How Technology Can Revolutionize Women’s Work-Life Balance


BT Japan President Yoshida Haruno recently became the first female director at Keidanren, a prominent business lobby. We talked to her about how the accelerating technical revolution is helping expand opportunities for working women.

Yoshida Haruno

Born in Tokyo in 1966. Graduated from Keiō University in 1988. Joined Motorola Japan in 1990. After getting married, moved to Canada and joined a local telecommunications company. Later divorced and moved to the United States as a single mother. Joined the sales division of NTT America. In 2004 was assigned by the company to Japan, where she worked as head of the sales division at NTT Communications. In 2008 was headhunted to run the sales division at Verizon Japan. In 2012 she became president of BT Japan. In 2015 she became vice-chair and director of Keidanren.

In Washington as head of the Keidanren Female Executives Mission in late February 2017. (© Jiji)

Yoshida Haruno is one of the most prominent faces of the government’s recent drive to  give women the chance to excel and play a wider role in society. She is certainly leading by example. Yoshida is the president of BT Japan, the Japanese wing of British Telecom, and in September 2015 became the first female vice-chair of the Keidanren business lobby. She now heads its committee on gender equality. In late February this year she visited the United States as head of the Keidanren Female Executives Mission, made up of senior women from various Japanese companies. She had meetings with Dina Powell, presidential advisor in charge of supporting female entrepreneurs, as well as numerous women executives in major companies.

“These days I often describe myself in interviews and seminars by saying that I wear four different hats. There’s my job as president of BT. At the same time, I’m a vice-chair at Keidanren. Then since last September I’ve been a member of the government’s Regulatory Reform Promotion Council. And there’s also my role as mother to my daughter. I seem to spend my days dashing from one meeting to another! And then there are the overseas business trips and missions. I get to bed at 11 every night, and I’m up by four the next morning, watching CNN and catching up with the latest stories about the Trump presidency. It’s all so exciting. I can’t sleep through it.”

Following Her Own Path

“Right now, Japanese society is at a major turning point,” Yoshida says. The cabinet has approved plans to push forward with the development of what is being called Society 5.0. The aim is to use information and communications technology to promote innovation and build a new type of “smart” society that will boost productivity and at the same time be more flexible in terms of working patterns and lifestyles. As the representative of the business world, Keidanren is supportive of these efforts and optimistic about their potential. What are the possibilities of the technological revolution in terms of expanding opportunities for women and supporting new work styles?

“Today I am seen as some kind of representative of the age, as the first female vice-chair of Keidanren. But I followed a very roundabout path to get where I am today. I graduated from university in the late 1980s, at the height of the bubble era. I was still a student when the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed in 1985.

“To be honest, during my student days I never really thought much beyond working for a while after graduation and then getting married and becoming a full-time housewife. But I suddenly came down with a serious illness that hit me almost at the same time as I graduated from university. No one seemed to know what was causing it, but I had terrible fevers and almost lost my eyesight. For a while I think it was touch and go whether I was going to live through it. Eventually I recovered, but by then I had already missed my chance to join a Japanese company as a new recruit fresh out of university. Instead I found a job with Motorola’s Japan branch. I was a big fan of foreign films in those days, and I think that helped my English and enabled me to get through the interview. When I joined Motorola, I encountered ICT for the first time.

“Then in the second half of my twenties I married a Canadian man and moved to Canada. At the time my only thought was to become a happy Canadian mother and have loads of kids. That was my dream. But unfortunately life doesn't always go according to plan!” says Yoshida with a relaxed laugh.

“Instead, I ended up getting divorced and moving to the United States as a single mother. Life was tough. I had to bring up my daughter on my own while I worked at a succession of telecom companies. But there were good aspects too. I enjoyed my work in sales. In fact, you could say I was saved by the digital industry. I’ve never worked in a regular Japanese company. I’ve never experienced a lot of the rites of passage that go with having a regular job in Japan. I’ve never had anyone coach me on my career path. I was just motivated to work hard to raise my daughter. I was driven by a strong desire to get through the difficult times and make something of my life. As a result I have worked in companies around the world. I didn't have any special gifts or talents, and I didn’t even think about the glass ceiling. If I have a regret, it’s that I wasn't able to prioritize spending time with my daughter more. That was a problem.”

Yoshida once dreamed of a life as a full-time housewife, but events pushed her to forge a career for herself and succeed as a single mother.

Technology and the Work-Life Balance

Yoshida says the reforms of working styles that Japan is trying to introduce now would have been impossible when she was bringing up her daughter 20 or 30 years ago. “Recent technological revolutions make it possible to balance home and work life without reducing productivity. Long working hours are not realistic. The lack of proper work-life balance causes problems for everyone—men and women, all over the world. And although we cannot change the basic fact that there are only 24 hours in the day, the digital age allows us to maximize the amount of meaningful activity we can squeeze into one day.

