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Foreign Employers as Relief Routes: Women, Multinational Corporations and Managerial Careers in Japan
This article argues that multinational corporations may provide critical relief routes for women workers’ progress in managerial careers in national contexts where their career paths with domestic employers remain blocked by traditional and institutional practices. It illustrates this possibility through a study of two women managers at the local head ofﬁce of a foreign-owned multinational retailer in Japan and their career trajectories. The alternative career paths through foreign employers are not without their contingencies and constraints, and the article identiﬁes the limitations of the transformative potential foreign employers could have in the larger realm of women’s managerial employment in a restrictive context such as Japan. Noting that globalization incorporates different groups of workers into the global economy with different costs and rewards, the article concludes by calling for a more nuanced understanding of women’s employment with multinationals and for further research that remains cognizant of the multiplicity of experiences in different contexts. Keywords: multinational corporations, women in management, Japan, globalization
his article argues that multinational corporations may provide critical relief routes for women workers’ progress in managerial careers in national contexts where such career paths with domestic employers remain blocked by traditional and institutional practices. It illustrates this possibility through the case study of a foreign-owned multinational retailer in Japan and the career trajectories of two women managers in the company’s country headquarters. Their histories highlight the critical turning points where
Address for correspondence: *Organisation, Work and Technology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YX UK: e-mail: email@example.com
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GENDER, WORK AND ORGANIZATION
professional women’s careers with domestic employees tend to meet a dead end, and how employment with foreign multinationals may provide an alternative path forward. Such paths, however, are not without their own contingencies and constraints. Recognizing these, the article contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the way in which globalization in general and multinational corporations in particular inform the employment and hence life experiences of different groups of women workers at different intersections of the national context and multinational corporate activity. Despite the massive, growing and varied literature on the rise of multinational corporations (Bartlett and Ghoshal, 1998; Dicken, 1998; Dunning, 1981, 1993; Jensen, 2006) and global workplaces (O’Riain, 2000) on the one hand, and the gendered dimensions of globalization, on the other, there is still a dearth of research on women’s employment with multinational corporations, especially beyond a strategic paradigm. This is particularly true for women in management and on whether multinationals can play a critical role in informing or redeﬁning their career prospects. Despite a long-standing debate on how multinationals organize their employment practices (Perlmutter, 1969) or how their practices inﬂuence national employment systems (Rubery and Grimshaw, 2002) far less is known about how they inform and alter the careers of different groups of workers, especially of highly skilled women. This article contributes to reframing the discussion by reversing direction from how women look from the perspective of the organizational imperatives of multinationals to how multinationals look from the perspective of women workers with respect to their managerial careers. Japan provides a theoretically signiﬁcant (Burawoy, 2000) context for such an inquiry. The country’s much-studied national employment system has been typiﬁed, in addition to more lauded characteristics, by women’s low labour-force participation, their relegation to peripheral, temporary and marginal positions in the workforce and their near-absence from managerial posts. As the coherence and resilience of the Japanese model and its employment system are challenged by demographic and other pressures there may be an impetus for substantial change in the gendered nature of employment relations in Japan. The well-educated female population of the country constitute obvious candidates for future workers and managers, compensating for the anticipated stafﬁng shortages (Prideaux, 2007).1 Yet there is to date no evidence for the rapid and extensive feminization of Japanese management (Hanai, 2004; Kageyama, 2005). Despite Japanese ﬁrms’ increasingly public claims to have embraced diversity practices to entice more women workers into their ranks (Kageyama, 2007; Kyodo News, 2008) the popularity lists of preferred employers by professional Japanese women are nearly monopolized by foreign employers (Takahara, 2008). The cases discussed here provide insights as to why this may be the case and how employment with foreign multinationals ﬁts into the career paths that professional women navigate in the Japanese context.
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argues that ‘the promotion of masculinist managerialism in © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . 202). 1994. 114). then through their expansive networks of relationships with subcontractors (Cravey. she argued that ‘once we take a global look. if not directly. 1998.118). p. p. Mills. for example. 2003. By contrast. Aihwa Ong’s critical study of Japanese corporations in Malaysia underscored how management’s deﬁnition of labour was both gendered and racialized.WOMEN. In the earlier phase of globalization debates the neutral or positive tones of some discussions of the female workforce employed by multinationals in manufacturing echoed modernization theory. (Acker. 1998. our judgments about the degree of gender inequality in an organization can be strongly inﬂuenced by the setting of boundaries. 2000. By and large. Acker’s illustration underscored the variability of relationships inside even one and the same organization. 1998. p. Sassen (1988) argued that employment in foreignowned factories in countries with low labour costs led to the ‘westernization of women’ (Sassen. Elias. 1988. the corporate center of Liz Claiborne could be gender integrated while high degrees of gender segregation existed in the production factories. 1998. p. 2003). takes us outside the boundaries of what we have called organizations and makes it more difﬁcult to generalize — even about the gendering of capitalist organizations. Kung. we can see other forms of capitalist organization in which women are incorporated differently and in which gender has different meanings’ (Acker. Elias. Freeman. multinational corporations and women at work In 1998 Acker identiﬁed globalization as one of the key challenges for studies of gender and organization and extended an invitation to ‘open up our thinking about gendered organizing’ (Acker. 1987. a multinational corporation: Both gender and class patterns look very different depending upon where we locate the boundaries. 1988. 2005. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 3 Globalization. thus. both popular and academic writing on women. 202). Pun. p. the call has only been partially answered. Globalizing our thinking. p. her contemporary.” ’ and requiring Malay workers of peasant backgrounds to adopt the appropriately ‘feminine traits’ (Ong. In contemporary treatments of globalization. Noting the very large literature on underprivileged women and globalization. Moreover. Salzinger. and deemed this a welcome process save for the ‘cultural distancing between the women and their communities of origin’ (Sassen. multinational corporations are often held up to intense scrutiny for taking advantage of the nimble ﬁngered manual labour of docile female workforces in low-wage areas of the world. 2007. 203) To date. construing semiskilled operations as ‘biologically suited to “the oriental girl. For example. 152). 2005. work and multinational corporations have focused on low or semi-skilled factory employment.
Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . feminized employment’ questioning the progressiveness of multinational corporations (Elias. masculine behaviour that demands them to be surrogate men by retaining professional roles that are gendered in different ways. 2007). female managers. 243. Frenkel (2008) has looked at the case of middle-class. 2001) and the difﬁculties women experience in trying to follow managerial careers persistent (Blair-Loy. 2004. it remains limited in the treatment of home and host country locations as homogeneous totalities and a highly static and essentializing approach to understanding national and local contexts. More recently. 159). managerial women workers outside the context of advanced capitalist core countries but against the backdrop of globalization. Caraway (2007). mimicking the rest of much of the massive scholarship on cross-cultural management built around Geert Hofstede’s (1980) conception of culture. success and motivations in international assignments (Adler. p. 2003) Women are still often implicated in expatriation as trailing spouses (Kupka and Cathro. focusing on mobile women managers in isolation. 1984b. In her study of the negotiation of gender identities between the global and local gender orders. often in the form of increased feminization to raise productivity (pp. into which women’s recruitment has progressed at a ‘glacial’ pace (Tung. in her study of the integration of Indonesian manufacturing in global markets. WORK AND ORGANIZATION global systems of production’ in fact very much ‘depends on the construction of low-waged. 2007. Such critical accounts offer a corrective to the self-promotional corporate branding activities by multinationals themselves. the number of women in management remains low across all countries (Adler. this body of work has simply ignored local women. who frequently evoke female workforces in modern workplaces as a core element of their effort to establish their credentials for corporate social responsibility. Wirth. political and strategic calls for change. Much empirical attention has also been paid to women workers at the opposite end of the career hierarchy in multinationals. 104–31). with an almost exclusive focus on women in the advanced western economies. highly skilled. 2003) even in the context of advanced capitalist countries. she notes how professional women in the Israeli hi-tech industry resist the global pressures of prescribed. 2002. professional. notes that ‘foreign capital has the potential to alter national gender practices’ (2007. The multinationalization of major corporations complicates women’s managerial careers further through the demand for perpetual mobility and the importance of overseas appointments. 7). in the case of assembly-line work. PricewaterhouseCoopers. 1984a. Despite academic. But this body of work is heavily biased in line with the hierarchy of national states in the global order.4 GENDER. 2006). controllable.2 While such research poses important questions. but since Adler’s early inquiry about women’s presence. By and large. They ‘manage to create a limited space in which to manoeuver their doing of gender and their self-classiﬁcation’ (Frenkel. p. GMAC. 2001. 1984c) the sub-ﬁeld has grown into an enormous research area (Harris. p.
Lifelong employment.. work and globalization.WOMEN. teamwork and continuous improvement all became Japan’s conceptual exports to thinking about work organization. can help to ﬁne-tune our understanding of the impact of global corporations on women’s employment by capturing a hitherto under-acknowledged instance of the range of such impact. it is difﬁcult to understand why traditional Israeli perceptions of motherhood and femininity should be any less a source of pressure and constraint than global ones. 2006. the constituent elements of the Japanese model were investigated with great curiosity (Dore. the self–interestdriven policies of merit of American corporations and their conceptualization of diversity at the workplace could in fact constitute a progressive force. where gender inequality has proven to be an exceptionally resilient element of the national inequality regime despite economic advancement. 130) is informative here. who notes that transposed on a terrain of racist discrimination. Attempts to cut-and-paste elements of this to other © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . the ‘inequality regimes’ (Acker. 2001. p. A provocative counterpoint to the kind of view espoused by Frenkel is offered by Omvedt. but disagrees with her in that it does not presuppose it is always in the realm of the global or global organizations that elements of pressure and conﬁnement for women at work are introduced. for example. While this is an important contribution in the way it incorporates understudied professional women into the debate on women. 1973. 1989). 371). Acker’s observation that the organizing processes of ‘globalizing organizations’ render the intersectionality between class. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 5 2008. Women’s employment and foreign employers in the Japanese context The Japanese employment system in the post World War II war period attracted intense attention from the rest of the world. p. less afﬂuent countries stand to be altered in different ways through the work of transnational organizations. 2003). 10–11) of afﬂuent countries and developing. 2006. Insights from the idiosyncratic case of Japan. As western scholarship sought the secrets of the Japanese miracle. the caste discrimination system in India. by pointedly using work–life balance practices to align their work lives with the traditional local perceptions of femininity and motherhood. seniority-based pay. This article agrees with Frenkel in that transnational social spaces (Pries. Morgan et al. pp. 2003) at the intersection of the global and the local deserve investigation precisely because they carry the potential to be spaces of negotiation of gendered professional roles. race/ethnicity and gender complex in novel ways (Acker. as it was seen to be critical to Japan’s meteoric rise as an economic superpower. Indeed. even if their basis remains problematic in other ways (Omvedt.
2008) may be premature. 1990. 2006. 1999. Brinton has argued that Japan’s status as a leading world economic power has. If women have fared badly at the Japanese workplace in general. with the often explicit expectation that they would retire upon marriage (Hiroshi. Some practices may have been abandoned only to ensure the continuity of others. 203). p. most female employees of large corporations were ofﬁce ladies whose job was to serve tea to the male managers (Toshiko. Ackers’ invitation to globalize our thinking in order to see how ‘gender is involved in different ways even in capitalist organizations that appear to be very similar’ drew upon the Japanese example.. p. both at home. noting the peripheral position of women in the labour force (1998. however. pp. WORK AND ORGANIZATION contexts and the wisdom of such attempts made Japanization one of the most important debates of the 1970s and 1980s. only been possible at the expense of women. What had been lauded as a human resource management model to emulate ‘became a negative model almost overnight’ (2006. in fact. p. lower prestige and lower pay job categories. p. 37–43). of those women who started out in the same category as men. Graham’s (2003) account of her own experience working for a large Japanese ﬁnancial corporation a decade later shows that even women’s jobs with large. 1990. p. observing that ‘egalitarianism does not extend to Japanese women’ (Saso. 281). 3). 2006). severe gender inequality has long been the highly problematic staple of Japanese employment practices. systematically depended on the unpaid and under-rewarded labour of women. there has been far less talk of the Japanese miracle and far more of the reversal of fortune that led to the bursting of the Japanese bubble. almost all had quit within 2 years of being hired (2003. from which one could advance to management. who have been the core group enjoying the privileges of the traditional systems all along (Matanle. Facing active discrimination (Lam. 1983). they have fared even worse in Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . global Japanese companies continue to be overwhelmingly in the less secure. 1993). Indeed. At the peak of Japanese economic ascendance. Tellingly.6 GENDER. 1982). 224). sense of awe and rather stunned appreciation’ turned critical (Van Maanen. 1992) in the labour market and ‘exploited as a buffer for economic cycles’ (Renshaw. 281). 2006). 2003). 226). as domestic workers and psychological support. particularly the lifetime employment of male white-collar workers (Morris et al. not only as an unintended consequence but as very much a part of the core logic of the model (Taylor. p. In 1990 Saso called the position of Japanese women in large companies ‘abysmal’ (Saso. The lost decade of the 1990s saw the Japanese economy falter and the ‘intense attraction. in fact. women in Japan have not only had low rates of labour force participation but have been deeply peripheralized in employment. as workers in low-paying jobs with little or no serious career prospects (Brinton. Such privileged forms of employment have. Since the end of the 1980s. In this case. But a call to say sayanora to salarymen (The Economist. and at the workplace.
