March 24, 2014 — The day before I started my first job out of college, my father, who had worked as a civil servant all his life, gave me some advice: “You know, you shouldn’t refuse to serve tea in the office.” Having grown up in Japan, where women are often expected to serve tea in the office, this wasn’t completely shocking. Still, given my education, I never imagined I’d be expected to do this. “I won’t serve tea. That’s not what I was hired to do,” I told my father.
I’d just graduated from college in the United States and was back at home in Japan. I was proud of myself for receiving a degree while studying in a second language. I knew that my father was worried about how I would fit in at work. But I hoped he was wrong to assume I’d be expected to serve tea.
Once I started my new job, I quickly realized I was clueless about the rules of the workplace. Soon, I learned the protocol of tea duties: junior female staff took turns a few times a week collecting everyone’s used teacups at the end of the day. When there was a visitor, you needed to be proactive and promptly offer to serve tea. If you did not act quickly, another female employee senior to you would do it, and you would be perceived as unmotivated and inconsiderate. Despite my initial reaction to the tea duty, I didn’t dare refuse it when I was at the bottom of the hierarchy. I was soon embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know how to make and serve tea properly at work.
Of course my work was not just about serving tea. I had plenty of real work to do. This tea duty only took about 15-20 minutes of my time each day. But standing in the kitchen doing dishes or making tea for guests while my male colleagues were working at their desks had a lasting impact on how I viewed myself as a professional. Being expected to do the dishes as well as your “real” job makes it harder to succeed.
Many hurdles besides tea service exist for Japanese women at work. Because so many of these obstacles are due to habit or tradition, they can be very hard to change. However, it’s crucial for Japan to work to close the gender employment gap. Doing so could increase our GDP by as much as 15%.
The Japanese government and business community are aware that changes must occur. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Prime Minister Abe wrote, “Women are Japan’s most underutilized resource.” Advancing women’s representation in the economy and in leadership is one of his three major economic policies. Many Japanese companies have already expanded their diversity and inclusion initiatives. And I’ve noticed that CEOs who have international experience, including working abroad, working at multinational corporations, or studying abroad, are becoming champions for diversity within their organizations (see Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and Exhibit C).
I didn’t fully comprehend my own experience or realize its broader implications until I started working in the United States. Spending 15 minutes a day preparing tea won’t ruin a woman’s career. But knowing that your time is not as valued as that of your male colleagues is demoralizing. Women who don’t feel valued are less likely to highlight their achievements, speak up in meetings, take on challenging assignments, and aim for advancement. Both Japanese society and the business community at large will benefit when women and men are encouraged to work up to their full potential.