In the decades that we have worked to grow programs to empower women leaders, we have seen equality movements build across the world and east Asia is no different. This July we partnered with the newly created Academy for Gender Parity, an organization built by two well-known gender researchers, Professors Mari Miura and Ki-young Shin, with the aim to train and inspire women to run for office throughout Japan. Currently, Japan is ranked 158th globally in women’s political representation, with the lower house comprised of only 10% women.
Japan offers a beautiful and rich culture, but also one that continues a strong legacy of patriarchy which allows for distinct challenges for women advancing into their own career and self-identity. While we were struck by the sophistication and efficiency the Japanese people command, we were also introduced to young women’s stories about hate speech online, challenges to retain their own name in marriage, and difficulties with expectations about being a mother while also building a professional career. Like everywhere in the world, each culture offers its own menu of challenges impeding a context that actually appreciates and values women in leadership.
Supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, we conducted a weekend training that brought together women from across Japan to teach nuts and bolts skills to run for elected office. Our hope was to share our stories of how we have built women’s political programs through our previous work at National Democratic Institute (NDI), Running Start, and Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, and to share our experience with the women’s movement building in the United States and globally. It is important for us, wherever we speak, that we ensure our audience knows that they are not alone. We are there to support their leadership journey, but also to share that there are many women around the world who face similar circumstances.
We were inspired by the women we met. Considering that everyone was fairly new to the idea of running for office (for the most part) the confidence and passion to lead was palpable. The issues the women raised -- domestic violence, economic strife, gender discrimination, educational access -- all came with personal stories and an understanding that they were working on issues that impacted their sisters, their mothers, and their friends. We hope to continue the work we have started in Japan. The women there are ready and desperately needed to lead in an important time of economic stagnation and an aging population.
After experiencing a week of near perfect efficiency, we experienced a difficult exit from the country. Our co-founder Jessica Grounds was pumping breast milk the whole week to keep her milk supply up while she was away from her 6 month old baby. In the final days she kept her milk frozen at the hotel to bring back and replenish the milk supply used while she was away. But she was stopped at the airport by Japanese security and was not permitted to bring the milk on board because she didn’t have the baby. After an hour and a half of arguing with security she gave up. While we have already elevated this issue with the airline executives and encourage our friends in Japan to change this policy, it was an “in your face” example of how the lack of women in leadership impacts everyday people. It is a rule that penalizes working moms who want to continue to breastfeed while they are away for work travel. It was a stark contrast from our week of hospitality and efficiency, but an important example that having women in leadership matters and our work is more important than ever.