Ambassador Kennedy’s Speech at 2014 USJC-ACCJ Women in Business Summit

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to be here.  I would like to commend ACCJ for bringing us together to talk about some of the important issues facing women.  Thanks to Irene Hirano for her leadership of the U.S. –Japan Council and for helping young people in Japan and the United States become TOMODACHI. I want to congratulate Jay Ponazecki on being the first woman Chair of the ACCJ, and for her commitment to mentoring young women in the workforce. I would like to salute the mother of Womenomics, an inspiring example of women’s empowerment, my friend Kathy Matsui.  And finally to Royanne Doi, thank you for that introduction and for your tireless dedication to this issue.

Speaking to this audience about the importance of increasing women’s economic participation is certainly preaching to the choir. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  As Martin Luther King Jr, used to say – “You have to keep preaching to the choir.  Because if you stop preaching, they might stop singing.”

Irene, Jay, Kathy, and Prime Minister Abe have all laid out the case for women’s economic empowerment in Japan. It’s common sense.  The economic argument is persuasive, the statistics are compelling, and there is national leadership shining a light on it. There is a broad recognition that this is critical for Japan’s future, and there is a generation of women who are eager to change the course of history – YOU.

As the first woman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, I know that I am a symbol of change as well. The reception I have received here, and the eagerness of people at all levels of society, both men and women, to advance this issue has underscored for me the power and importance of individual action to bring about larger social change.

Japanese women have done it before. During the Meiji period, and in the first decades of the 20th century, women fought hard for the right to vote, just like their British and American sisters.

Individual women can also make a huge impact. In the harrowing days just after the war, Beate Sirota, a 22-year-old woman on General MacArthur’s staff who had grown up in Japan, was responsible for the unprecedented guarantee of women’s rights in Articles 14 and 24 of the Japanese Constitution .

In the United States, it was a Japanese–American, Patsy Takemoto Mink, who became the first Asian–American, and first woman of color elected to Congress. She grew up on a sugar plantation in Maui, went to University of Chicago Law School and served 24 years in Congress. Most importantly, she was the co-author and driving force behind the landmark legislation known as Title IX.  Later renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, Title IX opened up higher education and athletics to women and has transformed American society.

Women like these fought for us – and we can’t let their efforts go to waste.  Along with our own mothers, grandmothers, and teachers, their example can inspire and guide us  when we are struggling to succeed in a man’s world, to balance work and family, to choose a career or just find a paying job,  to manage a household, to raise young children, and to care for aging  parents. Those are challenges common to all women.  And they can be especially difficult in a society like Japan with a long history of culturally defined gender roles.

But Japan has proven over and over again that when a national consensus develops, rapid progress is possible. Japan’s industrialization was the economic miracle of the late 19th century. Japan dominated the world textile market, and the current effort to have the Tomioka Silk Mill declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site commemorates the incredible achievement that was, not surprisingly, accomplished by unrecognized and exploited women factory workers.  In the 20th century, Japan once again led the way – rebuilding after the devastation of war to create the world’s second largest economy in record time.

Yet, the development of the  lifetime employment labor market, the tax code treatment of second wage earners, and the lack of mobility that helped create the  stable and prosperous  postwar economy, are now obstacles to Japan’s economic growth.

In so many ways, this is a defining moment. The history of the 21st century is going to be written in Asia.  The U.S.- Japan relationship is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the region.  It is our job to make sure the security alliance is resilient and our bilateral relationship is strong and multifaceted. There are opportunities for increased partnerships in countless areas of commerce, scientific research and exploration, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and educational and cultural exchanges.  But in order to be equal partners, both societies need to treat all their citizens as equals.

At the moment, both countries are fortunate to have leaders who are committed to women’s economic empowerment. Prime Minister Abe has laid out an ambitious agenda in the security, energy and economic arenas – and the economic empowerment of women is central to its success. He has ignited a national debate, companies are responding and progress is already being made.

The need to empower women is a matter of economic survival, not just a moral imperative. With Japan’s declining population, the statistics show that increasing the participation of women could boost GDP by as much as 16%.  If managed properly, women’s success will not come at men’s expense. Instead, the entire economic pie will grow and all elements of society will benefit. In macro-economic terms, there will be enough dessert for everyone!