but the number of companies with a positive action programme for the promotion of women has in fact decreased from 40. The percentage of women in the overall labour force has risen from 33. These ﬁgures may suggest a promise for substantial change as the cohorts of younger women stay and move up in the workforce. as reported in Benson et al. 899). to share tasks such as making tea and cleaning’ and 61. A Ministry of Health. However. 2008). The very terms of a recent survey on afﬁrmative action reveals the bareminimum terms of the gender equality debate vividly: 72. 2004). or were going to try. 1999).6 per cent were ‘trying. an increasing number of women are eager to break with the traditional Japanese ideology of ‘good wife.6 per cent in 2000 to 21. wise mother’ that leads them to withdraw from the labour market and to the home after marriage and motherhood (Roberts. along with the revision of Labour Standards Law in 1999. 61 per cent had ‘recently stopped or were going to stop requiring uniforms only for female workers’.5 per cent. despite © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . as some commentators have argued. the revision of equal opportunity laws in the mid-1980s aimed to reduce discrimination against women in employment and the Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society. the respective proportions for women in junior. Yet the actual progress made in the time that has elapsed puts the effectiveness of the measures into serious doubt. Labour and Welfare survey found that although the proportion of women managers increased from 4. 465). 80.4 in 2003 (MHLW. This grants the country the dubious distinction of being ‘arguably exceptional among advanced industrial countries in the attitudinal and institutional constraints it imposes on its own women managers’ (Volkmar and Westbrook. 2002. 2005.06 in 1970 to 40 in 2000 (Web Japan. Japan still very much remains a laggard among advanced capitalist countries in this respect. Seeing this as an increasingly important problem. 2007. p. 1994).3 per cent were ‘trying. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 7 managerial careers. purportedly revamped these efforts.1 per cent of companies were ‘trying. but the nature and quality of women’s jobs remain hugely inferior in comparison with that of men. especially if. middle and senior management were 11. Accordingly. p.WOMEN. Not only has the growth in the number of women managers over the past decade been less than intended by the policy initiatives.7 per cent between 1992 and 2005. In 1999 women constituted around 40 per cent of the workforce in Japan but less than 10 per cent of managers (Renshaw.1 per cent to 6. or going to try.. 2005). 2007.3 per cent and 2. 899). to prohibit male workers from calling women workers “our girls” ’. ranking at the bottom of the list of female board representation at Fortune Global 200 companies in a survey by the non-proﬁt Corporate Women Directors International (Kageyama. p. a series of governments have attempted to remedy it through new legislation. or were going to try.. In short. 5. to teach managers to regard women as useful human assets’ (Japan Institute of Workers’ Evolution.8 per cent (as cited in Benson et al.
especially following the changes in the regulatory restrictions for entry in Japan’s service industry (Ministry of Economy. 2008. clearly deﬁned job functions. especially as employers. The increase in the number of workers employed by foreign afﬁliates was considerable for this ﬁscal year. Elsewhere. large Japanese corporations continue to be the most desirable employees among graduates in annual surveys. almost all of it has entailed Japanese multinationals elsewhere (Beechler and Bird. In this context. All the same. for example. 268). 2007. Although much has been written on Japan and multinational corporations. and the increasingly public calls of support by policymakers. 2008). The signiﬁcance of foreign employers in Japan goes beyond the numerical data. The increase from around 240.8 GENDER. p. 2008). 2000). in a decade. 2008. However. 307). A Ministry of Economy. 269). Bird et al. as direct employment by foreign multinationals is not proportionally as high in Japan as in many other advanced capitalist countries. p. 2006). WORK AND ORGANIZATION seemingly strong structural forces urging women’s greater participation in management posts. 10). foreign employers have been critical in the careers of some the highest proﬁle Japanese women in the corporate world (Kageyama. as these organizations also matter as ideal types of a distinctly different type of employer with ‘low employment security. foreign ﬁrms’ economic activities in Japan is on the increase (METI. Trade and Industry survey found that the sales and capital investment of foreign afﬁliates in Japan ‘marked a record high’ in 2006 (METI. high wages. 1999. but the longer term picture shows a still more striking rise in employment by foreign employers in the country.000 in 2006 means that. p. p. While empirical inquiry into such assertions has only recently started (Kiyota and Matsuura. Delios and Björkman.. p. 1). 2008. employment by foreign ﬁrms has grown by around 130 per cent (METI. foreign multinationals in Japan remain under-studied. the practices of foreign employers become particularly signiﬁcant for the managerial career aspirations of Japanese women. 1998. with negligible research on foreign multinationals in Japan. In terms of sheer numbers this may be relatively justiﬁed. 2). there is evidence suggesting that. 2007. p. offering attractive beneﬁts and better prospects for promotion on merit’ (The Economist. little has changed. Notably. evaluation and compensation based on output. estimates for the numbers employed by foreign multinationals in Japan are as high as just under one million workers. in pushing along mid-career labour markets by ‘poaching staff from Japanese ﬁrms. highly individualistic and autonomous work environment. 2007.000 employees in 1997 to over 550. Trade and Industry [METI]. popular representations often portray foreign employers as agents of change. Nevertheless. and gender egalitarian work environment’ (Ono. or a little over 2 per cent of the country’s workforce (Ono. 2005) and have a growing reputation for providing preferable working environments for women (Takahara. and those who do take up employment with foreign ﬁrms retain something of an exotic aura. depicted either as a group of ‘maverick Japanese’ Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . at nearly 6 per cent.
1990. 126. 1987. 2007. the greater the number of new staff were hired in mid-career (JILPT. Saso. something that qualiﬁed women are more likely to do. Taylor.’ and left a ‘large untapped pool of well-qualiﬁed people who may be willing to forego traditional prejudices about foreign ﬁrms’ (Lansing and Ready. Wong. Notably. 2007. 2006. The survey also ﬁnds that the greater the foreign equity. especially outside the core metropolitan areas. However. p. Foreign employers could remedy the difﬁculty they experienced in hiring male Japanese workers by actively pursuing women. Labour and Welfare survey of domestic private sector companies. as reported in Ono. which suggests that foreign employers provide more frequent opportunities for career moves between organizations. p. 2007. because the local employers were ‘reluctant to hire them even if they may be better qualiﬁed than male graduates. 2007. 2001). made qualiﬁed Japanese women an even more widely and immediately recognized source of staff for foreign employers. The notion of this serendipitous ﬁt is not new. the highest proportion of women in managerial positions was found to be in branches of foreign companies at 12 per cent. where the corresponding ﬁgure was 5. a survey in 2005 by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training provides an informative picture at the aggregate level. It is worth noting that the disadvantaged position of women in fact constitutes a central theme in most early and contemporary writing on Japanese multinational corporations abroad (Ong. compared with their male counterparts. It is therefore not surprising that recent research ﬁnds that many qualiﬁed women in Japan do not share the general reluctance. 11). The available statistical evidence on foreign employers’ employment of women managers supports this general impression and suggests that they are ahead of their Japanese counterparts in this area. p. Comparing this with the ﬁgures attained from the 2003 Ministry of Health. 275). who more often enjoy lifetime employment (Lundberg. Although there are no direct data comparing the proportion of women in management roles between foreign-owned or foreign-afﬁliated and domestic Japanese employers. the authors conclude that ‘a higher proportion of managers are women in foreignafﬁliated companies than in Japanese companies’ (Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training. 2007). In 1988 Lansing and Ready pointed at it as a prescription for foreign employers’ recruitment problems in Japan. The subsequent decades have. 2006. p. Ono. The Japan Institute of Labour found that the proportion of women among managers in foreign afﬁliated companies in Japan was as high as 17 per cent. 112). 275). of Japanese graduates to work for foreign © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . p. if anything.3 The survey ﬁnds that the average percentage of women managers in foreign employers was 7. 13). 1990. p. ‘a notable example of this’ is highly skilled women working for foreign employers (Ono.WOMEN. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 9 or those who ‘either have misplaced loyalties or could not cope with the Japanese environment’ (Kang. with almost a quarter of the companies having 20 per cent or more female management (Japan Institute of Labour. 1988. 2005).7.8 per cent.
