Earlier this week, I had a delightful breakfast in midtown Manhattan with two professional females around my age (52). One is a top official at a brokerage firm; the other holds a senior role at the UN. Nothing odd about that you might think: Manhattan brims with accomplished, high-achieving women. Indeed, one attraction of the city is how much support successful women give each other – to a degree I haven’t experienced elsewhere.

However, this particular power breakfast of kale juice and egg-white omelette had a twist: both of my guests were Japanese, have built their careers within the Japanese system and were visiting New York for a conference (organised by Nikkei, owner of the FT).

One was Keiko Tashiro, deputy president of Daiwa Securities; the other was Asako Okai, who runs the crisis unit in the United Nations Development Programme. And while it would seem unremarkable today for an American woman to hold such jobs, I had never expected to meet Japanese women in this type of role.

The reason? Two decades ago I worked as a reporter in Tokyo and concluded that the country was one of the more unfriendly places on earth for an ambitious career woman. In the years following the second world war, women were generally not allowed to apply for career-track corporate jobs. And although this had, in theory, changed by 1997 (the year I arrived in Tokyo), the companies I used to visit were almost entirely staffed at the senior levels by men wearing suits. Women were generally employed at reception desks as “office ladies”.

I cannot recall meeting a single senior female financier at a Japanese company in the 1990s, or a top female diplomat or government official of any sort. And while there were a few women in senior roles in foreign companies in Tokyo, that was because Japanese women often sought out these positions precisely because these environments seemed so much less forbidding than Japanese ones.

Indeed, the idea of a senior woman seemed so strange at the time that when I moved to Tokyo to become the FT’s deputy bureau chief, a kindly Japanese diplomat advised me to put the “Dr” that I had gained from a PhD on my business cards – to ensure I had a gender-free nomenclature. This, I was told, would “make everything easier”. It turned out to be great advice.

Today the glass ceiling is cracking – a bit – as shown by women such as Tashiro and Okai. Still, progress is uneven. According to OECD data from 2017, the rate of female labour force participation in Japan was just 51 per cent, compared with the UK’s 58 per cent and Sweden’s 70 per cent.

Kathy Matsui, vice-chair of Goldman Sachs’s Japan office, reckons that if you look at a range of different government data on working-age participation, the rate for Japanese women in February 2019 was about 71 per cent, a sharp rise that she attributes to prime minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” strategy. (Somewhat remarkably this tops the US rate of 66 per cent.)

Yet Japan remains plagued with the third-highest gender-wage gap in the OECD (25 per cent, almost twice the OECD average). The country also has an unusually high proportion of women in part-time roles. That is partly because a shortage of daycare makes it hard for mothers to work full time. Matsui believes that “if the gender-employment gap is closed and the ratio of female/male average employment hours rises to the OECD average, then the potential GDP boost could be 15 per cent”.

Meanwhile, discrimination continues to hinder women’s progress across many professions and industries. Last year, for example, a scandal erupted when Tokyo Medical University admitted that it had been systematically rigging its entrance exams against women, to ensure it admitted more male doctors. On an entrance exam marked out of 100, the medical school had reduced all scores by 20 per cent, then gave 20 bonus marks to men who had taken the exam three times or fewer.

This is depressing. But the fact the scandal even came to light is encouraging; in previous decades, it might have been swept under the carpet. And what is also striking is that the companies that have managed to retain women are increasingly keen to display this, not least because Abe has made it a point of national policy to improve gender representation.

At Daiwa Securities, where my breakfast companion Tashiro works, there are now half a dozen women just below her in the hierarchy. So too at a few other big companies and government agencies. A few women have appeared in the Japanese cabinet too, such as Seiko Noda (minister of internal affairs) and Yoko Kamikawa (minister of justice). And Yuriko Koike, Tokyo governor, has carved out an impressive trajectory, championing initiatives such as the “Cool Biz” programme for green energy.

It can be hard to spot the impact of stealthy change when you live with it every day; sometimes it is more striking when seen through periodic snapshots – or having breakfast with two senior female Japanese executives. It is not quite a revolution yet. But it leaves me wanting to give one small cheer, or to declare, as a New Yorker might say: “You go girl!” Sometimes the most important social shifts occur in unexpected ways.

Gillian will be speaking at the FT Weekend Festival on September 7 at Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, London NW3; ftweekendfestival.com

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett or email her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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