TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Michiko Achilles blasted through the "iron ceiling" that blocks many Japanese women's careers when she became a director at a bank this year, but an international survey shows her compatriots are falling behind.
She is among a handful of women breaking new ground. In September, Yuriko Koike became the first woman to stand for the leadership of the main ruling party and this week Naoko Yamazaki was picked as the second Japanese woman to go into space.
But a survey released this week by the World Economic Forum, a Swiss think tank known for its annual leadership summit in Davos, ranked Japan 98th of 130 countries in terms of gender discrimination, by far the lowest among the major industrialized countries.
Japan's ranking has fallen from 91st place last year and 80th spot in 2006.
After a career spent mostly with Western corporations, Achilles, a 52-year-old mother of two, chose the conservative Aozora Bank precisely because it seemed like a tough challenge.
"Many people told me Japanese companies are where the work really needs to be done," she told Reuters. "A lot of them are just faithfully following the old Japanese ways of doing things."
She said her arrival has been an eye-opener for staff at Aozora Bank.
"It's a new experience for the male employees. I think they are confused as to how to deal with me, at least at first."
"I say what I think. In Japanese male society, people tend to try to work out what other people are thinking before they speak."
Achilles, married to an American, says a dearth of female role models and managers' lack of skills have hampered efforts to overcome Japan's workplace gender gap.
She has found that mentoring programs help change male Japanese executives' attitudes toward female staff.
"Directors were amazed to find out how different female employees were from what they had imagined," Achilles told a recent symposium on diversity in Tokyo. "In fact, they would often be so impressed that they would want to transfer the person to their own team."
Progress is slow on a government initiative to have women occupy 20 percent of managerial jobs by 2020.
"It's about attitudes," said a spokesman for the Japanese government's Gender Equality Bureau.
"Gender roles, where the woman stays in the home and the man goes out to work, remain quite firmly entrenched."
The only sphere in which Japanese women do better than men is life expectancy, the WEF survey showed.
In terms of political empowerment and economic opportunity, Japan's women lag particularly far behind their male compatriots and fare worse than women in China and Brazil, the WEF survey said. Britain came in at 13 and the United States at 27.
"Part of the reason is that other countries are making progress," said the gender equality official. "But it is true that pay differentials are worsening."
The fact that many Japanese men spend all their waking hours at work, and cannot share the burden of housework and childcare, is often cited as a factor hampering women's progress.
Achilles is homing in on work-life balance and trying to change a culture where employees rarely use their paid leave.
Stumped by childcare headaches earlier in her own career, she said she was sometimes tempted to give up, but urges her younger counterparts to stay the course.
"If there are any young Japanese women out there worrying about childcare, I would tell them it is better to dare to try something than worry," she said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy