Tea lady turns executive as Japanese banks start promoting women

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 2:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 2:02am

Teiko Kudo has come a long way from her days at a Sumitomo Bank branch in the 1980s, when clients often asked her to hand the phone to a male loan officer because she was a woman. Last month she became the lender's first female top manager.

"The start of my career was a struggle," said the 49-year-old who was named a director last month at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp, recalling how she had to serve tea despite being one of the first women hired for career-track positions under Japan's 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law. "Now I go to meetings surrounded by male executives all wearing dark suits, which can be nerve-racking."

Japan's second-largest bank, along with the country's two other largest lenders, all based in Tokyo, have appointed their first women into senior ranks, a total of four since June. The moves come after a call last year by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for companies to move women up management ranks as part of his efforts to revive the economy.

In Japan's finance industry, women hold just 0.3 per cent of executive positions, compared with a 3.3 per cent average in private industry, according to a survey published in February by the Japan Women's Innovative Network, a nonprofit research group on diversity issues known as J-Win. In the US, women hold 12.4 per cent of executive positions at financial firms, according to Catalyst, a New York-based research group.

"Banks have been the most-stubborn and conservative industry," said Mariko Kawaguchi, a researcher at Daiwa Institute of Research in Tokyo. "But being slow to change is still much better than doing nothing."

As in the US, none of the country's biggest lenders is run by a woman. Even South Korea, where women's participation in the workforce is below Japan's, has had a female chief executive at a bank since December, at Industrial Bank of Korea. Five women are CEOs of Indian lenders, including the largest, State Bank of India, and second-largest, ICICI Bank.

Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Japan's biggest lender, was the first to move, last June appointing Yuko Kawamoto, 55, to become the first woman to sit on the board of one of the country's so-called megabanks. Kawamoto spent 15 years at consulting firm McKinsey after four years at Bank of Tokyo, the predecessor of Mitsubishi UFJ.

Mizuho Financial Group last month named Hiroko Ota, 60, a former economic and fiscal policy minister, as external director and chairman of the board. Her appointment is subject to shareholder approval in June.