Gender discrimination is practically nonexistent in the Japanese vocabulary — I’m working to change that.

(Courtesy of Tiyi Ayeva)

(Courtesy of Tiyi Ayeva)


HOGO Women’s Network founder provides students in Japan with the space and terminology to talk about these issues.

I've been living in Japan for almost seven years and have fallen in love with so many aspects of Japanese society. The architecture (particularly Tadao Ando), the deep respect that people have for their elders, how much they care about manners. But there is one part of Japanese society I can't wrap my head around: how Japanese women are treated in the workplace.

I discovered this issue as a child. When I moved to Japan at the age of 10, my mother was the only working mother in my class and could not attend many school events, which were scheduled during the daytime. I began to ask myself and others why there were so many stay-at-home mothers. It was then that I learned about the unfortunate reality of working as a Japanese woman.

A recent poll revealed that three-fourths of Japanese companies have no female senior executives and the vast majority say women account for less than 10% of management. Because of familial and social pressures, women often quit their jobs after they have their first child. There are many cases of workplace sexual harassment, which serves as a deterrent for women to continue working. 

(Courtesy of Tiyi Ayeva)

(Courtesy of Tiyi Ayeva)

Recognizing this discrimination against working women, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has initiated several policies in the last few years to support women in the workforce, also known as “womenomics.” While these policies have helped two million enter the Japanese labor market since 2012, many of these positions are part-time or contract work for low pay. And Japan's rankings in global gender equality indexes — including in the World Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum — have continued to slip. Something clearly needs to change. 

As a student, I realized that the problem begins at an early age. Because gender discrimination and harassment are still considered taboo topics in Japanese society, students don’t have the space or the vocabulary to talk about these issues. This creates a society that dismisses gender issues and prevents victims of sexual harassment from speaking up about their experiences. In 2016, I founded HOGO Women's Network to change that. In Japanese, the word HOGO is 保護, which means protection or preservation.

Through gender bias workshops, I provide Japanese students with a safe and open environment for them to learn about these issues and share their ideas. I teach them what gender bias is and how it manifests itself in different situations. I define terms such as consent, misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual assault in Japanese so they know the terminology to use when discussing these issues. I work with gender studies professors to make sure the vocabulary I teach is appropriate and effective. I want participants to leave the workshop feeling confident and knowledgeable so if they or someone they know is harassed in any way, they know how to talk about it. 

Additionally, my HOGO workshops educate teenagers on the complexities of workplace harassment and the ways that they can avoid it or combat it. Through various activities and discussions, I provide them with comprehensive tools such as self-defense methods and useful phrases to use when faced with sexist remarks. By working with Japanese middle and high school students, I am helping ensure that the next generation of Japanese workers creates safer and more diverse workplaces, where women are valued.

The students are very responsive to the information I provide. For the majority of students, this is their first time really discussing gender issues in Japan. Most of them are unaware that gender inequality impacts their society in multiple ways. One of the most important realizations for students is that gender inequality in the workplace contributes to the low birthrate as working women feel it is not possible to have children while maintaining a career in Japan. Furthermore, students are often shocked at how low Japan ranks on the gender equality index.

For now, HOGO’s focus is on youth in the Tokyo area. I hope to expand my work into other big cities such as Kyoto and Osaka, and eventually rural areas in Japan. In 2019, I am working to expand funding and networking with various organizations, such as LeanInTokyo, an organization that supports female empowerment in Japan. The CEO of LeanInTokyo, Rena Suzuki, was one of the first people I contacted when I started conducting research about gender-based workplace harassment and she was one of the guest speakers at HOGO’s first workshop. As I plan to hold workshops for companies in the future, this direct connection with working Japanese women is crucial to HOGO’s mission. 

Because gender discrimination and harassment are still considered taboo topics in Japanese society, students don’t have the space or the vocabulary to talk about these issues.
— Tiyi Ayeva

I am also developing a mobile application for my organization. Through the HOGO Women’s Network app, working women from all over Japan will be able to file anonymous sexual harassment or discrimination complaints to our team who will work to contact the company or help provide lawyers if the women choose to take legal action. Currently, most Japanese companies do not have systems to address sexual harassment and discrimination complaints. The app will also have a space where women share their experiences with gender-based discrimination, support one another and relieve the stress and frustration they feel every day. 

My hopes for the future of Japan is a labor force where women are treated with respect and equality. I want every woman to feel safe, not scared, in the workplace. 

This article is also available in Japanese.

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Tiyi Ayeva is a 19-year-old French-African student and entrepreneur living in Japan.