Revenge Of The `Office Ladies'

For one executive at a prestigious Tokyo service company, it started about a year ago. She found notes on her desk alluding to her sex life. Her male colleagues pinned up a nude centerfold resembling the woman. Another time, they wrote the woman's name at the top of a diagram of a human brain, indicating which lobes drove her sexual obsessions. When she protested, management advised patience. This spring, she was transferred to a less challenging post, while the men were not disciplined. "I spent half my energy just trying to cope with the humiliation," recalls the woman. "My bosses just acted as though it was my problem."

For many years, the only recourse for Japanese women in such situations has been naki-neiri, or quietly crying themselves to sleep. Now, that is changing. An unprecedented number of female workers are taking on Japan's male-dominated corporate society. They are accusing companies of condoning sexual harassment--or seku-hara--in the workplace and of sexist discrimination regarding promotions and pay.

SURPRISE RULING. As the cases proliferate, some are starting to get results. Last April, a former employee at a small publishing company in Fukuoka, 700 miles southwest of Tokyo, became the first person ever to win a sexual harassment case in Japan. In that case, a female employee claimed that her boss spread rumors about her alleged promiscuity. When she complained, she was forced to quit. The surprising ruling has breathed fear into some companies, while the Japanese news media have stirred a national debate on sexual behavior in the workplace. Two days after the case ended, the Tokyo government issued 10,000 copies of a booklet on sexual harassment, and all were quickly snapped up. Says Yukiko Tsunoda, a lawyer who was involved in the decision: "This case showed that sexual harassment is the company's responsibility. If they don't take measures to prevent it, they will be sued."

Indeed, they are. Currently, Hitachi Ltd. faces a $437,000 wage-discrimination suit in which nine women charge that men with similar employment histories were routinely paid from 10% to 74% more. Hitachi denies the charges. At Sumitomo Life Insurance Co., two dozen women have accused the company of delaying the promotions of married women. Says a Sumitomo official: "We don't believe there was any discrimination."

Japanese companies in the U.S. are also becoming targets of harassment cases. Trading company Sumitomo Corp., for example, faces a complaint before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that its Chicago office abused Kimberly Carraway, a U.S. citizen who worked as a sales assistant. She charges that Japanese managers allowed pornographic materials to be circulated and that one manager repeatedly asked her for photos of herself in a bathing suit. Meanwhile, she claims, she was given only token promotions. A lawyer for Sumitomo declined comment. And trading firm C. Itoh & Co. is trying to reach an out-of-court settlement with the female employees at its New York office who have initiated a class action, claiming sex discrimination. A C. Itoh lawyer declined to comment.

In Japan, it's nothing new for women to find themselves stuck at the bottom of the corporate ladder. The first barrier to success is Japan's two-track hiring system, which leaves fewer than 3% of the professional positions at blue chip companies open to women. As a result, ambitious women who fail to secure one of these full-time jobs often end up as "office ladies" who file, wear uniforms, and politely bow while serving tea to guests and male colleagues.

Women lucky enough to land a professional job may run into a second barrier--a hostile corporate climate. A Labor Ministry poll indicates that 43% of all women in management positions complain of sexual harassment. Another hurdle is customers' tendency to feel slighted if a company does not send a man as its representative. Although women's rights to equal employment have been protected by Japanese law since 1986, "companies still expect women to get married and retire," says Masaomi Kaneko, labor consulting chief for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

But now, women in Japan are starting to speak out. On June 27, the weekly magazine Gendai ran an essay--ironically preceded by a six-page glossy pictorial of a nude woman--by the woman who won the $13,200 judgment in April. And female employees at an apparel company in Tokyo recently protested when the firm insisted they all wear a new miniskirt the company was trying to promote.

DOUBLE STANDARD. Even sophisticated companies in Japan can be blind to sexual harassment. Take ad giant Dentsu Inc. Its 1992 recruiting brochure, aimed at college seniors, features a drawing of the typical Dentsu "Working Girl," covered with what are intended as playful, handwritten comments. But they focus on her physical charms and seductive powers instead of her intellectual and creative talents. One message notes that her breasts are "pretty large." Another draws attention to her "rather soft" bottom. A drawing of the Dentsu Working Boy also pokes fun, but makes almost no comment on his physical qualities. A Dentsu official says that "we were not trying to say especially that she was cute or sexy. It was partly meant as a joke." He says that the brochure has been withdrawn. Still, several prospective employees have received copies within the past two months.

Even though Japanese women are starting to hit back, few if any companies are setting up procedures for formally dealing with discrimination and harassment. "They'll make things look pretty," says lawyer Tsunoda, "without dealing with real problems." If that's what happens, it will only create more complaints, court battles, and pressure on corporate Japan to guarantee women an equal deal.

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