Industry June / July 2010

Winning Talented Women

Financial sector’s opportunity on gender equality

Foreign banks have a tough diversity agenda in Japan meeting government targets for disabled staff, ensuring ethnic diversity — and with gender too.

While most firms boast good headline statistics on female hires, the real picture is different. This is demonstrated by analysis of 2,000 Michael Page placements (excluding secretarial and support staff) from 2006 to 2009. Some 37% of hires earning above ¥8 million in basic salary were female — a good number. But the figures are skewed by spikes in certain functions and levels. For example, in finance, audit and governance, 71% of placements at ¥8-11 million were females, while in operations the number was 64%. In these areas banks are outperforming the benchmark, with the database of jobseekers in these categories being only 55% females. But at assistant vice-president level, the figures are less, while at vice-president level and above, they tail off dramatically. For example, only 27% of placements with salaries over ¥15 million were female.

Conditions for foreign firms hiring women are positive, as Japanese firms suffer from a perpetual exodus to gaishikei of professional Japanese women who often cite gender discrimi-nation as the reason for moving.

One Japanese female managing director at a foreign bank here says that gender inequality in management is “normal” and “very obvious” in Japanese firms. Career paths and options differ for men, she explains, with the roots going back to the job rotations given to graduates, where there is “clear gender segregation”.

Another female, a vice-president at a US bank, says she chose the firm because she is ambitious and could see “real examples of senior females in the organisation”.

But are there really opportunities for the ambitious? Few firms can boast good gender balance in senior management. Above vice-president level, retention is a major and complicated problem. Deep-rooted cultural expectations define female roles at home. Firms’ efforts to address this through enhanced childcare and flexible work programmes are having some success, but there is no easy solution.

When we ask female candidates about their ambitions and aspirations to hold senior positions, many are pessimistic. One foreign bank assistant vice-president said that while gender balance is much better than at her previous Japanese employer: “I don’t think I can become senior — the senior management level is totally male dominated”.

Foreign banks have to capitalise better on the gender mix available at junior level by focusing strong efforts on retention and development, even if it means battling through cultural change and shifting the mindset to engender greater belief by female employees that they can achieve seniority.

Recent M&As and joint ventures are giving domestic firms an opportunity to address the issue as management structures come together. One female director, coming unexpectedly to a role in a domestic firm, expressed some positive sentiments about the new environment, saying: “While there is the need for change, it is better than I expected and senior management are supportive.”

This is encouraging, because the brain drain should be a pressing concern for domestic employers. Having gender balance in management is not just morally right, it affects the bottom line; if domestic firms need any further catalysts for cultural change, this must be one.

The foreign firms should applaud progress because the reputation of domestic firms will remain a significant influence on whether the best female talent from Japan’s universities choose to join the sector.