Today I am going to correct two big mistakes; one of my own and one of society’s.

I lot of listeners emailed me about the comments I made regarding how Japanese companies treat their employees and customers while they are pregnant. I got it wrong, so I would like to set the record straight.

I also explain what I see as the obvious answer to the current #KuToo controversy. I realize that this puts me at serious risk of having to publish another retraction, but I think it’s an important way of looking at this problem.

Please enjoy, and let me know what you think.

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Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero, and thanks for joining me.

As expected, my crazy Google travel schedule has caused me reschedule some of my interviews, but I promise that I’ll get back to talking with some of Japan’s most amazing startup founders really soon.

Today, however, I want to talk about the feedback I received from my recent discussion with Miku Hirano about how pregnant women are treated at work in Japan, and specifically, about my comments in the outro of that episode.

Hey, when I screw up, I have no problem admitting that I screwed up, and boy did I step in it this time.   

So today, I want to set the record straight on what it’s like for women working at startups and at large enterprises here in Japan. Oh yes, and we are also going to tak about shoes.

And yeah, I totally understand how strange it is for a white guy to stand behind a microphone and talk about the situation women face in Japan. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let me explain what I got wrong, and let me set the record straight.

In our conversation, Miku told the story of how supportive her clients and prospective clients had been while she was pregnant. Doing things like adjusting their schedules and coming to her office for meetings, where Japanese business protocol would require that she visit them.

Both Miku and I were surprised and delighted that so many Japanese salarymen, who have a reputation for being rather sexist, voluntarily went out of their way to accommodate her and to make things just a little bit easier for her while she was expecting.

In the outtro, I speculated that this outpouring of support might be because she was a startup CEO, and many of the traditional rules of Japanese business etiquette don’t seem to apply to startups, and I mused that her experience might have been very different if she had worked at a more traditional Japanese company.

Well, I was wrong. I was really wrong. And in fact, I have to say that I’m pretty happy that I was wrong about this. Let me explain what happened….

After that episode aired, I received a lot of email from female listeners working at large Japanese companies who explained that both their clients and their companies made exactly the same kinds of accommodations for them when they were pregnant.

And I also heard from a few senior managers and HR professionals telling me that I got it wrong. They gave me examples of how they had made a point of traveling to visit a vendor who was pregnant or broke up long meetings into multiple short ones to make things more manageable for pregnant employees or visitors.

So I got it wrong. And that’s awesome!

But I can’t just leave it there.  I probably should, but I mean something still doesn’t fit. There is a great deal of gender discrimination in Japan. Both international organizations and Japanese NGOs consistantly rank Japan very poorly in this regard. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report ranked Japan 110th out of 149 countries.

And then there are things like Tokyo Medical University marking down girl’s scores on the entrance exams to ensure “enough” boys would get in.

So how do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?  The independent research showing that discrimination exists is consistent and respected, and there is no reason to doubt it, and the personal experiences of the Disrupting Japan listeners who took the time to email me are also every bit as real and I have no reason to doubt them.

I asked a number of my women founder and professional friends about it and got, well let’s call it a range of opinions on the matter. On one extreme I had people tell me that the macro-research was just misleading and that Japan is quite supportive of women who really want work hard to get ahead. On the other extreme, one friend of mine concluded that this support for pregnant women was actually a subtle form of gender discrimination, explaining that the behavior was the just reenforcing the patriarchal idea that, above all else, it is a women’s job to have babies.

So after carefully examining all the evidence and considering all of these opinions, I’ve come to the conclusion …

That I don’t know.   

Now I realize that is not a satisfying answer. As a podcaster and an author, I am expected to boil things down to a simple sound-byte, or at least clear, cogent explanation.  In today’s world, not having a clear opinion on a subject is viewed as a sign of being uninformed, or unintelligent or indecisive. The idea being, we’ll get back to us when you’ve finished the assignment and have your opinion ready.

But I disagree. Any five-year-old can have an opinion, but there is a kind of valor in consciously deciding that you don’t know.

