One Female Exec’s Story of Japan’s Gender Imbalances

At many of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women events, conversations don’t usually dwell on gender issues. But that wasn’t in the case with Haruno Yoshida, the first female president of BT Japan, a unit of the British telecommunications giant.

The lack of a female workforce has become part of the economic crisis in Japan, with prime minister Shinzo Abe pledging to boost women in the workforce by five percentage points by 2020.

“There needs to be female advancement in society and male advancement in the household,” Yoshida said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International Summit in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Yoshida got personal with the MPW audience, explaining how an illness when she was in university may have helped her break into the Japanese C-suite.

After explaining how her parents had expected she would quit her job after she got married, Yoshida said, “I was maybe lucky. When I recovered from my illness, I was 26.” She did later marry, but got the start on her career that her parents weren’t expecting; she went on to a career in telecommunications in Canada.

Her executive success hasn’t come without hardship. Yoshida told the story of a drawing her daughter made when she was five on Mother’s Day. It read, “’Mommy you will always be here in my heart – meaning I wasn’t there again,” Yoshida said, recounting the times she golfed on weekends with clients instead of getting to spend time with her daughter, who is now 21 years old.

“I hid the fact that I had a daughter for a long time in my office,” she said. “In Japanese culture, you don’t want to miss important meetings because that’s [viewed as] a disadvantage. You don’t want to miss that dinner meeting because you have a daughter.”

While Yoshida acknowledged the strides that Abe is making, there’s still plenty of room for gender improvement in the country. “[I hope] my daughter can have a happy family and business life,” she said.

When an audience member asked about Abe’s effects so far, Yoshida quipped, “He helped spread ‘Womenomics.’ That’s a really catchy word.”

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