For example. found a signiﬁcantly greater commitment to and promotion of diversity and inclusion practices. reverses the direction of this thinking. but the sector Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . The case of RetailJapan — research setting and methodology This article builds its proposals on the case of RetailJapan4 and the careers of two women managers at the company’s headquarters. 2008. 18). carried out with 1178 male and female managers of foreign and domestic employers in Japan. 2008. A survey by the nonproﬁt organization Global Enhancement of Women’s Executive Leadership (GEWEL). noting the difference between managers in foreign and domestic ﬁrms in this regard (GEWEL. 18). Three years later the multinational became a majority stakeholder and by the end of 2007 it owned 95 per cent of RetailJapan. that is. in foreign companies compared with their domestic counterparts. often cost effective) to bring into the corporate organization. p. WORK AND ORGANIZATION employers and in fact would like to work for them (Lundberg. A concern stemming from women’s career paths and progress. Women employees themselves tend to rate foreign employers as being more committed and more competent than their local peers in pursuing diversity policies in general and gender equality in particular. and to provide some preliminary answers. and with what caveats.5 per cent of managers in foreign employers considered their commitment to these issues was ‘very high. RetailJapan was a fully domestic corporation until 2002. gender being a core component. The generic strategic call for the involvement of greater numbers of women in management. In 2006 foreign companies in retail accounted for only about 4 per cent of the total workforce employed by foreign employers in Japan. when a leading US-based multinational retailer acquired a minority stake in the company and formed a joint venture. shopping centres and department stores. questions can be raised about what foreign employers offer highly skilled women in Japan. while 19. making it the largest and most signiﬁcant foreign player in the notoriously tough Japanese retailing sector. 2006. Instead of what Japanese women can provide to foreign employers. has been a core theme in governmental inquiries into gender equality in employment as well (METI Study Group on Gender Equality.000 workers in its portfolio of nearly 400 stores comprising supermarkets. 11). p. 2003). This article attempts to do that. rather than addressing organizational dilemmas. The GEWEL survey repeats the long-standing tradition in the Japanese context of tying calls for the promotion of gender equality in management to business performance outcomes.’ the corresponding number for those in Japanese companies was 4.10 GENDER. RetailJapan is the country’s fourth largest retailer employing nearly 50. p.6 per cent (GEWEL. that women can be a valuable resource that is relatively easy (and.
without being asked about the topic.WOMEN. 2005). As such. 19). as well as a being distinguishing feature of foreign employers in general.3 per cent rise (to 45. to spread rapidly in the near future. from those among the top dozen or so decision-makers in the organization to relatively junior managers in the ﬁrst decade of their post-university careers. The data collection also involved observations at the management training sessions as a formal guest and during unobtrusive visits to six different stores in various locations in the Tokyo region.000) in one year alone (METI. the consultants delivering the training programme and the most recent returnee from the international management development programme in the USA. the training manager in charge of the national management training programme. a Canadian expatriate. discussed gender roles at work as the most striking and important cultural difference that he had had to adapt to. then the elimination of the Japanese Large Scale Retail Law in 2000 (Aoyama and Schwarz. The inclusion of multiple actors in the study allowed for an understanding of the recent changes in and the strategy of the organization from multiple perspectives. the interviewees included managers across the span of managerial ranks. voluntarily brought up by all the informants on repeated occasions. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 11 also saw the greatest rate of increase in the number of employees of all ﬁrms. p. all the others were Japanese locals. The overall impact of opening up the sector to outside investors is far from determined (Matsuura and Motohashi. emphasized the presence of women in executive positions at the company headquarters as among the most important differences between RetailJapan and its domestic counterparts. in his opinion. but with RetailJapan. Another vice president. p. with a whopping 33. now the sector includes a major foreign employer. following ﬁrst the relaxation. Women in management was not a central part of the initial inquiry but. a repatriate who had returned to Japan after 20 years with a Japanese multinational in the USA. Only one interviewee was an expatriate. it was a theme that emerged very quickly and saliently in the ﬁeld. The recent returnee of the global management development programme in the USA © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . The HR manager and executive vice president of the company. 2006. but interpreted the presence of professional female colleagues at RetailJapan’s head ofﬁce as the beginning of a fundamental change in Japanese employment that was. RetailJapan was initially approached as part of a research project about the diffusion of employment practices in multinational retailers. retailing is therefore an area where the growth of this practice is most striking. following an extensive study of the retailer owned by the same group in the UK. rather. 2006. While it is still a limited ﬁeld of foreign employment. The month-long study included interviews with four high-ranked managers at the company headquarters (three of whom were interviewed over two sessions). The entry or attempted entry of a number of foreign-owned multinationals into Japanese retailing after the 1990s. 286) is widely seen as a major element in the transformation of the sector.
