Haruno Yoshida, president of BT Japan Corporation, does not come across as the sort of person to be easily intimidated. Yet, when she was approached in February by the Keidanren, the highly conservative and all-male Japan Business Federation, to become its first female executive, she admits to being “frightened”.
What gave Yoshida confidence was the reaction of other women. “They all said, ‘Go for it! We will be behind you’”, she said. Yoshida will assume her role as vice chairman of the board of councillors—advisors to the chairman, Sakayuki Sakakibara—in June.
It is not the first glass ceiling Yoshida has smashed. She was appointed the first female president of BT Japan in 2012. “In the UK, Haruno could be a male or female name”, she said, “so I assumed when they finally realised I wasn’t wearing a tie, it would be over. Because being a woman in Japan is a big, big disadvantage. It’s like being chained by the leg. So, when I was offered the job, I said, ‘I’m female, and this is Japan—are you serious?’”
BT was serious, and Yoshida has flourished in the role: “I’ve learned a lot from working for a British company. Women [at BT] work in such a natural way—they can just get on with doing their job”. In Japan, she says, such a relaxed approach to female leadership is a long way off.
Yoshida, 50, is a standard-bearer not just for Japanese female leaders, but also for working mothers. After a degree from Keio University and a job at Motorola Mobility LLC., she married a Canadian, moved to Vancouver and had a daughter. Five years later, in 1999, she was a single mother working for a subsidiary of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) Group in New York.
“I remember every morning when I started putting on my make-up, my daughter would cry. She suffered because other people’s families were not like us, but if all kids get used to the idea that mothers work then it becomes natural. I want my daughter to be able to work and be praised instead of blamed”, she said.
Part of the reason Yoshida is passionate about telecommunications is its ability to enable remote working, which benefits workers with care-giving responsibilities. This is one of two key messages she intends to push at the Keidanren: “What you deliver is everything—you don’t have to be in the office, you can probably work better from home”.
The other is to promote “transparent evaluation schemes for measuring employee performance, connected to pay and bonus. If there is any mission at all for me”, she said, “it’s to show Japanese companies how to start”.
Yoshida is strongly optimistic that Japan is at a social and economic turning point. “We don’t have many natural resources, our society is ageing, our workforce is reducing, we are not utilising women and we don’t speak English—and yet we are still the world’s third-largest economy”, she said. “What if this giant woke up and carried out all these reforms that the other G7 countries have already put in place? Japan would be massive!”
The key is to tap into female economic power, she says, citing the research report by Goldman Sachs analyst Kathy Matsui entitled “Womenomics 4.0: Time to Walk The Talk”, which indicates that closing the gender employment gap could raise the country’s GDP by up to 13%.
“Japan talks about globalisation and transformation, but none of this will be possible without womenomics”, Yoshida said. “It’s our most important key performance indicator. Countries should measure how serious Japan is by its progress on womenomics”.
Yoshida hopes that her daughter’s generation will not, as she did, have to leave Japan in order to get promoted. “We in our 50s and 60s will lay a path for you”, she said. “It may not be perfectly straight, but please continue on it. I see it as a chain of opportunity being passed from one generation of women to another. Japan is going to change, so stay tuned”.
My typical day: Haruno Yoshida
4:30am: Wake up, check emails
5am: Morning coffee and NHK news, get ready and leave house
7:30am: Arrive at office; check emails, read papers, go through document inbox, confirm schedule and write a to-do list; or breakfast seminar
9:30–11am: Internal team meetings
Noon–1:30pm: Lunch with a customer
2–3:30pm: External business meetings or visits to customers
4–5pm: Global leaders’ meetings
5–6pm: Respond to emails, deal with requests, prepare documents or numbers
6–8pm: Receptions or customer dinners
9–10.30pm: Go home; relax, watch TV, private emails (especially with my daughter)