Working Mothers Live With Perceptions, Realities

Posted by Donna Welton
March 11, 2009
Woman Cuddles Toddler as She Looks at Tokyo Securities Firm Electronic Stock Board

About the Author: Donna Welton serves as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate-General in Sapporo, Japan.

My friends always tease me about the glamorous life of a diplomat. I am sitting here writing on my rather downscale, government-issued computer in my "glamorous" office, surrounded by weeks of papers, a sticky note to remind me to call the only English-speaking piano teacher within four hours of here for my daughter, and a gym bag under my desk (if I keep it underfoot, it will annoy me enough to actually go to the gym, or at least that is the reasoning). I feel anything but glamorous. I feel like a working mother. Which is what I am. Every day you say, "Well, at least I got here. At least I am presentably dressed." And, for the record, I hate making school lunches. Tuna in the morning, horrible.

So, to mark International Women's Week, I decided to play to my strengths.

I was invited some time ago by a group of software and IT professionals to speak to their semi-annual gathering. (When you are Consul General, people like to invite you "to speak." Usually this involves a luncheon at a hotel, everyone eats quickly, and you talk about U.S. policy in the region or the financial crisis while the coffee and dessert are served, quickly, before everyone falls asleep. In Japan this is a real danger because they work late, and they have a very rapidly aging population.) Actually I was invited to speak to the women's group, the stepsisters to the bigger group of male professionals. Japan is not that progressive. The gender wage gap alone is the largest among OECD countries. (If you are interested in the research on this, one good place to take a look is this report.) I do feel strongly about that other half of the population who do not get full opportunity in the world's second largest economy and how this affects Japan's growth and productivity. Not to mention innovation.

I negotiated. I said, "I will talk if both groups attend." They said, "Okay, we will invite the men, too." So I arrived with my speech on the need for family policy, not women's policy, statistics at the ready. We entered into the question and answer period. People shared their stories. We talked a bit about what a consulate does. Many people were curious about President Obama and what he means to the United States. It was a good exchange. Then the guy in the front asked me his question: "Well, you have been divorced twice, does that mean you don't want to get married again?" I could sense my economics specialist, Ms. Baba, going into apoplexy in the back. I said sweetly, "Of course not, I am all for marriage, I was just married to the wrong guys before." Next question? Baba-san was still recovering.

This morning we received an email from one of the participants, one of the women. She works at the largest bank in the region. It really made my day, almost making up for the school lunches. She wrote to Baba-san, "Today after hearing a good speech for a change (laugh), I felt a lot more energized. I am looking forward to the next time we can meet. It will be good to have some stimulating conversation. I am jealous that you get to work for such a glamorous Consul General."

I guess I just have to learn to live with it.



California, USA
March 12, 2009

Wendy in California writes:

Tuna in the morning. Tres droll. Glad to see that you keep up with your Vitamin I. (Vitamin Irony.)

Austin P.
Indiana, USA
March 28, 2009

Austin P. in Indiana writes:

What caught my eye was the report on wage inequality within the nation of Japan. It's interesting that women, as the report states, are sometimes given short-term dead-end jobs in expectations of a brief tenure with the company. In my opinion, this has the dangerous potential to create self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, if women are given jobs with no growth potential with the assumption that they will soon leave the position, they may respond with short tenures because that is precisely what is expected of them.

However, at the same time, I fear that my view is tainted by a Western perspective. I know that Japanese culture is much more communal than that of the United States. I've read parts of Peter Dale's "The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness", a nihonjinron (although one written by a fellow westerner.) He writes about the key differences between our society and theirs, but what bits I've managed to peruse don't really mention the differences between male and female opportunities.

So I'm left wondering about the nature of women in the Japanese workplace. Are those who seek further advancement a minority compared to those who stand with the status quo? Japan certainly seems to have a set family structure and there is no rush to break it. Or is there an innate desire by a plurality of women to move beyond the glass ceiling?

I guess, in the end, in searching for an answer, I only raised more questions for myself.


Latest Stories