While Japan was experiencing rapid post-war economic growth, many Japanese women were confined to housework, an anomaly among other advanced countries. The numbers tell the whole story: Despite its high proportion of female population entering university, Japan is ranked 82nd in the ratio of working women and 116th in the percentage of women occupying managerial positions, according to a World Economic Forum report. And it is placed at the very bottom in the proportion of female directors among 20 advanced countries according to a survey by NPO Catalyst.
Such is the background in which I have blazed my trail as a working mother, supported by my family and colleagues. It always makes me proud to know how far I have come.
An unusual message from my mother
In 1974, about 30 years after the war, I was born into a typical Japanese family where my father was a hard-working office employee, and my mother was a devoted housewife. I have a younger sister. What was not typical about my family was that my mother kept telling me, even when I was a 3-year-old child, “I don’t expect you to be an outstanding worker, but I do expect you to continue working all your life.”
Why did she—the epitome of a good mother who lovingly looked after the family in everything from planning the daily menu to her children’s education—drive home such a message to me? I believe it was because she had been born into a family of four daughters, which must have made her think hard about how a woman should live in the future.
Greatly influenced by my mother, I became more interested in finding a job that would enable me to grow professionally, and to which I could passionately devote myself.
The first female new hire to become a strategy consultant
When I was a university student, I developed a great interest in a job connected with the media or with United Nations agencies. With that in mind, I did part-time jobs at a publishing company and a radio station and visited some UN agencies during my summer holiday.
I got an opportunity to work at a consulting company as a trainee. I was impressed with the high professionalism of the people working there and how female staff were treated equally. The experience got me interested in building a career at a consulting company, where I thought people were able to grow professionally, regardless of age or gender, and I decided to take the plunge.
I was the first female new hire who joined the Strategy Consulting Group at Accenture in Japan. Back then, my male peers worked day and night, using sleeping bags and eating cups of noodles in the office. Placed in such severe circumstances, I never felt reluctant to work. On the contrary, I was extremely excited about working with talented supervisors and colleagues with a distinctive way of thinking to tackle challenging jobs, such as helping our clients achieve business transformation.
When I became pregnant in the second year of working, however, I suddenly felt anxious. Although Accenture in Japan, as with other global companies, had in place a system to support working mothers, I couldn’t find any female employees within the company who were juggling work and childcare. I was at a loss, asking myself whether it was possible for me to continue working after having a child and whether my supervisors and colleagues would accept me as a working mother.
Advice from working mothers around the world helped overcome my fears
When I confided my worries to my supervisor, he was so supportive, saying, “I am married but have no children, so I don’t really understand what it’s like to take care of children while working. But we are consultants resolving clients’ problems. I’m sure we can find a way out. I will introduce to you working mothers at our overseas offices and those at other companies I know, so you will be able to contact them to learn how they are striking a good work/life balance. If our company’s work arrangements aren’t flexible enough for mothers to keep their jobs, I will propose new ones to the board of directors.”
While my pregnancy was progressing, I contacted many working mothers at home and abroad for advice. I received practical advice and detailed information, such as returning to work as early as possible with shorter working hours, for example working six hours a day, to avoid a long absence from work; restarting work in their areas of expertise and gradually expanding their fields; arranging a schedule of regular meetings early; asking their supervisors to evaluate them according to their accomplishments and not their working hours.
Without a professional working mother as a role model around me, all the information I learned became a great asset.
Based on the advice and stories I collected from the women, my supervisor made a proposal to the board for accepting me as a working mother back into the workforce.
Finding my way as a working mother
Still, I had to overcome many unexpected adversities before returning to work. When I began to look for a daycare center for my son, I realized it was extremely difficult to find a satisfactory daycare facility. I was unable to place him in a public facility that attracted an overwhelming number of applicants because of its affordability. I didn’t want to leave him in the hands of an unauthorized nursery because of so much media coverage about accidents happening there at that time. I was in a daycare-hunting plight.
After resolving that issue and returning to work, I had a lot on my plate in the morning: While I was getting ready for work, I checked my work-related e-mails and made my son’s breakfast. Then, I signed the daycare facility’s journal, dropped my son off at the facility and, finally, left for work.
Before taking childcare leave, I spent ample time on discussion, consideration and research, and was able to devise a plan. But after returning to work, I felt that time was ticking away surprisingly quickly. Even in the middle of a meeting with my colleagues or clients, I had to leave at 6 p.m. sharp to pick up my son.
