Reducing Harassment and Advancing Women in the Workplace: Telecommuting in the COVID-19 Era

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Journalist Shirakawa Tōko says Japan’s male-dominated corporate culture drives incidents of workplace harassment. However, she argues that this will change as more employees take advantage of initiatives like working from home.

Shirakawa Tōko

Visiting professor at Shōwa Women’s University. Graduated from Keiō University. Worked at Sumitomo Corporation and held positions at several foreign security firms before becoming a journalist. Reports on labor and social issues, including career development, diversity, gender, women’s lifestyles, work-life balance, and work-style reform. Works include Konkatsu jidai (The Age of Spouse Hunting), coauthored with Yamada Masahiro.

A Crisis Unchecked

Workplace harassment is a matter of increasing concern in Japan, as in other countries. The Japanese government has made a modest show of combating the problem, as seen in a Ministry of Labor panel’s adoption of guidelines that require companies to ban power harassment. However, critics say the measures do not go far enough and call on lawmakers to pass concrete legislation to prevent all forms of abuse.

A recent high-profile sexual harassment case involving Ishikawa Yasuharu, a rising star in the business world, offers a sobering illustration of the current state of affairs in Japan. In March of this year, Ishikawa stepped down as CEO of Okayama-based Stripe International, proprietor of popular fashion brands like Earth Music & Ecology, after admitting to sexual misconduct. Ishikawa’s actions came under scrutiny after several female employees accused the company head of inappropriate behavior, including sending suggestive text messages inviting them out on dates and asking them to visit his hotel room during business trips.

In 2018, Stripe International set up a committee to investigate the claims, but despite mountains of evidence of Ishikawa’s appalling behavior, the company chose to look the other way, issuing only a strict warning to the CEO. After the story broke, Ishikawa caved under mounting pressure and resigned his post, but the damage to the firm’s reputation had already been done.

The abuse scandal is particularly shocking considering that Ishikawa was heralded as a crusader for corporate responsibility. According to journalist Shirakawa Tōko, Stripe International was once derided as an exploitive “black corporation” that forced employees to work extreme amounts of overtime. “The practice was so rampant that a group of labor activists even awarded Stripe the unsavory honor of being one of Japan’s ’most evil‘ firms,” Shirakawa explains. However, Ishikawa managed to reverse the company’s tarnished reputation by introducing broad workplace reforms, turning Stripe into an industry model. He earned acclaim for his success and was even appointed to the Cabinet Office’s Council for Gender Equality, an honor difficult to fathom in light of his transgressions.

Shirakawa points out that Stripe made a critical error in failing to recognize the repercussions of Ishikawa’s conduct. Instead of dealing with the incident head on, it viewed it as a personal issue that was of no concern to the firm. Shirakawa says that this is a common stance in corporate Japan, but contends that the scandal has demonstrated that corporations can no longer ignore harassers and must be prepared to deal with incidents swiftly. “One day Stripe was riding high and even being called the next Uniqlo,” she explains. “But now it’s scrambling to salvage its reputation. You can bet that executives around the country followed the dramatic turn of events and are now working to bring their own company policies in line with the times.”

A Chance for Change

Shirakawa insists that Japan’s view of sexual harassment is changing, albeit slowly, and holds up the resignation of Vice Finance Minister Fukuda Jun’ichi in April 2018 amid allegations of misconduct as a watershed moment. A female reporter at TV Asahi accused Fukuda of harassment and sent a voice recording containing sexually explicit remarks by the vice minister to weekly magazine Shūkan Shinchō, which reported the story. “Instead of turning a blind eye to the allegation, as is typical with cases involving prominent bureaucrats, the Ministry of Finance publicly acknowledged that the incident amounted to sexual harassment,” says Shirakawa. “In an unprecedented move, the ministry apologized, calling the bureaucrat’s actions a human rights abuse. The decision to hold Fukuda accountable despite his lofty status sent a clear message to the public that harassment was no longer to be tolerated.”

Encouraged by the TV Asahi reporter who called out Fukuda’s behavior, in May 2018 a group of female journalists established a network to draw attention to the rampant sexual harassment in the media industry. “Members described putting up with harassment in the office and out in the field as the normal state of affairs,” explains Shirakawa. “The women felt the time had come to band together to change the situation and prevent other female journalists from having to endure the same abuse.” The group’s efforts dovetailed with the burgeoning Japanese #MeToo movement, and its activities also caught the attention of Noda Seiko, who at the time was the state minister in charge of women’s empowerment. Shirakawa helped set up an unofficial meeting involving Noda, group members, and business leaders to discuss sexual harassment in the workplace.

As minister, Noda campaigned against abuses of power. She pushed for measures to raise government workers’ understanding of sexual harassment issues, including requiring all senior officials at ministries and agencies to attend awareness training sessions. Spurred by the broader shift in momentum against abusive workplace practices, legislators have started to bolster Japan’s meager antiharassment laws.

In her reporting, Shirakawa has found that Japan’s lack of firm measures to deter harassment has allowed it to continue unchecked. “In abusive work environments you typically see male employees being bullied by superiors and female workers being sexually harassed,” she says. “A major reason why abuse persists is that Japan has never actually outlawed the practice.” She points to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act as an example. “When the bill was first passed, it didn’t specifically declare sexual harassment illegal and only urged businesses to put preventive measures in place. What’s more, it contained no mention of power harassment whatsoever.”