the proportion of women at the vice president level has gone up from 16 per cent to 20 per cent. including a colleague from Mexico with whom he subsequently managed a store in Texas. while this number increased to three as the group shrank to 11 by 2008.9 per cent to 8. from 6. 1959) by RetailJapan and its managers. those at the senior director level from 2 per cent to 7 per cent. gender became a category used to keep track of numbers of managerial workers at various ranks only in 2007. underscoring the fact that the most promise shown by women seemed to be at the relatively low ranks of the organizational hierarchy. The women in managerial posts in the headquarters of the company.12 GENDER. in their efforts to distinguish the company from its domestic competitors. both male and female and both local and foreign. WORK AND ORGANIZATION listed gender roles as being among the most signiﬁcant differences in his work experience between the Japanese and US contexts. The targeted initiative for promoting women across all managerial ranks showed signiﬁcant changes by the end of 2008.3 per cent. talking about his female colleagues in the training programme. Those deemed to have high potential for posts ranging from non-managerial staff to vice president went from 8. and at the manager level from 11 to 14 per cent. The real numbers remained small for these highest level management posts. RetailJapan’s ﬁgures of women in management seem to support these anecdotal claims. the very top level of management had only one female member among the 14 managers at the level of senior vice president or above. In fact. with high levels of visibility.1 per cent to 27. The single category in which their efforts most clearly failed was at the store manager level. but the proportionate gains across all categories. taken together. Following the establishment of a formal council (comprised of seven female employees across various ranks) for managing the female managerial development programme in 2008. increased in the intended direction. at which only four out of the 393 posts were ﬁlled by women by the end of 2008. does strongly support RetailJapan’s public claim that their programme on the development of female colleagues has at least got off to a successful start. although still seen as less than satisfactory. Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . Policies around succession planning and talent management also appear to have made a signiﬁcant difference in the inclusion of women. authority and decision-making power were therefore very much a proud element in the presentation of self (Goffman. The proportion of female successors identiﬁed for positions at the level of director. Although the single highest percentage of women in any group was among non-managerial staff.3 per cent to 19. given the very low starting points this also retains the possibility of greater numbers of women eligible for selection across the full range of managerial jobs in the future.5 per cent over the previous two years. as part of a new initiative under foreign ownership. For the only managerial category for which ﬁgures were available in 2006.5 per cent over the same period. meaning that the proportion of women in RetailJapan’s top level management went from 7.
respectively.WOMEN. the traditional nature of Japanese retailing. out of a total of 85. too. one of the two case studies that Yuasa (2008) presents in her very recent discussion of initiatives to promote women’s managerial careers in the country is based on a regional supermarket chain (Yuasa. This exemplary domestic retailer’s track record with promoting women’s participation in management is useful for putting RetailJapan’s initiatives in context. Mariko and Aki. On the one hand. Labour and Welfare in 2004 for its achievement in increasing its recruitment of female university graduates and its ‘accelerated gender-equal placements’. What highlights the role that RetailJapan — and by extrapolation. large foreign employers — can play in transforming the career alternatives for women in management in the retailing sector is the concerted effort at the organization’s headquarters. the review above of RetailJapan’s appointments. pp. For example. RetailJapan’s performance in this area was not available for review. 192). Aki was one of six female managers at the director level. with only 12 others in the next category up the hierarchy. These two high-ranking women managers were exceptional not only because of the country location but also in terms of the sector where they worked. and as such among the very top decision-makers of the company. While Max’s gender equality drive saw only ‘three junior managers and two middle managers’ at the head ofﬁce. 1992. Mariko was one of two women. it is worth noting that in Max. the number had dropped from only two in 2000 to zero by 2004. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 13 The two women whose career histories are analysed here. traditional suppliers and its massive reliance on women workers for shop-ﬂoor services makes it an even more unlikely site for managerial career prospects for women. women store managers were extremely rare — in fact. with its deeply embedded local ties with mostly small. in the midst of the concerted effort for gender equality. While Max boasted its greatest level of success (up to 40 per cent) in promoting women workers in the stores to shop section manager level.. arguably the organizational location where the most signiﬁcant decision-making powers are concentrated. particularly after the inclusion initiatives. 82–84). The case study company. suggest that the opportunities provided by this large multinational for women to pursue managerial careers were both proportionally higher than is typical in © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . However. was the recipient of an award from the Ministry of Health. Retail employment is notoriously gendered around the world. Max. p. as ‘retailing is dominated by women and managed by men’ (Howe et al. RetailJapan’s poor ﬁgures for female store managers at worst reﬂect the company’s failure to do any better than was possible for an outstanding domestic counterpart. as compared with some other sectors. the retail sector in Japan has hosted some of the most visible efforts to promote women’s managerial careers. As vice president. the Vice President of General Merchandising and the Director of Human Development. On the other hand. out of a total of 12 managers in posts at a similar level. 2008. were at the time of research. even though exactly comparable data for their activities is not available.
In Mariko’s case. conducts) along with perceptions and evaluations’ (Bertaux and Thompson. observations and review of secondary material on RetailJapan allow for an understanding of the surrounding context. nevertheless considerable in terms of sheer numbers as well. The interviews. and the latter mostly involving ranks of greater decision-making power. 1997. should have dislodged or begun to dislodge such roadblocks for women. Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . p. Accordingly. Mariko and Aki’s employment histories span the period since the late 1980s during which demographic factors. after her temporary avoidance of the discouraging Japanese job market by pursuing further studies overseas.14 GENDER. Aki in particular noted the contrast between her father’s lifetime employment with one Japanese employer with her own and her university friends’ lack of expectation of staying with the same company throughout an entire career. but the article really focuses on Mariko and Aki’s career histories. The aim is to identify the points at and processes through which women’s managerial careers are obstructed in Japan. Both of their mothers were housewives and both had fathers who were white-collar employees of large Japanese corporations but not top level executives. WORK AND ORGANIZATION retailing. which are treated here as case studies. while still small. and how their career survival beyond the typical attrition period was rendered possible through relief routes provided by foreign employers. In fact. the difference between Max and RetailJapan also involves a difference in the deﬁnition of managerial roles. Both women came from middle class. and. expertise and ﬂexibility (Wong. The article follows on Bertaux and Thompson’s (1997) premise that ‘the primary goal of the case study approach is not to prove. 269). the former counting primarily supervisory roles characterized by relatively routine management tasks. Yet these histories provide vivid illustrations of how such obstructions were perceived and experienced as real by the two women. as well as legislative and political reforms. 1997. Mariko and Aki’s accounts of their paths are treated as ‘evidence of facts (situations. a foreign employer provided her with the prospect of circumventing a stalled career path with a domestic employer by offering the alternative of a mid-career move. 13). contexts. but not particularly privileged families. 12). foreign employers in Japan provided a landing (and testing) ground for her repatriation. Dead ends and relief routes in women’s managerial career paths Women’s managerial career paths in Japan meet a dead end at a series of attrition points that lead to the huge differentials between male and female workers in the higher managerial ranks. and how foreign employers can prove critical passageways in their trajectories. In Aki’s case. p. p. 2005. but to make sense of the phenomena by proposing interpretations’ (Bertaux and Thompson.
