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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Apr 19, 2023

In Part One of Key Factors To Achieving Diversity, Equity & Inclusion In Japan, I covered Building Trust and Psychological Safety as well as looking at the issues around Cultural Awareness.  In Part Two, let’s tackle Dealing With Unconscious Bias In Japan.  Those living in Japan might be grimacing right now, because there is the view that the bias is quite conscious and out in the open. Some of our clients tell us that they have a good proportion of their male staff, who do not support the attention being given to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and say they feel they are the victims. 

The post-war period in Japan saw a number of transitions.  One was from farm-based work to factory and service industry work in cities, as people moved out from the countryside.  The US Occupation sponsored breakup of absentee landlord ownership of farms, to having tenant farmers becoming owners of their land, created the Middle Class.  Thanks to Japan becoming a major supplier to the US military during the Korean War, Japan’s economy started to recover from the devastation of World War Two.  The role of women changed too.  They had been important labour inputs for farming and factory work and now full-time motherhood became possible, as the economy improved.  The labour split was such that the men would become the breadwinners and work six days a week, putting in long hours every day and the mothers would raise the children and focus on their education.

This effectively meant that men monopolised the key jobs, incomes and promotions.  Today women are more active in the workforce, although many are working part-time.  For example, 70% of male workers work five days per week, whereas the corresponding number for women is 40%.  Surprisingly, overall, Japan has a greater rate of female workforce participation than the USA.  Men have had a monopoly on work opportunities, but that is being challenged by the emergence of well-educated and talented women and unsurprisingly some men working for our clients, are feeling threatened by all this talk about Diversity and Inclusion. Those are the conscious biases. 

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates Japan’s population will decline by 21% to only 100 million by 2049.  Companies recognise this and so there is a greater requirement for female participation in work and the push is on the make Japan more inclusive of women in the workplace. Unconscious biases however still need addressing. Political correctness drives the resistance underground and unconscious biases become the next hurdle to overcome.  Here are seven biases which need addressing

1.     Confirmation Bias

This occurs when male bosses look for information which supports their bias or stereotype.  For example, working mothers won’t be able to be promoted, because they cannot put in the same hours as their male colleagues or be given the same amounts of responsibility, so better not to promote these women.  Or when women get married, they will disappear from the workforce to have children, so no point in giving them a lot of accountability, because they won’t be around. This reduces the opportunities that these women are given and negatively impacts their progress through the ranks into leadership positions. 

Data from the Teikoku Databank showed that in April 2021 only 8% of Japanese company Presidents were women.  Additionally, half of these women took over the family business when their husbands or relatives passed away. A lack of female role models becomes a vicious cycle where women conclude they cannot get to the top.  The system seems to be against women succeeding for those at the bottom levels. 

As companies move away from “hours contributed” to “results produced” this bias will be reduced.  Most of those long hours the men are putting in are not effective and are more a nod to social convention, than to increasing productivity.  Currently, according to a Robert Walters June 2022 survey, only 30% of respondents thought their compensation system was tied to their performance and skills.

2.     Groupthink Bias

This is when people want to fit into the group and this is a core tenant of Japanese society – how to fit in.  In the male dominated work world this means fitting in with how the men want to run things.  For example, “of course it is better to promote the men, because they will be sticking around, unlike the women who are not as able to commit everything to their work, because of raising children or talking care of aging parents”.

3.     Halo Effect Bias

This is a bit tricky, but it occurs when one characteristic dominates other characteristics and our perception is to see things through rose coloured glasses.  The ability of men to work unlimited overtime unlike the women, because they don’t have to pick up the kids or take care of aging parents, makes them seem more reliable to their male bosses.  Naturally this “reliability” results in them being given the lead for projects, which then become springboards to promotion and greater responsibilities.

4.     Horns Effect Bias

This is the opposite phenomenon, where women are judged negatively in one aspect and this is extrapolated across multiple fronts.  If one woman can’t stay back to complete the project, then all women are tarred with the same brush and as a gender they are not judged as being sufficiently reliable.  Or once they become pregnant, they take a year and a half off from work on maternity leave and the section has to carry their workload, so better not to give them critical areas of responsibility just in case.

Currently, Senior and Middle Management in Japan are 80% male according to a LinkedIn survey in February 2022.  Declining demographic trends however will force companies to face how increasingly difficult it is becoming to recruit and retain staff.   Consequently, they will have to become more flexible around retaining and promoting their female staff or risk losing them to competitors.  Companies here are facing a zero sum game future in the expanding war for talent. 

5.     In Group Bias

This occurs when men prefer working with men, rather than women.  The upshot is men favour each other and it seems obvious to them, to include men in the project or to promote men rather than women.

6.     Projection Bias

We do this when we assume that others think the same way we do.  Because women are seen as different, it is preferred to surround yourself with other men, because that seems the easier and a better way to work.  

Increasingly however there is a growing call for more diversity in the Japanese workforce.  Even the conservative peak business body the Keidanren, publicly came out in support of the need for greater diversity and promoting women’s active participation in the workplace back in 2019.  The “think the same as everyone else” mantra is recognised as not producing the innovative approaches companies are requiring. 

7.     Rush to Solve Bias

When under pressure we sometimes have to make rapid decisions.  This can mean male bosses or colleagues prefer to ask other men for help. The bias arises because women are not seen as reliable enough or tough enough or “non-emotional” enough to contribute.  The requirement for more diverse ideas however will increasingly force male leaders to gather more options. These will have to include the opinions of female staff, in order to respond in an effective manner to the competitive challenges the company faces. Ultimately, the best ideas will win in the market.

“We don’t know, what we don’t know” would be a good way of highlighting these different male biases in the workplace.  Every time one of these biases emerges, they have to be called out and challenged, if we are going to get to any real inclusivity in the workplace. Some part of the opposition will be ideological and other parts will be plain ignorance of the biases in operation.  Both have to be confronted and worked on or there will be no organic change for a thousand years in Japan.  This has to come from the very top of the organisation and has to be sustained until there is real change. 

There is a lot of noise and rhetoric in Japan about the importance of diversity, which here fundamentally means gender issues rather than age, race, religion or sexual identity.  Major companies, both foreign and domestic, proclaim its importance, but are they succeeding in doing anything effective about it, apart from holding cosmetic internal awareness sessions?  Are they addressing these unconscious biases we have covered, which are playing out inside their firms?  My judgment is we still have a long way to go here.

Inclusivity is the first rung on the ladder to get us to diversity, so let's start there.