Our 5th Spotlight Amabassador, Kiyo Weiss, shares her own #BeBoldForChange thoughts in the run up to International Women’s Day and the Spotlight on Japan 2017 event. Real action on overtime, job mobility, education and learning English is required, she says. “Cultural change takes time, and we just have to keep trying to influence the government.”
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.
Kiyo Weiss – SPOTLIGHT AMBASSADOR INTERVIEW
General Manager, Air Canada Japan
Interview by Lucy Alexander
When Kiyo Weiss was growing up in 1970s Tokyo, on the brink of the bubble era, her highest ambition was to find a high-flying husband who would take her travelling around the world. Instead, she became a high-flyer in her own right, as the first woman general manager of Air Canada in Japan.
The young Kiyo was influenced by her father, the executive vice-president of Kobe Steel, who worked abroad for long periods, leaving Kiyo with her mother, a housewife. “He brought home inspirational stories from Africa, the Middle East, Australia and India”, she said. “I think that was the start of my life as a so-called career woman.”
But a career was not Weiss’s priority when she joined Mitsui & Co as an administrative assistant in 1984 – a job that she says was only open to women. “I hoped that I would find a husband who would travel abroad so I could go with him”. But after a year, she was bored. “I saw all these men speaking in English on the phone with foreign countries and using the company’s money to go out for nice dinners. Their life looked much more interesting than mine.”
Weiss resigned, spent two years studying English, and went to work for United Airlines, beating 1,000 other applicants to the job. She was swiftly promoted to head of sales and marketing, with 150 unionised staff under her. She married an American basketball player and had a daughter – paying another school mum to care for her daughter after school.
In 2009, she was head-hunted by Air Canada, and became general manager three years ago – the first woman GM of any airline in Japan at the time. “Every time I’ve been promoted I have always been the first woman to do that job” she said. “I don’t think if I had worked for JAL or ANA I would have been promoted in the same way.”
She believes major changes to Japanese society are necessary for women to break the dependency mindset that she herself outgrew. “Women tend to think they should become an average worker but a good mother”, she said. “But what if a woman doesn’t like her life with the man she married? It’s important that women have financial independence.”
Another priority is slashing overtime, a national disease that kills thousands each year. In October, the government said that one in five Japanese employees worked more 80 hours of overtime every month – the official risk threshold for karoshi, or death by overwork.
New government proposals to limit overtime to 720 hours a year, with a reported maximum of 100 hours in any one month, seem feeble, particularly as managers are exempted.
If overtime makes work difficult for mothers, Japan’s jobs-for-life culture makes it impossible. “Japanese workers are protected very strongly. So if women quit to concentrate on raising children for a year or two, then finding a new job is very difficult because men don’t leave. Japanese companies need a more performance-oriented culture and a little less worker protection.”
The real work, of course, starts after-hours in the izakaya. Japanese people, says Weiss, cannot speak their minds at work. Going for drinks with colleagues allows them to talk freely, which “creates trust between bosses and subordinates”. This “closed networking space” discriminates against working mothers, who prioritise productive and efficient completion of tasks so they can get home on time.
Weiss dismisses as hot air government initiatives such as the abandoned target to shoehorn women into 30% of “leadership roles” by 2020. Real action on overtime, job mobility, education and learning English is required, she says. “Cultural change takes time, and we just have to keep trying to influence the government.”
Kiyo Weiss with her Air Canada team