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Firms seek to challenge biases about child care to support women in workforce

Sho Shingae, who became a "father" for a month as part of a Kirin Holdings Co. effort to raise awareness among its employees of the burdens of child and nursing care, is seen at the company's building in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo's Chuo Ward, on May 25, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- On the desk of 33-year-old Sho Shingae in the office of Kirin Holdings Co. in the Nihonbashi district here, there is a sign on a sheet of paper that reads, "I'm going to be a father!" However, Shingae, who belongs to the company's sales department, has no children.

The sign is part of an effort by the beverage company to have its employees try out a working style with restricted hours to accommodate non-work-related duties such as caring for children or elderly relatives. Shingae, who was selected as part of the program to become a "father," must complete his work by 5:30 p.m. and return home. During the one-month period of the experience, he is prohibited from doing overtime. He will even get sudden calls from an imaginary day care center telling him to come pick up his child who is running a fever, and he must stop whatever he is doing to leave work.

The minds behind the system are five women in sales at the company in their 20s and 30s who had no children. At the company, those in sales must adapt to the timetable of the buyers and often attend late-night meetings, and there are few women who have continued to thrive in this environment after having a child. The women wondered if it really was impossible to balance an upward-bound career in sales and motherhood, so they decided to try working under the pretext that they had indeed become mothers to find out.

They were granted permission from the company, and after one month of their trial run, they had been able to almost completely maintain their sales performance and cut their overtime hours by half on average. This was because they had fixed times for coming in and leaving the company, and they had no idea when they might be called away from work, so they pushed tasks forward as much as possible to finish earlier.

"Up until then, I was continuously doing overtime work," said one of the women behind the experiment, 31-year-old Fumika Kono. "But I have become more aware of finishing tasks in a short amount of time." With the confidence that she could continue her job even with children, she gave birth to a son, and went back to working in sales this spring after taking maternity leave.

This February, Kirin decided to expand the testing of the system across all employees, including men, and added the concept of having to handle nursing care of elderly parents to the mix. After completing his month living as a "father," Shingae said, "I was struck by just how hard it is to finish work under time constraints. In order to balance work and child-rearing, in addition to working more efficiently, it made me realize that you have to also have the support of people around you as well."

Meanwhile, at a company training session held at Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co. in the winter of 2017, one participant reflected, "I always thought that only women take child care leave." This idea and others, such as "women who have children cannot travel on business trips," is called unconscious bias, and is said to be one of the obstacles in the way of women thriving in the workforce. Tokio Marine is aiming to heighten the awareness of its employees about these biases in order to promote female employees climbing the corporate ladder in areas such as management.

By shifting awareness of people in a company and being accepting of various work styles that met the situation of each worker, it is possible to create a working environment where everyone can succeed, regardless of sex or whether or not an employee has children.

Tomoe Ishizumi, the CEO of Palo Alto Insight, established the AI implementation support company while raising her two children in Silicon Valley in the United States. "It's when you have a diverse workforce and have fresh perspectives from various angles that new ideas are generated and innovation is born," she said. Efforts to help employees balance work and family and innovations in perceptions still have the possibility to change deeply engrained Japanese corporate culture.

This is Part 3 in a series.

(Mainichi Shimbun)

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