Forty Years of Empowering Women in Japan

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The women’s organization FEW Japan started long before women’s empowerment hit the headlines in that country. Forty years later, she is more dedicated than ever to the needs of women here.

Since it was founded in October 1981, the Tokyo-based network of globally thinking, English-speaking women has grown from an idea of ​​two friends to a membership of 150, which organizes around 50 events annually. With a shared goal of motivating, inspiring, and connecting, the program of speaker events, lunches, seminars, and networking sessions has drawn more and more women year after year who topped 1,000 in 2020 despite the pandemic.

FEW Japan President Jackie Steele points to a recent World Economic Forum ranking that places Japan 120th out of 156 countries for gender gaps in business, politics and other employment areas. She says a group like FEW is “never unneeded in Japan”.

“FEW is a safe and courageous space for women to imagine and invest in their potential and to be inspired and supported by one another. That will never be missing in Japan, “says President Jackie Steele, referring to Japan’s rank 120 out of 156 countries in the Global Gap Report 2021 of the World Economic Forum.

Now that the association enters its fifth decade of operation, its past and current leadership is looking back on several milestones in the association’s history, considering how they can continue to effectively care for women despite the challenges of the pandemic and beyond.

Although legally registered as For Empowering Women Japan since 2020, the FEW Not-for-Profit Incorporated Association was originally founded as Foreign Executive Women by Elyse Rogers and Jane Waugh of Tokyo who missed the professional social networks they were in the United States States had enjoyed. Her idea was to offer networking events, especially for career women, that would be held in beautiful places outside the home, similar to what their male colleagues used to visit. To fill a niche in the market, membership began to grow steadily, and in the 1990s the organization added a biennial career strategy seminar to further support the professional development of its members.

However, in the 2000s, as the number of Japanese women in corporate positions increased, so did the demand within FEW to open up membership and rename the organization to reflect change. The proposal was finally implemented in 2008 under the tenure of then President Julia Maeda, co-founder of the bespoke travel agency Okuni.

“As a board member, I was uncomfortable that FEW did not allow Japanese members. There were many talented women who therefore did not qualify for membership, ”Maeda recalled during FEW’s public online anniversary celebration in October. A handful of members turned it down because they feared the meetings “might become like English lessons,” but they were overruled in what they describe as “one of the most significant changes for FEW in its history.”

Spurred on by a wave of new members eager to embrace FEW’s new mission to empower all women in Japan, the organization has further diversified its offering and expanded its speaker program to include women from all walks of life, including politics, media, sports , Startups, arts, science, and nonprofit groups.

With the Great Earthquake in Eastern Japan in 2011 and the subsequent core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, FEW faced another challenge: maintaining its community amid the extensive migration of members from Japan to their home countries.

“Our strategy was to serve the remaining members super,” said then President Sarah Furuya, founder and coach of Sarah Furuya Coaching, at the FEW October event. By investing in quality events that provided great food and drink, as well as special entertainment, Furuya and her team tried to retain and genuinely mentor members in the hopes that this would lead to women being enticed to join or return .

When a large proportion of the non-Japanese left the country after the Great Earthquake in Eastern Japan, the former president of FEW Japan, Sarah Furuya, remembers adjusting the group strategy to
When a large part of the non-Japanese left the country after the Great Earthquake in Eastern Japan, the former president of FEW Japan, Sarah Furuya, remembers adjusting the strategy of the group to “serve the remaining members super”.

After overcoming the storm, the Women’s Startup Club, founded as an independent group in 2012, was brought under the umbrella of FEW in 2016, digital space, the use of thought leaders and the use of the startup’s brand history.

“The idea was to create a topic that you can build on, like Lego bricks, not a single piece,” says the director at the time, Tanja Bach, CEO and founder of Contents Bridge.

More recently, due to the cancellation of in-person events, FEW has been forced to adjust to contain the spread of COVID-19. The events continue to take place entirely online, which, according to Steele, has brought surprising benefits to the association.

“We have only turned to a FEW of Japan since the pandemic broke out,” she says, pointing out that holding long-distance events in all parts of the country has increased membership, while membership used to be concentrated in Tokyo. “We serve the diversity of women who call Japan their home.”

“Digitalization in 2020 has made it easier for people to access meetings,” says Co-President Terri MacMillan. New attendees include women from Tokyo and other parts of the country who have difficulties with childcare, have mobility issues, or are simply less comfortable at a large personal event.

Last year, FEW also became more financially accessible with the introduction of the lowest membership fee in decades of 10,000 a year, Steele says. The move was made possible by the new status of FEW as a general economic association, which makes it possible to invite companies to support their work through paid memberships in order to strengthen financial sustainability. And Japan’s drive to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality, stimulates a growing interest in supporting FEW.

FEW Japan Co-President Terri MacMillan says digitization has made it easier for people to access meetings during the pandemic.
FEW Japan Co-President Terri MacMillan says digitization has made it easier for people to access meetings during the pandemic.

Audi Japan and Jarman International are among the companies that are investing in proprietary sustaining membership, which enables them to give women memberships in their organizations, while seven other companies are organization members.

“So many people in this country see the value of investing in women’s equality,” says Steele, adding that companies believe in supporting a community to empower women.

Looking ahead, at the October meeting, many FEW Directors shared their excitement about the upcoming peer-to-peer networking program due to start this month. The interactive sessions are designed to support women in one of three positions – company worker, entrepreneur, or explorer (pivot or return to work) – for “connection, learning, and conversation”.

“We want to be the point of contact for the personal and professional development of women in Japan,” says Steele. “This initiative opens up a more concrete space for women in the intermediate zone, such as B. Mothers staying at home or spouses following behind. We are not only for working people with business cards. “

The FEW board members, who are all volunteers, also enjoy a new support structure. Each role is shared by two people to ease the pressure on the team and encourage the development of a leadership pipeline. The aim is to build the resilience and sustainability of FEW so that it can advance the empowerment of women in Japan for another 40 years or more.

More information about FEW Japan can be found at www.fewejapan.com.

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