan will shrink to 86,740,000 in 2060, from 128,060,000 in 2010, in just fifty years. What is more shocking about this number is that the working-age population, meaning those between the ages of 16 to 64 years old, will decrease to 50.9 percent, from the current 63.8 percent. In order to fill this gap, we have to take actions to create a society where more women can remain and return to workplaces.  

For Japan to achieve sustainable economic growth, we must create a society where more women can comfortably take part in the workforce. All citizens, whether male or female, should be able to actively participate as a member of the society. If we can achieve more households to earn “double income,” we will be sure to see more active consumer spending and as another consequential effect, we may see more families having children driven by the increase in household income.

However, a research conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare shows approximately 60 percent of women leave their position at work after having her first child. These are women who “want to continue working if there is sufficient environment and an adequate system to do so.” We must not overlook at this fact, we must listen to their voices and take immediate actions.


Power of women will initiate positive change

There are many industries that benefit from women’s skills and abilities. For example, we should take a look at the healthcare industry, such as hospitals, social welfare and care services. Many of the women working in this industry are performing their skills as professionals of managing both health and wellbeing in life. Their extensive experience in raising children and taking care of the household is a great asset to the industry. Nowadays, many of our manual, labor activities are replaced by machines and systems as we utilize IT (information technology) more, but care services and nursing require “kindness,” which only “people” can convey. Hospitality, understanding for others and consideration, are important aspects for better services. The “heart-warming” aspect of humans is inevitable. The digital world of IT cannot replace these works just yet. These jobs are indeed challenging and require tremendous effort, but I believe they are all very rewarding in many ways.

Despite such situation, it is said that there are approximately 500,000 people who have decided to leave their work to take care of the house upon marriage or after having a child. They are all very talented, competent women who have qualifications to work as a nurse. I want to speak out and voice my opinion: to let’s create a society where we can fully benefit from our valuable labor force, and not force them to make the choice of motherhood or career, but realize both. To do this, we must pursue further deregulation and allow more companies to enter into social welfare and care service industry. I want to see more women returning to work and pursue her professional career without difficulties.

This is not applicable to just specific areas of professionals. Public enterprises like us also benefit from having more female workforce in our business. There are certain aspects of women which are special to them, such as being sensitive to others which men may overlook at times. Also, women can be very straightforward (but expressed in a mild, yet eloquent way), and their insights are eye-opening at times. There are many specific characteristics of women that will surely create positive effects in the workplace, and greatly vitalize such organization. Gender diversity is a business imperative now. I would like all women to refrain from being hesitant, but energize the male-dominated workforce and society with your powerful and sensitive character.

I express these views because I believe these differences, characteristics and individuality leads to diversity. I talked mainly about women here because of the current situation in Japan, but I want to pursue further diversity, and not just gender. Having different perspectives and different values enables an organization to create unprecedented new products and services. Eventually, differentiation will lead to competitive advantage in the market. In this world of rapid globalization, pursuing diversity and creating a diverse environment leads companies to be more innovative, leading further growth in their businesses.


A new initiative requires concrete social system

Recently, Prime Minister Abe proposed companies to extend child care leave to three years, from the current one and a half years. This is one of the measures to overcome the issue of decreasing birthrate and aging population. I would like the government to take initiative in establishing an adequate system in the society. For instance, those who want to take child care leave for three years may do so, and those who want to return to work should also be able to so, working more flexibly, if desired. Such environment should be created and bold initiatives must be taken to initiate change.

At Lawson, we have started child care leave up to three years for all employees since 1992. However, one of the challenges we faced was that once they leave the company for a certain amount of time, many of our people had lost confidence and worried whether “I would be able to work the same, in such rapidly changing market environment.” It is true to say that many lacked the positiveness to return to work after a certain period of being away.

To overcome this issue and support our employees to regain confidence and the willingness to return to workplace, we have taken several initiatives. One measure is organizing a dialogue session between management in charge and employees taking child care leave. We have also created an opportunity where employees on leave try new products/services and provide thorough feedbacks as a product tester. These initiatives are taken so that our people maintain communication with the company, staying close to our business.

Furthermore, we have established a new project in Lawson for mothers returning to our company. This is a new initiative where women who are coming back to work after child care leave becomes a member of a particular project for a period of six months to one year. What they will do in this project is to make the most of their expert perspective as a “mother” and a “housewife,” and reflect their feedbacks into our products and services development, even to store development. This initiative is showing wonderful results and becoming strategically important in our business. Their insights, constructive comments and ideas based on their experiences, are certainly great asset to our company. We had comments from an employee who is a mother that one of our food products sold on the internet tasted “too salty, thus it is not appropriate for small children.” This was a surprise to us which no other member had pointed out. Their comments and sensitivity to all members of the family are extremely helpful and we are very much relying on their experience.

In fact, it is often perceived that customers going to convenient stores are mainly the male population. However, over 40 percent of Lawson customers are now women. In order to retain frequent customers and increase the number of new customers, we must reflect feedbacks from our female employees into our products, services and stores. This will help us gain competitive advantage over our competitors.

We will definitely continue to support mothers and parents in our company and establish a necessary system to realize their return to work. At this point in time, the rate of which mothers returned to work after child care leave is now 100 percent in our company. It just proves how it is important to actually implement a workable system into an organization to achieve expected results.


Strong will to initiate change

As a next step, I want to promote more men to take child care leave as well. However, I do believe that we must bring the level of female working population higher first, which is low compared to other developed countries. The male readers may think it is not fair to be overly supportive to women, but from the management side, it is a necessary act. As a measure toward more diverse working environment, empowerment of women will surely bring much benefit to the company and its business. This positive effect will eventually bring profits to our company as well. Thus, it will be reflected into the salary of all employees and the top management must repeatedly explain this positive spiral.

Even though we rationally understand the necessity of these new initiatives, it is extremely difficult for a company to initiate change when a male-dominated workplace has already become so common. It is not an easy task, but I believe there is a way. For example, the government could take bold initiative similar to the one in Sweden, by enforcing a gender quota for corporate board members; to have at least forty-percent of women and men respectively as board members. This may be an effective way. Another idea is for companies to also set a similar target rate for female corporate officers and directors. Affirmative action as such may be necessary for a while to encourage more diverse workplace. Gender diversity is a business imperative, more so for a better future.

In all, I believe that a strong leadership and the willingness of top management are essential to pursue further diversity. In addition, needless to say, challenging spirit and high motivation of women are indispensable; aim high, maintain high motivation and take on more leadership roles.

I would like to emphasize that having more female workforce in an organization is “not to compensate for the lack of working-age population.” It is not just a number argument, and women are not merely filling the employment gap. I am voicing that if we can create a society where a woman can work more comfortably, happily take child care leave and then return to work in support of her company, there will be more women who will consider making the marriage decision, and have children. This will surely be a one measure to overcome low birthrate and aging population. I am optimistic and putting high expectations. I believe that companies, and Japan as a country, must take actions with a strong will to create a brighter future.


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