Thinking differently

Shea Lih Goh, president of Philip Morris Japan, on why Japan needs to embrace diversity for a better tomorrow

Can Japan embrace a more diverse workplace? The numbers don’t look good. According to The Oxford Economics’ ‘Global Diversity Report’, the country has the lowest female representation at corporate board level of any major economy with just 0.9 percent. The report’s gender diversity index ranked Japan 46th out of the 50 countries assessed, with only Chile, Turkey, the UAE and Pakistan coming lower. Racial diversity is also low - the number of foreign workers in Japan total less than two percent of the population.

Shea Lih Goh, the president of Philip Morris Japan, is among that small percentage of female board executives and foreign-born workers. She believes Japan is heading towards a more diverse future. “There’s a concerted effort to improve things,” she says. “Challenges remain, but the attention is definitely there. It’s a journey. If the government and more companies increase their efforts, I think we will continue to see improvement.”

“We place a lot of importance on diversity, because we see it as one of our greatest strengths”

Goh is determined for her company – which employs over 1,900 people in Japan – to lead the way. “We place a lot of importance on diversity, because we see it as one of our greatest strengths,” she says. “The reason we put so much emphasis on it is that we believe different skill sets, perspectives and ideas generated by a group of diverse talent are key to the transformation of our business.” Philip Morris knows what it is like to go through a seismic change. In 2016 the company, one of the biggest tobacco manufacturers in the world, announced its commitment to stop selling cigarettes and move to smoke-free products. “For that to happen,” insists Goh, “we need to have a diverse and inclusive environment.”

Goh thinks the first step towards diversity is to address the constraints of traditional corporate hierarchy. “In Japan there is this innate hesitation for younger people and women to speak up in deference to senior people,” she says. “We need to make it easier for everyone to share their ideas.” Goh puts the theory into practice at a biweekly project meeting which involves around 100 employees. Everyone, regardless of rank, background or gender is invited to present their ideas to senior leaders. If their proposal is approved, they get a budget to execute it. If it is not approved, they have a chance to go back and work on their concepts further. “Everyone has a part to play and everyone is accountable for the success of their project, because they have their own budgets,” says Goh. “When we are successful, we all celebrate, if we are not, we just start again. That’s how we continue to nurture talent and build teams.”

“We need to make it easier for everyone to share their ideas”

The project meetings are just part of an ambitious inclusivity action plan Goh has implemented through every level of the business. “It starts with attraction and continues into development and retention,” she says. “In terms of attracting talent, the standard basis of equality is obviously equal pay for men and women.” In November 2016, Philip Morris Japan became the first company in Japan to be certified by the Equal-Salary Foundation and today the company’s salary gap is 0.4 percent – a fraction of the national gap, which stands at 24.5 percent.

Goh believes the national gap will only be bridged by taking direct action.

“We make sure that interviews are conducted by a panel of diverse people to mitigate any unconscious bias,” she says. “As a result, we’ve seen a big improvement in our female hiring ratio, which went from 28 percent in 2016 to 47 percent in 2019. Once you attract talent, you need to help and guide them, so we have equal learning opportunities for everyone.”

While Japan has a way to go to break the homogeneity in the top tiers of business, there is hope. The Oxford Economics’ report ranked Japan third on gender diversity in education – raising the hope that future generations will be able to smash the glass ceiling – and while the percentage of foreign workers may be low, the 1,658,804 reported in 2019 is the 12th straight annual rise. Goh sees no reason the country cannot achieve a more diverse workplace. “It has to start with a commitment at the company level. Then you need to take action with strategies and action plans,” she says. And she believes that the country has a huge appeal to attract international workers and help bring in greater diversity. “Japan is just a fantastic place: the culture, the people, the food. I’m very happy to be here.”

“Japan is just a fantastic place: the culture, the people, the food. I’m very happy to be here”

PHOTO CREDIT: Keisuke Tanigawa