5 per cent and 0. 2006). Despite increased numbers of women in higher education.WOMEN. a perhaps even more decisive difference between elite versus non-elite higher education institutions (Ishida. The economic downturn had further impaired the already low chances of female employment — only three-quarters of female university graduates were able to secure any kind of employment in 1993 (Renshaw. Mariko attended a private university in the Tokyo region. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 15 Aki graduated from university in 1987 with a degree in sociology and Mariko in 1993 with a degree in economics. 1999). this imbalance has not fundamentally changed over time. which suggests relative afﬂuence on part of her family. they took two alternative directions. while for private broadcasting companies the corresponding numbers were 18. Finding a job was becoming exceedingly competitive. Yet none of these led to actual offers. well-established Japanese corporations. although not to those widely regarded as the most elite in the notoriously stratiﬁed pecking order of Japanese universities. the prestige and status difference between science versus non-science programmes and secondly. and applied to over a dozen employers.5 per cent of all positions in newspaper companies. The aggregate picture was and continues to be biased against women with university education well before graduation. only 1. with a domestic retailer. Approaching graduation. but was not in its most prestigious programme. as female participation in tertiary education in Japan has gone up from 23 per cent in 1991 to 54 per cent in 2006 (UNESCO. Sharing the predicament of blocked access to the top tiers of the Japanese graduate job market. 1993) mean that a far greater number of men than women hold the types of diploma that are sought after by the most desirable employers.4 per cent (Renshaw. Foreign employers were very few and hardly visible to new graduates. 2001. Wakabayashi and Graen. a type of higher education institution that is generally seen to be less desirable for able students than national universities and at which tuition costs more (Akabayashi. 1984) Aki attended a university that is well-known for its strength in the social sciences. Mariko chose to enter the labour market where she could. 2006). some of which had famous women fronting their public images. at the lower to middle end of the prestige range. particularly with large. while Aki chose to bypass it temporarily by exiting Japan altogether. Firstly.4 per cent of these as reporters. As female university students they were even more exceptional among their cohorts than women would be today. She landed multiple interviews with newspapers and even television stations. They both went to reputable universities in Tokyo. degrees from which determine success well beyond graduation (Ono. 1999) and nearly all of these would have been part-time. and the job market for women was even more precarious at the time they sought jobs. Aki and Mariko’s peers targeted jobs in high-status sectors. Mariko originally wanted to become a journalist. Some foreign multinationals such as © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . The odds would have been mountainously stacked against her: even a decade later women held only 7. a high-prestige job in Japan.
That foreign employers do not emphasize and reward seniority in the rigid way their domestic counterparts do further redresses the gender imbalance in managerial careers. promising a viable plan to return. Foreign employers not only gave Aki the chance to ﬁrst test drive and then transfer her career back to Japan. She strongly preferred them over Japanese ﬁrms because in her experience they ‘do not have discrimination’ and ‘can provide better opportunities for [us] females’. Aki claimed that even these few exceptions lost their lustre at the time she was to enter the job market. but rather. they are ﬁnancially more desirable because ‘women are not disadvantaged in terms of pay’. She quickly took up a post with a multinational human resources consultancy. She believed that the overseas experience and English proﬁciency in particular could be instrumental in helping her to acquire such distinction. niche employers. but they were still very new and were regarded as idiosyncratic. WORK AND ORGANIZATION IBM or Apple had a certain cachet as employers due to their popularity as consumer brands. Aki commented. it also helped her realize that the number of foreign ﬁrms and the number of jobs with these ﬁrms had increased. So satisﬁed she was with the post that she stayed on for an unplanned four years. contrary to popular impressions. Her gender was central to Aki’s account of building her career around foreign employers. Rather. While this appointment provided an opportunity to Aki to reweigh her options in Japan. she was pleasantly surprised to ﬁnd the US job market far more open to highly qualiﬁed young women than she had felt it had been in Japan. Contacts made in each job and the social networks established among the relatively small workforce of foreign employers in Japan proved pivotal in each of these further career moves. ‘a female [was] just there for’ but could only complete her comment non-verbally. since ‘after the bubble economy the students became (even) more conservative’. Foreign employers are also attractive for ﬁnancial reasons but. and a major US-based online retailer for another three. prior to RetailJapan. Upon completion of her master’s degree. Not only were jobs with the highly desirable large Japanese companies difﬁcult to get. had made her a highly desirable candidate for numerous foreign employers. and she was immediately able to secure a ‘challenging job’ with a major global consultancy ﬁrm. coupled with her understanding of the Japanese context and employment practices. with a shrug.16 GENDER. with positive Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . Aki consequently felt the ‘need to distinguish herself’ from the rest of the large number of highly qualiﬁed graduates and decided to pursue a master’s degree in media and communications in California. The global scope of the work carried out by this employer eventually allowed her to arrange her ﬁrst foray back into Japan through a project assignment. She worked for a UK-based mobile telecommunications multinational for 3 years until its takeover by a domestic ﬁrm. they also provided her further job opportunities. not because of higher salaries. had not necessarily led her back to the bigger Japanese employers as she very initially anticipated. Her overseas experience.
a fully domestic company at the time. not being as high-powered or high-prestige as other sectors like manufacturing or ﬁnance. This was not the ﬁeld she really wanted to work in. Through one of her instructors. even if they publicly talked about their efforts for increased numbers of women managers. Like all university graduate new hires. After her repeated attempts to ﬁnd a job in journalism failed. for men with comparable backgrounds to hers retailing was not nearly as attractive. graduating in 1987. Mariko spent her ﬁrst year with the retailer working at a store before being moved to the head ofﬁce. But although the move sounds as if it might have involved gaining greater responsibility. Although Mariko felt that she had ‘learned a lot’ with RetailJapan. What Mariko meant was. she could at least secure a job in retailing because the competition with men was not as ﬁerce as in other sectors. She did receive some support from her employer ﬁnancially and in terms of time off for this. She claimed that the retailer ‘seemed like an equalization between men and women’. but was given no clear indication that gaining a further degree would translate into career advancement. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 17 consequences for women managers. it was also clear to her that her advancement opportunities were severely limited and she felt she had to go outside her employing organization to further her credentials and facilitate her career progress. Her effort to push the boundaries of her career development by enrolling in a postgraduate degree did not provide advancement opportunities with her employer at the time. it actually meant being assigned to a project about new store launches where Mariko’s work was largely clerical rather than managerial. and the rewards in the sector were inferior to those in ﬁelds like ﬁnance or engineering — but she simply had to settle.WOMEN. given the highly local nature of the business and the visibly male-manager dominated nature of retail work in stores in Japan. Mariko. This was a major French supermarket chain that started operations in Japan in 2000 and the ﬁrst foreign retailer to make the attempt. Aki consequently remained hesitant about prospects of career advancement with traditional big Japanese ﬁrms since. she took up a job with RetailJapan. who are clustered in younger cohorts. the company needed to recruit and © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . but did indirectly open up an unforeseen avenue of progress. she was contacted by a foreign employer for the ﬁrst time. as a human resources manager she had noted that there were ‘hardly any Japanese female executives’ in their ranks. In other words. Setting up multiple greenﬁeld sites starting in the Tokyo region. because she simply ‘needed some kind of insurance to get a job’. She had been working in a series of similar posts without a signiﬁcant change in her status for almost a decade when she felt that she should ‘continue to add to her credentials’. according to Mariko. and registered in a private business school in Tokyo for a postgraduate degree in management. had felt strong pressure that ‘she must begin to earn a living’. While Aki had the ﬁnancial means to suspend her entry into the Japanese job market by a sojourn overseas. a stance that appears counterintuitive.