And, no I don’t mean in the disingenuous “I’m just providing the facts and let you decide for yourself” way.  But in the more complex, “I’m going to walk you though the facts and my thought processes that show you why your current belief probably wrong, even though I don’t have a new belief to replace it with.”

And yeah, I admit that sounds like some kind of negative learning, but stay with me on this one.

I’ll walk you though the facts and logic regarding female founders in Japan. I’ll take you right up to the point were we would normally jump to a conclusion; and then I’ll hold you back. Because in all likelihood neither you nor I are ready to make that jump just yet.

Hah! All of this will make a lot more sense in a few minutes when we start talking about shoes.

Oh, and before we go any further. Let’s just address the elephant in the room here.

I’m a white American male talking about the life experiences of Japanese female founders. We can all agree that that’s at least a little bit weird, right? 

The thing is though, the situation for women founders and managers in Japan is a really interesting and and an important topic, and I get asked about it a lot. Not only when I’m talking about Japanese startups overseas, but even when I’m speaking to Japanese audiences here in Japan.

So, I feel like it would be even weirder for me not to talk about it, especially when there are so many far less informed people spouting all manner of nonsense about the topic. But it’s tricky. The farther something is from our own life experiences, the harder it is to really understand, and the more likely we are to get it wrong.

But I try. And I rely on my female friends, fans, and founders to let me know when I screw something up, so I’ll get closer to the truth next time.

But the real truth, the one that journalists just refuse to accept, is there is no single experience of being a women fonder in Japan. Even on basic issues like the level of discrimination women face or the value of the programs that support female founders, the women founders who have come on the show have had very different opinions about most of it.

And so trying to make simple statements about the experiences of hundreds of different people is going to be error-prone.

What’s interesting though, is that after interviewing more than 150 Japanese startup founders, I think that the female founders have a much greater diversity of experience than male founders do. I mean that men’s stories are more like each other’s than the women’s stories are like each other’s.

And I think there is a good reason for this.

If you are a salaryman in Japan, there are clear rules for social interaction. You and everyone one else knows how you are expected to behave in any common social situations. Now over the past ten years or so in Japan, a kind of standard, stereotypical image of a startup founder has developed in Japan. He’s young, dresses casually, is outgoing and confident and constantly busy.

It’s a ready-made social persona that any male founder can step into and people will understand how to treat him.  It’s not required of course, I mean, some founders are introverts, and a few even prefer to wear ties. But that persona is there, fully formed. If you chose to step into it, you’ll understand how to act, and people will understand how to treat you.

But it’s different for women founders. There is no standard persona yet. There is no baseline. There is no clear idea of who exactly they are supposed to be. So every female founder is both free to, and in a sense, required to, create that persona for herself.

And as a result, we see much greater variation in the way that female founders interact with customers, manage staff, and they way they present themselves to the world.

So, I’ll continue bring you their individual stories as they tell them, and I’ll made general observations when I think I can.

OK Tim. Can we talk about shoes now?

Yes, yes dear listener,  now we can talk about shoes. But it’s important to remember, that whenever you are talking about shoes, you are never really talking about shoes.

Last January, Yumi Ishikawa started the #KuToo movement protesting the fact the many corporate and government dress codes require women to wear high-heels.

Now, there is a very important social issue here, and as we’ll see in a moment, it’s not really about the shoes. But in this age of social media almost all #KuToo discussion broke down into millions of people sharing their experiences and asserting their opinions in 280 characters or less. Even most mainstream media coverage was the same kind of vacuous “Wow look at all these opinions! Please share your’s on our social media page.”

Well I’m going to do something a bit different.

My well considered, and firmly held held position on whether Japanese women should be required to wear high-heels at work is ….

I don’t know.

I really don’t know. But if we are being honest, most people probably including both you and Ishikawa-san, herself. Don’t know either.

Now, that’s a bold claim of ignorance, so let me explain.

