In Japan, death by overwork is so common it has a name, karoshi, and is monitored annually by the government. The Japanese government is now planning to impose a cap on overtime of 100 hours a month. But with more than 20% of workers clocking dangerous levels of overtime each month, according to a government survey in 2015, is this enough to make a difference?
NORIKO SILVESTER talks about efficiency and productivity in her role as a #SpotlightonJapan Ambassador and shares her own #BeBoldForChange message.
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.
Noriko Silvester – SPOTLIGHT AMBASSADOR INTERVIEW
Managing Director, Candlewick PR
Interview by Lucy Alexander
Noriko Silvester believes that working mothers make outstanding employees.
She employs mostly women at her central Tokyo PR and marketing consultancy, Candlewick, not out of deliberate gender bias, but because she prizes efficiency and productivity above all else.
“Working mothers are very good at fitting a lot of work into a short space of time, so they make very good employees. The good use of one minute is very important to us. This was just something I observed when I became an employer, it wasn’t a deliberate strategy.” Her 18 staff, 80% of whom are mothers, work flexibly, those with young children often leaving the office by 5pm. This is unheard of in Japan, where death by overwork is so common it has a name, karoshi, and is monitored annually by the government.
Silvester is not an advocate of the Lean In style of feminism that puts the onus on women to work harder at self promotion in order to get noticed. Instead she believes that men have to change. The #BeBoldforChange campaign for International Women’s Day 2017, supported by Spotlight on Japan, should be directed squarely at “company owners and top management, who are usually male. Otherwise we will have to wait for their retirement, which will take too long”.
Japan has made some progress since Silvester’s youth, when she trained as secretary in the early 1980s and quickly got bored “arranging lunches for other people”. She went into sales and marketing and eventually started her own firm in 2003.
Her mother had been a housewife, as were all her friends. To become “a daughter-in-law in your husband’s house was the happiest life your daughter could have”, she said. “In those days, for women to reach management positions was very rare. Even after the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was enacted [in 1986], many companies still treated female employees as support staff.”
Today, there is still a tendency in younger generations, says Silvester, “to lack specific ambitions and to believe that women do not need challenge”. Together with the difficulty of combining parenthood with work, this creates a “negative campaign for young women, blocking their opportunities and shrinking their futures”. If nothing changes, she says, “young women’s potential will end before it has started”.
The path ahead is not easy for Japan, which is currently going backwards in terms of progress. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, talks a lot about helping women to “shine”, but the latest Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum shows Japan has fallen to 111th place out of 145 countries, down 23 places in 10 years.
Silvester’s bold recipe for change is education. Mothers need to be taught not to prepare everything for their sons and both parents should encourage their daughters to be ambitious. Schools should encourage children to follow their dreams and career women should be held up as examples for children to emulate. Company managers at mid and top level need to be shown how to shake up their mind-set.
Finally, Silvester says husbands need to learn how to support their wives’ careers. Her English husband expects her to make an equal contribution to the family finances, she says, and they share domestic chores and the care of their son equally.
For real progress to occur, and for a broader diversity to take root, she says, we need to switch the conversation from the differences between men and women, to one of encouraging individuality in all its forms. For Japan, that will indeed require bold change. #BeBoldforChange
Noriko Silvester with her team at Candlewick PR