“The postwar technological revolution in the home liberated women from housework so they could join the workforce. Now we need to promote a similar technological revolution in our offices. Today, it’s possible to do your work anytime, anywhere—your office can be any place you happen to be with your computer switched on. Ideally we want to see systems introduced that will allow people to take part in meetings wherever they happen to be. BT has jointly developed a high quality audio speech meeting service together with the US audio company Dolby that facilitates virtual meetings. This makes it possible to take part in a meeting wherever you might be—not only from home but also on the move. All you have to do is click on the smartphone app. This helps to boost productivity. The adoption of this kind of teleworking tool will be a vital part of making a better work-life balance a reality and increasing women’s participation.

Plenty of Room for Economic Growth

Japan still lags some distance behind most other rich countries in terms of introducing technological innovations to the workplace. “And of course we are still several decades behind in terms of encouraging women’s full participation. I am the first female president of BT Japan. And I think for the management in London it was quite a daring decision to choose me for the position—and this is in the context of a head office that is quite proactive about improving employment diversity by providing better opportunities for women, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and immigrants. So I think that’s one thing we need more of in Japan: people who are prepared to make bold decisions.”

Yoshida says that the outstanding skills of Japanese women are already widely acknowledged internationally. “According to surveys carried out by the OECD, Japanese women’s literacy and numeracy levels are among the highest in the world.” Despite this, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 111th out of 144 countries in its 2016 Gender Gap Index—its lowest ever position.

“But it’s no use simply getting pessimistic. The fact that Japan lags so far behind means our economy still has that much room to grow. Let’s assume that half our population of 130 million people is female—these numbers should be a huge global asset for us. The question is: How can we tap this potential and make the best of it? We all need to think of solutions and put those ideas into practice. Change and reform bring some degree of pain. But we mustn’t hesitate for that reason—this pain is the pain of growth.”

Yoshida says she feels a genuine sense of the dynamism and drive that women are increasingly bringing to the workplace. But she also feels a keen sense of dismay about the growing numbers of families with single mothers and the worsening problem of child poverty. According to a survey carried out by the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor in 2012, around one in every six children below the age of 18 lives in poverty—and over 50% of single-parent households. “Children have huge untapped potential. They are vital for the future of this country. It would be a tremendous loss for Japan if we failed to give these children the proper education opportunities they need to bring out and develop those talents. The government and business sector must take all the necessary measures to address the problems that our children face.” Yoshida insists that the key is to find a way to convert the battling determination and hard work of single mothers into positive economic energy.

Yoshida says that Japan has some of the most talented women in the world, and needs to do more to make better use of these assets.

Living Your Life to the Fullest

Yoshida accepts that the government will have to play a leading role in the ongoing technological revolution and that close collaborations between government and the private sector will be an essential part of tackling issues and making the reforms a success. But she stresses that technological breakthroughs on their own will not be enough. Individuals have a huge part to play too: personal motivation and a strong desire to make the most of one’s abilities are just as important as drivers of social change.

“To achieve sustainable ongoing reform, we need mechanisms that will foster motivation, and we need to scrap the regulations that prevent women from fulfilling themselves in their careers. This will involve reforming our social security and taxation systems, introducing performance-related pay, and ensuring that we have the right leaders who can steer the whole enterprise and inspire motivation. These three elements are vital.”

But Yoshida says that the government drive to promote female participation in the workforce does not mean that everyone has to be a leader. Rather, women should be able to use the latest technology to help them pursue their goals whatever their chosen sphere, while also raising their children and providing care for other family members who may need it. The aim is to make it possible for women to follow their own wishes and expand their potential to the widest extent. “And for that, you need to be constantly pushing yourself to refine your abilities—what can you do to maximize your individual strengths?” A society built more around individuals will bring new challenges of its own in some respects. “But I know from my own experience that it is in moments of crisis that you can find new sources of strength and seize new opportunities.”

Today it has become common for people to live to 80 or 90. In thinking about the question of work-life balance, Yoshida says, it is important not to think in units of single days or months but in terms of our entire lifespan. “I’m sure my daughter felt lonely sometimes when she was in her teens because I was so busy. So now it’s makeup time. I want to do everything I can to support my daughter who has left university and is now embarked on her own career. At some stage in the future I hope I’ll be able to look after my grandchildren too. I look forward to taking the grandkids to the park when I’m 70. It’s possible to keep a balance between these different things we want to do in life.”

(Originally published in Japanese on March 14, 2017. Text by Itakura Kimie of Photographs by Ōtani Kiyohide.)

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