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Women on board: Breaking the 'bamboo ceiling'

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Breaking through Japan's bamboo ceiling
  • 1.4 percent of Japanese executives are women
  • Women in Japan are pushed to traditionally female roles
  • Leading businesswoman thinks Japan may be ready for a change
  • First woman on board: Corporate Japan wants to change; doesn't know how
  • Japan
  • Business
  • Asia

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- Change a few circumstances in her life and Sakie Fukushima says she would have been a housewife. She was raised to be a good Japanese wife and homemaker, after all. That's what was expected of women of her generation -- to sit behind their men, make their bentos, iron their shirts and watch them rise to lead Japan's economy.

Life did not go as Fukushima expected.

60-year-old Fukushima is one of Japan's most powerful executives, sitting on the board of both U.S. and Japanese-based multi-national companies. The fact that she is a female in one of the most male-dominated business cultures is a stunning backstory in one woman's remarkable ascent through the so-called "bamboo ceiling." Bamboo bends, and unlike glass, never breaks. But Fukushima managed to crack through, by working for a U.S. company.

"I was lucky to be in a place where the hard work was appreciated," said Fukushima, of her corporate beginnings at Korn-Ferry International. The American company saw her sales output, the highest in the Asia-Pacific region, as the reason for promotion.

An American mentor and her supportive husband urged Fukushima to push beyond her Japanese cultural expectations.

"If I was to work for a Japanese company, a large Japanese company, I don't think I would have come this far."

The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index ranks Japan 101 out of 134 countries. Part of the reason for the low ranking is that just 1.4 percent of Japanese executives are women.

What that has meant for women in the workplace is they are pushed to traditionally female roles: secretary and store clerk. It is a dismal reality for the world's second-largest economy, said Beth Brooke, Ernst and Young's Global vice chairwoman and a Forbes Magazine 100 most powerful woman.

"Japan is a very homogeneous society. So on the spectrum of diversity, not just gender; it is more difficult to embrace diversity because it's not a terribly diverse culture to begin with."

Ironically, Brooke believes the global economic slowdown and Japan's aging population is a chance to rediscover the people under-utilized in the workforce.

"I think we have an opportunity to change the conversation here. Whether you're a country or a company, you need growth. Japan has an enormous opportunity, frankly, to see the opportunity to spark innovation through a gender lens of diversity. I think gender diversity is a big part of the solution."

Fukushima agreed, as she celebrates her recent appointment to the Bridgestone Corporation board. She is the first female to be elected to the Japanese company's boardroom.

"Experimenting is the best way to say it," said Fukushima, describing Japan's corporate sentiment toward women. "They know they have to have diversity but they don't know how to do it and how to use it effectively. As a result of increasing competition outside of Japan from China and Korea, the Japanese business community has realized it has to change. They can't rely on the past successful model of the 1970s and '80s. They will have to increase diversity, change the way of doing business in order to compete."

Fukushima's new colleague, Bridgestone Americas, Inc. CEO and President Gary Garfield, said he is encouraged that his company in Japan is catching up to other global companies.

He calls having a female on the board a no-brainer. His advice to Japanese companies: "Just branch out and do it. They'll be stronger for it. I think they'll be better companies for it."