I have no personal experience with high heels. They certainly look unforgettable, but as I said before, the farther I get away from personal experience, the more likely I am to get something wrong, so I’m going to talk about something very similar to #KuToo that I do have a lot of direct experience with; wearing neckties in Japan.

Now, I grant you, that shoes are different from neckties, and men have a very different relationship with neckties than women do with shoes. Across cultures and generations, shoes have always been something more than a fashion statement. They’ve always been something transformative. Think of Cinderella or Dorthy in the The Wizard of Oz, for example. When you are talking about shoes, you are never really talking about shoes.

But neckties are something I understand.

Neckties are uncomfortable and annoying, and most men don’t particularly enjoy wearing them. Certainly no one wears them around the house, and if you surveyed young, male Japanese employees and asked if they should have to wear a necktie, they would undoubtedly vote that should be free to wear whatever they like at work.

But, they would be wrong.

Those young men don’t yet have the experience to understand enough about customer expectations and business protocols to really know wether a necktie is required or not. You know it’s interesting, but Japanese business dress codes have become much more casual over the last 30 years I’ve been in Japan. 

You see a lot fewer neckties than you used to. But those dress code changes were not the result young employees complaining about having to wear ties. They were the result of senior managers who could balance their personal discomfort wearing a tie against their understanding of industry norms and customer expectations and come to the conclusion that, yeah in some cases neckties are optional

So the obvious solution to the #KuToo controversy is to have the matter resolved by senior women executives who can balance their personal discomfort wearing high heels against their understanding of industry norms and customer expectations and come to case-by-case conclusions on what’s appropriate.

Ah, but here we’ve stumbled onto the real problem.

There are not enough women executives in Japan to weigh in on the matter. In fact, many Japanese company have no women executives at all.

And so, rather than have this matter worked out by people qualified to have informed opinions, the #KuToo movement has moved forward largely as a debate between young women who lack the experience to understand the business protocol, and middle-aged men who, presumably, have never had to spend a day in high heals and have no conception of their physical demands.

I think the anger and emotion around the #KuToo movement is not really about shoes.  The real problem is that there are so few women executives in Japan that what should be a relatively simple HR discussion has blown up  into a national debate with millions of people talking past each other.

I mean, I get that women don’t want to be required to wear high-heels. Most young men resent having to wear neckties as well. But is it a bad idea? Is it discrimination? I don’t know. And at at this point, I really can’t know.

I mean, as a guy who has been making business presentations in Japan for 25 years, I feel pretty confident weighing on when you really should wear a tie, and when it’s optional, and when that level of formality is overkill and could actually work against you. And you know something, it’s pretty complicated. There is a lot of nuance to it.

I am sure the social conventions and business impacts of wearing high-heels is every bit as subtle and complex as those around wearing a necktie, but as I guy, I sure as hell don’t have a clue as to what they are, and honestly most young women don’t either.

So when Ishikawa-san boldly states that “women do not need permission to wear what they want.” I must respectfully disagree.

Fashion is a language. Whether you want them to or not, the clothes you wear make a strong statement about you and about the company you represent while are wearing them. I’m all for a casual work environments, but anyone claiming that employees should have the right to wear whatever they want to work has probably never had to manage sale staff.

What these women do have a right to, however, is to be fairly represented in these decisions. Decisions about women’s dress codes in Japan need to be made by women who can understand the tradeoffs that are being considered. But until we get a lot more women in leadership roles, that’s going to be hard.

Until we solve the real problem of the lack of women executives in Japan, we will continue to see what should be simple issues like women’s dress codes blow up into multi-year national news topics. Topics that act as catharsis and as a proxy for the far more serious issues facing women in Japan. 

Because when you are talking about shoes, you are never really talking about shoes.

If you want to talk more about shoes or women’s issues in Japan  I would love to hear from you. So come by Disrupting /show158  and and let’s talk about it. If you leave a comment I guarantee I’ll respond. 

Hey and if you like the show please leave a review you iTune or Spotify or your favorite podcast platform. That one of the best ways you can support the show and help get the word out. 

But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups an innovation know about the show.