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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Uniting to Bridge the Gender Gap

Nov. 26, 2015

The Japanese government has been trying to lift the status of women. A recent study tour by women from the Middle East highlighted some similarities and differences between the two societies.

Women in the United Arab Emirates, like Japan, are highly educated. But they're typically paid less and get fewer promotions than their male colleagues.

In the World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap Index, the UAE ranks 119, and Japan 101. Both lag far behind other developed countries. A Japanese oil industry group invited 13 women from UAE and Kuwait to Japan last week as part of a training program.

The purpose was for women from both countries who work in the same industry to share their experiences and problems.

One of the visitors is Maryam Amiri, a public relations executive at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. She got married last year and hopes to have children. "It's always interesting to see the similarities and differences between two cultures," she said. "And since I have come here, I have realized there are actually many more similarities than differences, between UAE and Japan."

The delegates visited Ippodo Tea Company, a 300-year-old retailer. Women account for 70 percent of its workforce. Company officials believe female workers provide valuable hospitality for their customers. So the firm offers benefits including flexible maternity and child-care leave.

The women took part in a lesson on serving Japanese tea.

Company employee Miwa Ozaki led the demonstration. She has taken maternity leave twice. Now she's in charge of handling customers from overseas, while raising her children at home. Amiri spoke to Ozaki after the tea lesson.

She asked, "Was it easy to manage your work after you came back from maternity leave?"

Ozaki answered, "It was not too difficult, I could smoothly start working again."

"It's important to work for a company that can support your work life balance," said Amiri.

The number of male and female students at university in the UAE is almost equal. But women encounter the gender gap when they enter the workforce. They earn less and get fewer opportunities. Migrant workers make up around 90 percent of the country's population. So the government has adopted a so-called "Emiratization" policy, to replace skilled foreign workers with Emirati citizens, including women.

Japan's oil industry organization, the JCCP, has been fostering human resources in Middle Eastern oil-producing countries. It launched a training program for women from both societies.

The women write about the challenges they face. Balancing work and child care was at the top of the list. When a Japanese participant asked about maternity leave in the UAE, oil company employee Mahra Al Nuaimi answered, "In our country, we have a maternity leave for up to 45 days. And we also have what we call custody leave, for 15 days."

The Japanese woman answered that "In Japan, we can take maternity leave until the child turns one year old." She explained that female employees on such leave can receive about 70 percent of their salary for one year.

Another group of female managers debated how to help future generations of women play a more active role in business.

Amiri said, "Yes we have a lot of exposure inside the company on technical meetings, but when we talk about critical settings, international settings, you don't see many females."

At the end of the session, the participants presented their findings and shared ways to overcome their career challenges. They made a number of proposals including strengthening childcare support and allowing flexible working hours. A member of the UAE managerial team made the point that such recommendations will never be successful without a leadership commitment as well as the women’s own willingness towards advancing their careers.

Reiko Kawakubo, Executive Officer at Tonengeneral Sekiyu, said the session was helpful. "I've learned a lot. I need to be more assertive in finding opportunities instead of waiting for them to be offered to me," she said. "I think I'll market myself more aggressively to stand out."

Abeer Al mehairbi, the Learning and Career Management Manager at ADONOC, said "I think the most important thing is the support from people around you, from family, work place, work environment, friends, even the community."

The UAE is one of the richest countries in the Middle East thanks to its vast oil reserves. Per capita GDP is more than 40 thousand dollars. The country is considered to be more open to foreign cultures compared to many of its neighbors, like Saudi Arabia. The UAE receives a lot of foreign investment, and many major international companies have offices there.

Maryam Amiri, one of the program's participants, joined NEWSROOM TOKYO anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Maryam, Japan and the UAE both rank poorly in terms of women’s participation in the workforce. And I’m sure there are other countries that set better examples. Why did you decide to come here?

Amiri: There is lot in common between UAE and Japan. Many people might not know this, but we value traditions and heritage and culture, the same way Japanese people value such culture and heritage as well. Therefore, dealing with a country where we have such similarities is a very easy first step to take. There’s also a very long history between UAE and Japan. Our first crude oil shipment was made to Japan even before the country was established.

Beppu: In the early 1970s?

Amiri: Absolutely. So there was a fair chance we should both be working on this.

Shibuya: As a working woman in the UAE, what are some of the challenges you face day to day?

Amiri: Our challenges might be quite different to the challenges that most women face in other countries. As you know, UAE is quite a small country with very high ambitions. We have many development plans for the economy and the country. Emirati women sometimes even feel pressured to excel both in their studies and their careers just so we can keep up with the country’s ambitious development plans. On one hand, a lot of countries might say, you know, women might not be given a fair chance to take up leadership positions. In the UAE we’re put under pressure to take up these leadership positions as quickly as possible.

Beppu: Well, in Japan, when the government or the business section talks about women’s participation, it is widely understood that they raise this not only for gender equality reasons, but also as economic policy, to make women more active in the workforce, or to encourage women to consume more. It’s considered a way to promote the economy. But you say that in the UAE, you have this Emiratization policy, which is to employ more nationals in the workforce. Is women’s participation encouraged also for business or economic reasons as well?

Amiri: Absolutely. We have a highly skilled pool of talented and qualified women. We don’t feel so much difference in the opportunities that are presented to both men and women, though there might be some personal or cultural barriers that could either stop us or maybe slow us down.

Shibuya: Coming to Japan this time, did you find anything or learn anything that you wanted to take back to your country?

Amiri: Absolutely. Absolutely. Talking to my Japanese colleagues I saw that many of their companies put diversity programs in place. They have very flexible maternity and childcare leave as well. This is something we can definitely learn from and take back to our country. Of course, something that both men and women appreciate is to have a life work balance. We may be very ambitious in our careers, but if we don’t have that balance, they could be very short-lived.

Everybody needs to have time to spend with their families, their friends and on their own. So having such policies in place not only shows that the leadership is committed to making sure both men and women excel in their careers, but you also have time to spend with your family and friends as well.

Beppu: On the other hand, what do you think the women here in Japan can learn from the women’s struggle in the UAE?

Amiri: I think that most Japanese women are just a little bit, um, shy to ask for opportunities or to grab opportunities. Most of us believe that if we work hard enough, things will happen -- that I deserve to be promoted. But that might not be the case.

And I think that this is something we can learn from men. So instead of waiting, I think one thing that women both in the UAE and Japan can learn is to say, yes, I will ask to be part of this project, and this is the kind of value that I would bring to it. There is no problem in asking. And I think this is something that we need to personally achieve, to ask for opportunities.