When everything was working out smoothly, I managed to control my work schedule. But sometimes difficult situations arose―for example, colleagues were in trouble, I couldn’t find common ground with colleagues, or clients’ transformation ran into roadblocks...just to name a few.
Even in such dire situations, I had to leave at the scheduled time, consumed with guilt, because my son was waiting for me at the daycare center. I had no other choice. On my way to the daycare facility from the nearest train station, I often discussed with my colleagues or gave them instructions on my mobile phone with earphones in my ears.
My son and me
Three tips for creating value with limited time and for growing professionally
I have always wanted to continue to create value for my clients, although my working time was constrained. To make it possible, I have kept three things in mind:
I ALWAYS SET GREAT STORE IN TRAINING MYSELF TO ACQUIRE NEW SKILLS—THE ONES NO ONE CAN MATCH―IN AN AREA THAT IS IN GREAT DEMAND AND MOST ADVANCED.
During the first couple of years after joining Accenture, I had several opportunities to work as a member of teams with senior colleagues with years of experience working to help a number of Japan’s leading companies deploy marketing strategies. When my son was still a small child, I focused on leveraging the skills and experience thus acquired to expand my horizon into a variety of industries, including automobiles, high technology, consumer goods and pharmaceuticals.
When my son reached school age and was better able to take care of himself, I began to work with leading data scientists on marketing strategies that leveraged big data and analytics.
When he became a junior high school student, I focused on acquiring new knowledge and know-how by keeping in constant touch with the experts in Accenture’s global network through teleconferences and other means, enabling me to become a more “dynamic” consultant with skills in digital and the Internet of Things.
DON’T WORK BY YOURSELF, BUT INSTEAD BUILD A TEAM WITH THE BEST TALENT AVAILABLE.
I may be making a sweeping statement, but women who are working at a consulting firm tend to work by themselves. However, being a working mother from the early stage of my career has made me keenly aware that working alone is not the best way to produce sufficient value for clients.
“I have tried to work with superiors who, understanding that my strength is not the availability of time, chose an area of work for me that could bring out the best of my capabilities.”
I am satisfied that I have never lost sight of the need to work as a team. I have always developed and valued the people who worked for me. At the same time, I have tried to work with superiors who, understanding that my strength is not the availability of time, chose an area of work for me that could bring out the best of my capabilities. Many of them progressed in their careers to become managing directors and presidents. Sometimes you cannot choose your supervisor, but I was lucky enough to have worked with people who were flexible enough to embrace diversity, and always encouraged their people to rise to new challenges. They really helped me grow professionally, and I would not be where I am without them.
I HAVE MADE VARIOUS ARRANGEMENTS SO THAT MY FAMILY, ESPECIALLY MY SON, WAS ABLE TO UNDERSTAND MY WORK.
With that in mind, I have tried to expose my son to my work as often as possible. When I worked weekends as a job interviewer, I took him to the office, where he enjoyed drawing on the whiteboard in the waiting room. I also took him to a Strategy Consulting Group’s annual get-together every year, leaving him seated in the back of the room during serious discussions and social sessions. When I spoke at business conferences or lectured at universities on his school holidays, I had him listen to me. Through this experience, I think he has come to realize how hard I have been working as a working mother.
“I was told that a child whose mother was working hard was unhappy … but … my supervisors, colleagues and clients always encouraged me.”
Some people were critical of working mothers. From time to time, I was told that a child whose mother was working hard was unhappy. Others asked me, “Don’t you think working mothers cause trouble to those around them at work?” or “Why don’t you work in a women-friendlier work environment?”
If I had been alone, I would have been too discouraged to continue working. But it was fortunate that my supervisors, colleagues and clients always encouraged and supported me. The biggest help was that my family, especially my little son, understood my tough situations.
My challenge to make Japanese society more inclusive
Two years ago, I participated in the Fellows Program of the International Women’s Forum. As I communicated with female leaders from all walks of life around the world, I keenly realized that Japan fell far behind other countries in empowering women.
This is my turn to support others.
Twenty years have passed since I entered the workforce. I am over 40 and have reached the halfway point in life. During the postwar period, Japan prospered in a male-dominated society. Now it is high time that our country and companies make full use of women’s hidden potential. During the next decades, I want to make every effort to help Japanese society and companies evolve into the more inclusive next stage.