Why men should be part of the quest for women’s empowerment in Japan
Catherine O’Connell has worked as a lawyer in New Zealand, London and Japan. She practised law in Japan, both in-house and in private practice, for 16 years before launching her own law firm in Tokyo a year ago. She offers companies and in-house teams legal assistance on a part-time, contract or bridging basis.
“I felt very different in London, compared to Japan. As soon as I speak, I’m obviously not a Londoner, or English. I was seen as being from the antipodes and colonies. That is how some people viewed me, to be perfectly honest. It was very hard to get into the inner circle because I didn’t speak their language.
In contrast, in Japan, when I say I am a lawyer, people immediately respect me. And because I do speak the language, I haven’t faced any discrimination. I never felt that I was supposed to get the tea, or clear up after a meeting – I simply haven’t had that. I know people have experienced that here in other roles, but in the legal profession you’re very much respected, even as a foreign female lawyer.
I think it’s different for Japanese women who are lawyers, because there is still pressure to leave your workplace after you have a child. While I was head of legal in-house at a Japanese company, I struggled to find anyone who could come in for a few months or on a temporary basis when members of my team left.
I thought, there must be people who have had babies, who are looking after elderly relatives, or are on leave who could help me remotely, or come to the office for a few hours, but I couldn’t find that pool of talent. I think my business model would be attractive for women lawyers taking a break from full-time work – and men too, although parental leave is still mostly taken by women.
I think many inequalities, such as unequal pay, lie outside the legal profession because lawyers are astute and aware of what’s going on, so they pay pretty equally. There tends not to be the disparity you would most definitely see in other places in Japan. But then again, how many women are at those senior positions? It’s almost like a reward that they are there.
The statistics on female partners is extremely low and that is because motherhood forces them to leave the partnership track, and hinders their chance to secure leadership roles when they return. It’s a generalization, but I don’t think many of my community would dispute that.
Japan is certainly behind other countries in Asia. In terms of overall numbers, women account for less than 20% of all lawyers in Japan, although the levels are healthier in-house, where women make up 40% of the legal workforce.
Having male champions is so crucial for progress. Changes are happening but they are tiny, tiny steps often introduced by a few progressive companies and law firms. I’ve heard of cases where employers are talking openly about career planning for both men and women, but, particularly for women, taking into account the possibility of parental leave at some stage.
Without delving into personal circumstances, these employers are basically saying, ‘You have a place when you come back, and we want you back’. This kind of preparation, where someone is briefed while they are on leave, and supported in a systematic way when they return, is remarkable, firstly because employers are actually discussing it, and secondly because they seem to be implementing it.
Sharing these practices and success stories is vital. Companies, even traditional ones, are finding they can be flexible and innovative with their working models if they give it a go. Challenging people’s ideas is paramount.”
Senior women lawyers across Asia share personal stories of successes, struggles and strategies for a more inclusive legal profession. The following mosaic of personal stories identifies some of the nuances that typify women’s experiences in particular Asian jurisdictions, while also drawing on the wealth of shared experiences that bind them.