Italy meets Japan. Why is it easier to find allies on the other side of the world?

“How can I have more women in my management team? We have thirty-five team members and all of them are men. I want to boost our company’s gender diversity”.

A Japanese manager asked me this question while I was on a Japanese tour. I was on a business trip, visiting prestigious universities and big companies that were keen to learn more about the revolutionary ideas behind our program.

So, of course, my natural response was to talk about Lifeed.

Despite the cultural distance, I discovered that Japanese women are very similar to us. They are natural allies in our efforts to bring about change in bringing gender diversity to the workplace. Just like in Italy, the Japanese birth rate is at an all-time low. 60% of women don’t return to work after maternity leave. What’s more, their culture is also very traditionalist. It’s considered a national emergency, but perhaps it’s also a good time to change the rules and perspectives when it comes to the world of work.

Life is a common denominator for everyone

There were fifteen women and one man in the room. All of them were managers in big companies. We’re in a workshop about stereotypes.

I said, “Raise your hand if you have power”. They smiled at each other, feeling embarrassed. Not one single hand went up. In all the years that I’ve been asking this question, it was the first time that this happened. I’m in Japan, and for the first time I realise that Japanese women are worse off than their Italian counterparts. Even if there are numerical similarities in terms of employment, gender diversity and representation.

So, I decided to see if the “empowerment” mechanism that I’ve experienced so many times in Europe would work in Tokyo too. I said, “Raise your hand if you have responsibilities”. They smiled at each other and all raised their hands. This time, their smiles were liberated: they had already understood where we were going. I didn’t need to say it, but I said it anyway: “You can’t have responsibilities if you don’t have power in those same areas”.

It’s so typical of women. They don’t link power and responsibility. They know they have the latter, but don’t feel that they have any power. But when we think about the powers at be, the reverse is opposite. Many people in power fail to link it to responsibility.

Finally, I ask them to raise their hands again if they think they have power. This time every time goes up. It works in Japan too. Perhaps I could say that it’s a universal principle. Women accept the notion of power if it’s clearly linked to the concept of responsibility. I’ve learned a lot about Japanese women during this trip. In just a few days, I’ve met with companies, students and the media.

Japanese women are similar to us. But they are probably also angrier. Because ultimately, they are locked into an older culture that’s still quite traditionalist. It makes it hard to enjoy being a working mother. By the end of the workshop, everyone in the workshop had glittering eyes. Perhaps it’s easier to accept that the formulas needed to activate change have come from somewhere else. Maybe it needs to be that way.

How can we bring diversity to the workplace?

After the workshop, I talked to a second-generation Japanese businessman, the one who asked me the question at the beginning of the article. How can I have more women in my management team? How to be diverse?

I replied, “If you really want to bring women to the table, you have to change everyone’s habits. Starting with you. If you don’t want women who are the same as men, you’ll have to be ready for different questions, different incentives. For example, a nice car might not work. Women prefer to have the benefit of time, of flexibility. Women are different and they’ll shake things up. Are you sure that’s what you want?”

He listened carefully. His father is head of the company and he’s going to be retiring in two or three years. He wants to make a lot of changes and women can be his best allies. Possibly the distance between Italy and Japan (an eight-hour time difference and a twelve-hour flight) allowed him to ask bolder questions. He also allowed me to give braver answers than either of us would have accepted from our fellow citizens. In short, it’s the same with the women I meet: less mistrust than we often find among Italians, a more immediate desire for alliances. Perhaps precisely because we are so different in appearance yet so similar in substance.

This article was originally written by our CEO Riccarda Zezza for Alley Oop, Il Sole 24 Ore. To read the original article in Italian, click here.