Legislators have since strengthened the language of Japan’s equal employment and women’s empowerment laws to define sexual harassment and maternity harassment as actions that must not take place. In May 2019, the Diet also passed a bill requiring companies take steps to prevent power harassment and to provide consultation services for employees who are the target of abuse. Under the new rules, corporations are also forbidden from retaliating against accusers and are required to cooperate in investigations of sexual harassment brought against staff by other organizations. The regulations are slated to take effect for large companies from June 2020 and smaller firms from April 2022.

Moving Mountains

Shirakawa applauds Japan’s move to bolster antiharassment laws. However, she remains skeptical whether the measures will be effective in changing Japanese corporate culture, as there are still no legal penalties for harassers and businesses are not yet legally obliged to have antiharassment policies on the books. She notes, however, that things are beginning to change. “Companies are starting to draw up stricter measures, like requiring that harassers be transferred to a new section,” she explains. “But it’s largely international corporations that are leading the way. Many firms make it clear to new recruits right from the start that harassment in any form will not be tolerated and include awareness courses as part of company training.” Shirakawa notes that while rules vary—she knows of a company that, aligning its policy with standards used by firms listed on the New York Stock Exchange, draws the line even at a male employee putting a hand on the shoulder of a female colleague while telling her “good work today”—more needs to be done to educate workers in Japan about harassment. “There are still only a handful of Japanese corporations that have drawn up clear-cut guidelines.”

She says that an important step in reducing abuse is for top management to unequivocally commit to eliminating harassment in the workplace. Shirakawa holds up the efforts at Accenture, a global consulting company with offices in Japan, as an example. “The president has made antiharassment measures a key component of broader workplace reforms,” she notes. “The Japanese subsidiary provides access to an independent consulting service to make it easier for employees who fear reprisal to bring abuse claims forward, and it conducts a survey each quarter to gauge the progress of work-reform measures, including a question on whether the office environment is tolerant of harassment.” She adds that the results of the questionnaire enable managers to identify trouble spots, and in cases of harassment, to bring in specialists to address issues.

Birds of a Feather

Shirakawa says that perpetrators of sexual harassment feel compelled by antiquated ideas of male superiority to assert their power, dominance, and control over women. She contends that Japan’s male-centric corporate culture with its high value on conformity creates an environment where harassers can abuse their positions of power with impunity. “Diversity and women’s empowerment have become buzzwords,” she says. “But at the end of the day, even companies that tout these ideas still tend to promote employees—mostly men—who are willing to put the needs of the organization first, reinforcing Japan’s rigid, male-dominated business culture. Without tough legislation, such firms are unlikely to draw up comprehensive policies about sexual harassment on their own.”

To change the workplace environment, Shirakawa says that companies must promote individuals—both men and women—with diverse backgrounds. “Right now, it is particularly important that firms promote more women to managerial positions,” she declares. “If companies involve more female employees in the decision-making process, we’ll see a drastic change in the approach they take to sexual harassment.”

She laments that traditional gender roles continue to keep women from participating in the workplace: “It is still common for husbands to see themselves first and foremost as breadwinners and to leave the bulk of childrearing to their wives. Even when couples share parenting responsibilities, policies like childcare leave and reduced working hours are geared toward women, so that when female staff return to work, they are frequently passed over for promotion and shuffled off to the so-called mommy track. The only way to fix this imbalance is to include individuals with parenting experience in the policymaking process.”

Shirakawa says that the media suffers from a similar male-centric leaning. In 2016, an anonymous blog post slamming the government’s failure to provide adequate childcare services went viral, prompting a frenzy of media coverage. “I had several female colleagues who for years had been saying that the lack of daycare facilities was keeping women from pursuing their careers,” she explains. “However, their male editors, most of whom had no notion of what it’s like to be a working parent, didn’t show interest in the story until it blew up on social media.” She stresses that while the media has a duty to draw attention to issues that affect all members of society, those aspects of the culture that disadvantage women will continue to be underreported as long as men decide what stories lead the news. “If outlets had been more proactive in their coverage of the daycare issue, it would have forced policy makers into action earlier and maybe saved women like the author of the blog from undue trauma.”

Crisis as a Driver of Change

As Japan and the rest of the world embrace strict stay-at-home measures to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shirakawa sees the shift toward working remotely as an opportunity to reduce harassment. “Companies that hold on doggedly to the old work culture of long hours at the office are typically places where abusive practices remain entrenched,” she says. “However, the health crisis is forcing employers to adopt measures like telework and flexible work hours.” She insists that corporate Japan’s response to the coronavirus is ushering in a paradigm shift. “We’re seeing telecommuting diversify the workforce in unprecedented ways by opening up opportunities for women to expand their roles at companies.”

Telework is often promoted by authorities in times of crisis. “In the past, France dealt with rampant air pollution by having people work from home,” explains Shirakawa. “In Japan, many firms had employees work remotely in the tumultuous months following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and the government has endorsed telework as a means to reduce congestion in Tokyo during the Olympics and Paralympics.” She says that these initiatives have primed companies for adopting telecommuting, but that COVID-19 has forced businesses to adopt work-from-home measures. According to a survey by Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobby, as of early March 70% of companies had adopted or were planning to adopt telework.

Shirakawa anticipates that the ongoing shift in how the Japanese work will reshape their society. “Remote working is here to stay,” she declares. “As it expands, we’ll see the factors that have long reinforced Japan’s traditional gender roles gradually fall by the wayside.” She notes that once parents are freed from long commutes and late nights in the office, mothers will find it easier to be the breadwinners of the family and fathers will be able to devote more of their time to childrearing. “This will bring about deep and long-lasting social change.”

(Originally published in Japanese, based on an interview by Itakura Kimie of Banner image © Pixta.)

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