Ms. Uchinagi, left, and Ms. Murofushi, pose with race car driver Takumi Sato during a special luncheon session before their panel.

TOKYO — Japan has made some strides reducing its well-documented gender imbalance, but the moves have been insufficient and too slow, prominent advocates for women in the workforce said at the SEUS-Japan conference last Friday. 

While firms have “atoned” for some past oversights by introducing visible measures to train and equip women, top leadership positions remain stubbornly male, they said.

Only 35 of 125 seats in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, are held by women, and just three of 86 university presidents nationally are women. Boardrooms are just as monolithic. Japan still sits near the bottom on gender equality in most global rankings, well below its peers in the OECD.

“It’s very embarrassing for an advanced and developed country,” said Kimiko Murofushi, resident, Professional University of Beauty & Wellness and former president of of Ochanomizu University. 

But more than a blot on its record, the problem presents a potentially existential challenge at a time of profound shifts in the global economy, said Yukako Uchinaga, founder of J-WIN — the Japan Women’s Innovative Network, which counts 173 corporate members. 

Entrenched business models with male monocultures means a lack of diversity companies need to innovate in fast-changing world. They’ll also miss out on opportunities like “fem-tech,” a growing category of products focused on addressing the unique needs of half the population. 

“It’s not just about women’s lifestyles; it’s a matter of survival — it’s as serious as that,” said Ms. Uchinaga, whose organization was founded in 2007, years before former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enacted programs aimed at using female empowerment as one means to revitalize Japan’s sluggish economy.

Ms. Murofushi, meanwhile, said that data show that companies that include women tend to perform better. In one study of a million Japanese patents filed by 400 firms, those listing female inventors far out-earned those that didn’t. 

“By female inventors being involved, it is clear that economic value is being proclaimed,” she said through an interpreter. 

Ms. Uchinaga cited three hindrances to women’s inclusion in the workplace: a lack of female role models, threats to work/life balance in a country where caregiving falls disproportionately on women, and what she called the most insidious factor: the “old boys network.” 

This “unspoken culture and atmosphere” exists all over the world but is particularly strong in Japan, she said, given a system of lifetime employment that reinforces male patronage networks and intentionally locks out women. 

But the resulting conformity, while leading to consensus, threatens companies’ ability to create the new business models that are increasingly needed in a fast-changing world. 

Ms. Murofushi added that measures should be taken to eliminate “unconscious prejudice” toward women and avoid pigeon-holing them into certain fields without evaluating them based on their skills.

Like Ms. Uchinaga, she believes Japan must address this issue to “realize sustainable development of a society that is losing its viability in the face of stagnation.”

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...