the French retailer was the second largest in the world in its sector. Mariko had over ten years of experience in the sector at this point and hence the local knowledge that was so acutely required by businesses in this highly context-sensitive sector. Although role rotation in RetailJapan was supposed to make managers multi-skilled. since the French retailer had recruited others from other domestic retailers and from various foreign multinationals. this initial experience with a foreign employer placed Mariko in a small group of Japanese managers able to work in ‘foreign’ environments. She also found an opportunity to expand her network to beyond her university friends and colleagues at RetailJapan. especially for managerial head-ofﬁce roles. this was an opportunity to work for a much bigger company. which was generally agreed to be necessary to be deemed truly knowledgeable about retailing. especially the way it was done in the famously lucrative but notoriously difﬁcult Japanese retailing sector. The prospects seemed all concrete enough. it allowed her to make a critical move from back ofﬁce administration to merchandising. Firstly. Secondly. ‘the most important’ thing she picked up from working with a foreign employer was ‘a kind of communication with a different culture and different background’. In Mariko’s case.18 GENDER. WORK AND ORGANIZATION train staff for all positions from scratch. Mariko was eager to ﬁnd out ‘what makes them the number 2’. In unpacking this notion it was revealed that she meant various things by ‘different things’. Mariko at ﬁrst explained her choice to leave RetailJapan and take up employment with an untested foreign employer by referring to her personality — as being ‘the kind’ of person who ‘likes to try different things’. too. Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . She attributed the fact that she. Mariko ended up spending only two years with the French retailer. But she also had an opportunity to hone her skills in ‘different ways of doing things’ in the more technical sense. the retailer initially sought to ﬁnd staff proﬁcient in English. opening opportunities for further employment demanding such ﬂexibility. as the all-expatriate senior management team were all on ﬁxed-term appointments and were to leave Japan within a few years’ time. but she experienced a radical growth in her managerial responsibilities and hence of experience in this comparatively short time. was approached despite her ‘not so good English’ at the time as a result of the foreign retailer’s urgent need for experienced staff who ‘knew the business’. while her ﬁrst employer was ‘ﬁfth in Japan and so 40th or 50th in the world’. as a woman she had been shut out of this rotation and could not count on being included in the future. the ‘different things’ she wanted to try out with the foreign employer were nothing short of a relief route towards a managerial role. As with Aki. such as speciﬁc techniques in retailing commonplace in the western European context but new to Japan. In her view. when they handed over responsibility to locals recruits. In other words. but since the traditional retailing sector in Japan would not typically have attracted people with this ability there simply were not enough people to meet their needs. In fact.
implicit in them are also hints at the constraints over and the limitations of the relief routes in question. the new. Although she was too senior and considerably older than the intended target group of a global management development programme in the US headquarters of the company. She got to know a wide range of suppliers and buyers and felt she gained much ‘visibility’ in the company at large. While these narratives and the ﬁrst-hand reporting of real-life experiences can easily be held up to demonstrate the best that foreign employers have to offer in contexts that are conﬁning for women’s career development. her mid-career re-routing through the French retailer paved the way for Mariko’s return to RetailJapan at a far higher rank than she would have thought possible during her previous tenure there. even more importantly. At the time of the interview she remained keen to eventually take up an overseas appointment in other country sites of the company’s global network. the expatriate team made the case that her career development as a woman had been hindered in Japan and she was sent on the year-long diploma programme. As the foreign ownership of RetailJapan increased. Both women talked about foreign employers’ ‘different approach to women workers’ and their ‘attention to gender equality’ and diversity at the workplace as having opened up avenues that simply were not available to them with domestic employers. American-Japanese management sought new staff to implement changes and Mariko was personally invited back by the company president. Leaving one employer and being asked to come back was a ‘really rare case’. Once back. Mariko was put on the committee that teased out the details of the joint venture. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 19 In a telling twist. her competence in working in a multinational environment proving to be crucial assets. After the US-based multinational acquired 30 per cent of the company. It has also allowed her to develop an understanding that ‘as a woman she can work as a top level manager’. just as signiﬁcantly. the overseas appointment has consolidated Mariko’s managerial credentials further. and. © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . her hard-earned ease in speaking English every day at work and. On all grounds. and was conﬁdent about her chances to achieve this career goal. but so were the circumstances. Limited relief — contingencies and constraints For Mariko and Aki foreign employers in Japan have provided critical opportunities for pursuing managerial careers. globally. She picked up a new range of technical skills and was able to establish a network of global contacts at the head ofﬁce and across multiple country locations. Mariko’s opportunities for career development further broadened in scope.WOMEN. During that year Mariko attended a range of classes with other participants from various other countries and worked for a buyer.
This limitation is twofold. even the most highly esteemed foreign multinationals are. On the other hand. Thus. the restrictions of being located in Japan may well be amply superseded by the opportunities for mobility in the transnational social space of the corporation. they will do so with the well-researched complications these particularly involve for women. even if such opportunities for overseas appointments become available. foreign employers still largely recruit women because they are at a disadvantage in the local job market — for them. continue to show that ‘Japanese graduates want to work for Japanese companies’. Consequently. as long as foreign employers continue to be dwarfed by domestic organizations. the alternative paths offered to women by foreign employers in Japan remain severely restricted in terms of size. 2007. as small employers they tend to undertake a limited scope of activities that nowhere near matches the depth and range of occupational development opportunities found in large Japanese companies. both the size of typical foreign employer and the job market with foreign employers as a whole remain but a fraction of those with the large domestic players. women’s underrepresentation in managerial careers is serendipitous. 270). In Japan. and the aggressive poaching behavior’ associated with foreign employers discourage candidates from seeking employment with them (Ono. ‘Lack of visibility. although Aki was able to secure a string of jobs with foreign employers with relative ease. despite cries of change. WORK AND ORGANIZATION Firstly. they cannot provide nearly sufﬁcient volumes of relief routes for the radically increased number of women with university degrees. foreign employers are part of something bigger than their Japanese rivals. often weak or weaker players in the recruitment game. p.20 GENDER. rankings. for example. like RetailJapan. Twenty years on after Lansing and Ready’s business advice. it reaches far wider. Mariko talked about having been driven to the ‘risky decision’ to take up work with the French retailer by the prospects of gaining experience with the world’s second largest retailer. ﬁnding jobs in the speciﬁc ﬁelds of expertise she wanted to focus on always remained a challenge. However. Here. but through its organizational network. the higher likelihood of exit. including the ones Aki annually reviews in trying to chart RetailJapan’s recruitment strategies. After its acquisition by the American retailer. Sometimes. proliferation of short-term employment contracts. A second and interrelated reason why managerial careers with foreign employers may not entirely compensate for being shut out of comparable careers with domestic ﬁrms has to do with the relative standing of foreign multinationals and their tenuous prestige in this context. a career development so notoriously unavailable to women in Japanese corporations. On the one hand. RetailJapan may not be bigger than its competitors on Japanese soil. let alone preferring it to working for domestic corporations. If Mariko can in fact follow up on her current career ambitions of taking on overseas appointments. As long as large domestic companies Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . despite foreign employers’ popularity among women.
