Embracing Difference in Japan

8 Jan 2019

Keiko Hirasawa is among an increasing number of women in the corporate world trying to make a difference and bring about gender equality in Japan, one of the worst ranked nations amongst developed countries. Keiko is one of the most experienced Senior Project Managers in Lendlease’s Japan business.

There is an old saying in Japan that the ideal woman should, “Be a good wife and smart mother”. That is exactly what women were expected to be back then and they still are, simply because it is part of the Japanese culture, while the men are expected to devote their lives to the enterprises. It was said that the only way for working women to be successful in a male dominated society was to be nimble and fit into society’s expectations of a working woman which was largely subservient. In Japan, many employers would usually ask women employees to choose one of two career paths, devote their lives just like a man would or “mother” track – an option with less responsibility and potential for advancement.
 
Keiko felt that she was able to handle the demands of both simultaneously. 

As part of its efforts to promote gender equality, the Japanese Government has implemented new action plans to encourage more women to join or re-join the workforce. The new initiative states that all companies and government agencies with more than 300 employees are now required to come up with an “action plan” to increase women’s participation in the workplace. 

Keiko’s journey began when she joined Lendlease in 2000 after having worked with several architect firms. At the time, Lendlease had just started its Project Management business in Japan. 

Despite her tight work schedule, she did not forget what it meant to be a good wife, mother and daughter, as ingrained in the Japanese culture. In the evenings, she made it a point to call home to ensure that her children came home from school safely and had completed their homework before heading out for client meetings. When she arrived home, she still found time to prepare lunch boxes for her children to take to school the next day before retiring for the night.

When her children reached the ages of 13 and 10 years old, and were able to take care of themselves, she turned her attention to caring for her aging parents who lived nearby. She would visit her parents regularly to bathe them and help to prepare dinner before heading home. Her ability to handle both these roles so naturally, goes to show that women are capable of juggling the demands of a career and private life at the same time. 
 
Keiko has been involved in a number of projects as a project manager, and was instrumental in making Lendlease’s Project Management business a success. Keiko’s knowledge and dedication won her the admiration of both her peers and clients, which resulted in accolades from her clients and new and repeat businesses for the company. 

Some of the new clients include well-known retail brands, for which Keiko managed customer or designer expectations, as well as the local contractors. 

Keiko’s strength was her strong, tactful communication skills and deep understanding of the on-site situation, which ensured that these projects concluded successfully. These skills, together with her experience and knowledge, have been instrumental in earning both the customers’ and contractors’ trust. Through her actions and dedication, she has proven that the corporate world should not be monopolised by male employees alone and women do have a role and can contribute to society. 

Keiko’s contribution has been immeasurable and instrumental in ensuring that our construction team practises gender equality across all of our project activities. To date, Lendlease Japan is privileged to have many capable women employees, who drive success. 

Despite her success in breaking down the age-old gender inequality in corporate Japan, Keiko remained humble. In fact, she feels what she does is nothing extraordinary, just a simple hardworking Japanese woman doing her part to provide for her family. 

"Flexible work arrangements such as working from home, flexible hours, compressed hours, etc. are now in place. These were not available when I first joined Lendlease. Back then I had to ask my boss for permission to work flexibly based on my family’s needs and my boss approved it provided that I delivered all my projects on time,” explained Keiko. “This is the reason why I love the diverse and inclusive culture and professionalism in our workplace – it’s why I was able to continue to work,” she added.

We have a long road to go before men and women are truly equal, but Keiko’s story is one of many that are helping to drive the change in our country and our company. 

Keiko Hirasawa-san’s story was first published by Architecture, Constructions & Engineering News (Daily) in November 2018.