A law in Japan with no penalty if you fail to reach your goal
Japan has recently marked the 30th anniversary of a law to ban discrimination against women in the workplace. In April 2016 a new law went into effect forcing companies for the first time to create concrete plans and publicly document their efforts on the issue.
Under the new law, companies with more than 301 employees are obliged to draw up action plans with numerical targets to promote women, including goals for female new hires and putting women in managerial posts.
However, there is no penalty if they fail to reach their goals.
One woman who honours Japanese culture, but follows international standards, is Sonja Vodusek – the first female General Manager of a 5* hotel in Tokyo. Sonja is supporting Spotlight on Japan 2017 as an Ambassador. Here you can read her story of change management, empowering working mothers to work flexibly and trailblazing in the Japan hotel industry.
To get involved with Spotlight on Japan 2017 please register to attend the evening event at The Peninsula Hotel on Tuesday 7th March. Register here.
Sonja Vodusek – SPOTLIGHT AMBASSADOR INTERVIEW
General Manager, The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo
Interview by Lucy Alexander
Sonja Vodusek is not a natural smasher of glass ceilings. The first female general manager of a major international hotel in Japan, Vodusek believes her gender is irrelevant to her job. “I’ve always worked in a male environment”, she says briskly, “and I have never felt discriminated against.”
Her appointment to the top job at the Peninsula Hotel in central Tokyo in 2015 was, she says, simply because “my skill set was the right fit for this hotel at this time”.
“People ask me, ‘What’s the difference between a male general manager and a female?’. Well there is no difference – you still need to know that your revenue minus expenses equals profit and you still need to have the right skills for your particular position.”
Vodusek concedes that her appointment “probably did break a glass ceiling from a Japanese culture perspective”, but her role in the wider organisation is not unusual. “Peninsula already has four female general managers”, she says, “which is probably the highest proportion in a hotel group around the world as we only have ten hotels.”
Women burdened by family responsibilities have typically not risen to the top in an industry that involves multiple relocations overseas. This has narrowed the pool of available talent to men who feel able to prioritise their own careers. Vodusek decided early on that this was the path she would follow.
“I made the choice that I wanted to be mobile”, she said. “If you want to be in the global hotel industry you need to be mobile. I chose not to have children and to focus on my career.”
Growing up in Yarrawonga, in rural Australia, Vodusek worked for her family’s pastoral business as the only woman out of 400 men, and planned her escape. One day she read in the local paper about a Swiss hotel management school opening near Sydney. “I said, ‘That’s it!’”
Her first hotel job took her to Japan, where she spent six months as a room attendant. In 1997 she was hired by Four Seasons, who dispatched her “from Sydney to Dublin back to Tokyo, then Houston, Washington DC and Prague”. She then joined Peninsula Hotels, and worked in New York and Manila, before her move to Tokyo in 2015. “I spent maybe two years in each place”, said Vodusek. “Sometimes I didn’t even unpack my boxes.”
Vodusek is currently trying to rein in her working hours to set a good example to her workaholic Japanese staff. She is determined to bring the hotel’s working practices up to international standards of efficiency and flexibility. “We honour Japanese culture but we follow international standards”, says Vodusek. “So that means making sure our staff take their vacation and that they don’t work excessive hours. We’re also looking at promoting people above their managers.”
In the West (outside America), where mothers have long been entitled to maternity leave and flexible working, fathers are now beginning to benefit from similar rights, as part of a growing recognition that women-only parental leave perpetuates workplace discrimination. Japan is still in the early part of this cycle, and take-up of paternity leave was less than 3% in 2015.
At the Peninsula, Vodusek is working hard to make life easier for mothers, but admits fathers are a challenge: “So far we haven’t had much interest from fathers in flexible working or paternity leave”, she says.
Vodusek has instigated a system that allows mothers to work flexibly, a policy that she says is “very unusual in the hotel industry in Japan”. Concierge staff, for example, can now answer emails from home. “Some people might suggest that’s not being fair to other employees, but I think it’s being smart.”
Change management is one of Vodusek’s greatest challenges. Hotels, she says, become “stale” if they do not stay ahead of the curve. There are obvious parallels with Japan, a nation which at times seems to be in denial that it is no longer the 1970s.
“Japan is still conservative in its mindset”, says Vodusek, “but I think a lot can be achieved with communication. Generally the whole goal of leadership is getting people do things they would not normally do.”