Thirdly. among many others). MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 21 remain the most respected and sought-after employers. It may be a step forward to recruit highly skilled women to management posts at the head ofﬁce and provide channels of career progress there and beyond. particularly in the retailing sector in Japan. p. 2006).. Mariko hesitated about taking up the job with the French retailer as she thought it involved greater job insecurity and. the role foreign employers can play in truly redeﬁning prospects of women’s greater participation in managerial careers is ultimately tied to the way in which their practices interact with and inﬂuence practices in other institutional spheres (Acker. p. But the fact that managerial careers are compatible with being single. the pairing up of highly educated women with foreign multinationals could amount to simply the elective afﬁnity of outsiders. Kostova and Roth. 1993. 1997. whose commitment to lifelong employment. 2007. in terms of supporting institutions in the country remains problematic for both foreign employer and local employee alike. sustainable and popular relief routes for a signiﬁcant number of women involves how they organize the channels of upward mobility in their own ranks. for example. Finally.WOMEN. There is a rapid transformation of the notion in Japan that ‘the ordained role of women is to put marriage and family before all other obligations’(Lansing and Ready.. the retailer ended its operations and left Japan within 5 years of its arrival. Ferner. despite all the talk of change and transformation. 124) and Mariko. 169). the real litmus test for whether foreign employers in general and RetailJapan in particular can provide viable. rather than motherhood. they do so at their own risk. indeed. 196). 1998. At least one of Aki’s moves between foreign employers was driven by a sudden change in the ownership of her company. it may make it increasingly difﬁcult to secure employment with domestic employers. might have found it far less possible to take on an overseas post if she were not single and without care responsibilities. If women take up these jobs primarily because they have ‘less to lose’ (Iwao. however well appreciated the alternative paths provided by foreign employers may be. While experience with one foreign employer seems to facilitate subsequent employment with other foreign ﬁrms. 2002. Furthermore. any claims to gender equalization would have to tackle the highly gendered segregation of career tracks at the store level © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 . In Aki’s words. foreign ﬁrms do not face ‘the same levels of public scrutiny’ for keeping their work and workers in Japan and are not as ‘socially responsible’. p. but it is further doubtful that Japanese corporations would turn to foreign multinationals in any large scale in search of examples of ‘best practice’ in an area where local practices remain so entrenched. 1988. Such risks are high. their overall impact will remain limited if the sorts of practices that make them desirable do not spread to their domestic counterparts and business partners. Yet. so far remains robust (Morris et al. Not only is it questionable whether foreign employers’ practices remain distinct from domestic ones in the long term (Edwards et al.
Mariko and Aki. for the ﬁrst time. all the same. The cases of Aki and Mariko are just one — or. These are. What multinational employers provide women through employment in nations that constitute the weaker links of global capitalism may not. rather. Conclusion This article has focused on the career histories of two women managers at the head ofﬁce of a foreign-owned multinational retailer in Japan to argue that foreign employers can become surrogate relief routes in contexts where women’s career paths into managerial employment remain otherwise blocked. RetailJapan publicly claims both the ambition to fundamentally reorganize the way its internal labour market works. merely the contingencies and constraints for what kind of relief routes RetailJapan can provide to women in Japan. They illustrate how. located in a national economic context that is integrated into the global economy in a privileged mode. two — of the many possible conﬁgurations at the intersection of multinational corporations. also discussed the current arrangement as in deﬁnite need of change. including career progress. WORK AND ORGANIZATION and the grossly disproportionate rewards of employment. and the plan to make it possible. in certain contexts and under certain conditions. Women in this speciﬁc inequality regime (Acker. although in variable forms and to variable extent depending on their class position. and the chain only has about ﬁve or six women among its nearly 400 store managers. As important as it is to counter hyper-celebratory rhetoric on globalization in general and multinational corporations in particular by pointing out the limitations of the opportunities they offer women workers. furthermore. to transition from shop-ﬂoor jobs to managerial roles. Yet the actual implementation of such ambitions is yet to be carried out. Yet a more complete and reﬁned understanding of the gendered outcomes of multinationals’ employment practices around the world requires that we consider the full range of contexts. rather than providing deﬁnitive answers. as much aforementioned research has shown. 2006) experience gender disadvantages in employment. but they are. be similar routes of relief. As illustrations. women and employment. it is also essential Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . the relationship between multinational corporations and certain groups of women workers can lead to certain types of experiences. they risk remaining among the privileged few members of a vastly underprivileged group of women in Japanese retailing. having offered a gendered reading of their own career histories.22 GENDER. But until this happens. they help in reframing discussion and generating further questions. for male and female workers over the life course. It has also identiﬁed the contingencies in and constraints on the overall transformative potential that foreign employers could have in the larger realm of women’s managerial employment in such restrictive environments.
1995. standardized statements about the relationship between them and the women employed by them credible. against the backdrop of different national institutions and employment systems. Caliguiri and Cascio. Volume ** Number ** ** 2010 2. 1998. following Acker (1998) nor do even the women who are employed by one and the same multinational organization. multinational corporations and their entanglement in the world of employment have variable impacts on different constituencies in global labour markets. within the context of different sectors and the gendered intersection of these spheres. 2004. All merit scholarly attention for both empirical and theoretical reasons. women and work in the era of ‘the global shift’ (Dicken. © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd . Notes 1. 1998) would do best to move forward with the insight that globalization incorporates different groups into the global economy with different costs and rewards (Hoogvelt. is exceptionally complicated in the country that has negligible experience with it and where the nation remains very homogenous. MULTINATIONALS AND MANAGERIAL CAREERS IN JAPAN 23 to recognize the multiplicity of experiences potentially accessible to women who work for multinational corporations. since migration. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Professor Alexander Mohr for his comments on an earlier version of this article and Professor Jeremy Clegg for his generous support that enabled ﬁeldwork in Japan.WOMEN. managerial women outside the advanced capitalist western context. this article has challenged the possibility of such universally applicable statements regarding the nature. Through its illustrative empirical study looking at cases of highly skilled. This is particularly true in the Japanese case. yield different outcomes. 1997). This recognition goes beyond claiming that a transnational capitalist class (Sklair. Women as such do not constitute one single homogenous constituency and. Different forms of employment with multinational corporations. 1998. in different locations. the other major source other advanced capitalist economies have relied on to compensate for labour shortages. Extensive streams of research on women and overseas assignments include their success rates as compared to men (Adler. Research on multinationals. 2001) in command of multinational corporations gains at the expense of others (Robinson. Multinationals engage with local contexts in too many varied ways to make universal. 2000). Robinson and Harris. quality and the reality of employment opportunities that multinational corporations offer female workers. 1987. Rather. Globalization is a multi-stranded set of processes rather than a unitary one and entails highly variable outcomes for different groups of workers.
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