I do not want to suggest that we have solved this problem in the United States, but like Japan, we also have a leader who gets it.  President Obama is the son of a single mother, who had to accept government assistance to feed her family for a period of time.  He is the husband of a woman who grew up in one of the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States, and worked her way to Princeton and Harvard Law School because she believed in herself and in the American dream.  And he is the adoring father of two daughters who are just as smart and determined as their parents.   In 2009, his first act as President was to sign the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which empowers women to fight pay discrimination in the workplace.

In his most recent State of the Union Address, President Obama said,  “Today, women make up about half of our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.  That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.  A woman deserves equal pay for equal work…Because I firmly believe when women succeed, American succeeds.”

In order to take advantage of this moment, we need to be honest about the obstacles women face.  And we also need to be honest about the fact that there are great differences in opportunity for educated women and women who haven’t received a college degree, as well as between married women and single mothers.

Today we are talking primarily about empowerment for educated professional women with skills that are in high demand — but we should not forget that for many women, staying above the poverty line is job #1. With almost 15% of children in Japan and 23% of American children growing up in poverty, that is a lot of desperate mothers.

In the US, poverty is a women’s issue. Nearly six in ten poor adults are women, and more than half of all poor children live in families headed by women.  In Japan, the relative poverty rate is 16%. Child poverty in working single parent households, usually headed by women, is 50 % – making Japan the only country where having a job doesn’t reduce the poverty rate.

The suffering of these families is all the more reason that those of us who are fortunate enough to have an education and a job need to redouble our commitment to women’s empowerment.

For educated women, things are looking up.  Women in both the U.S. and Japan receive more than half the college degrees, and the jobs of the future need skilled and educated workers.  As both economies transition from manufacturing to service, women’s skills will be increasingly favored.  In order to speed up the process, we need to ask what the most significant barriers to women’s advancement are —and what can each sector of society do to address them.

In speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, at Davos, and here in Japan, the Prime Minster, and Minister Mori have laid out proposals for government action.   Kathy’s recent Womenomics report outlines some of the major structural problems in terms of corporate governance, tax treatment of women, lack of child-care options, and restrictive immigration policies. The report recommends steps that the government and companies should take to increase the number of female managers and directors,  to create more day–care slots, to offer flex-time, and on-ramps for those seeking to rejoin the workforce after time away. These align with other government goals such as increasing English proficiency, and rewarding Japanese students who study abroad – the majority of whom are women.

In addition to policy changes at large corporations, society needs to find better ways to embrace female entrepreneurs. In response to the lack of accommodation in the traditional workplace, more women are  pursuing non- traditional strategies: working part-time, working at home, and starting their own businesses.  In the U.S., more than 30% of privately-held companies are run by women, and in the last decade the number of all women-owned firms has grown by 28.6% — compared to a 24.4% increase for all U.S. businesses.

Yet women receive only 4.2% of funding from venture capital and private equity firms. That’s why some have proposed a new type of Title IX.  For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Title IX is a series of Amendments to the Civil Rights Act which mandated that any educational institution receiving federal funds had to treat men and women equally.  It transformed higher education and created so many new opportunities for women.  I think it’s a great idea to create a Title IX for business to give women the same access to capital as men have. We can only imagine what that would do for women entrepreneurs with great ideas and I’ve met many of them here in Japan already!

Workplace accommodations for working mothers will enable a giant win for society. In my experience, women with children are effective managers and compassionate leaders. They know how to set high standards and clear priorities, eliminate inefficiencies, and keep a sense of humor.  Most importantly, being a mother teaches you how to keep people happy while making them do what you want.  So if women have a little less time to give to their jobs, the trade-off is more than worth it.

My father used to quote the ancient Greek definition of happiness – “The full use of one’s faculties in a life affording them scope.”  And all the research in the United States shows that women who are able to balance career and family are the happiest – and so are their husbands.

In a 2011 study by the highly-respected Pew Research Center, 72 percent of women and men between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that the best marriage is one in which husband and wife both work and take care of the house.  More than two-thirds of younger women and 42 percent of older women said that in addition to having a family, being successful in a high paying job or profession was one of the most important things in their lives. Having that connection where husband and wife are working as a team, both to work and raise their children, creates a strong bond and mutual understanding.

And for those who worry that working outside of the home means women spending less time raising their children, another Pew Research Center study released last year found that in the United States, where working couples are the norm, the amount of time parents spend with their children is actually increasing.   From 1965 to the present, fathers have nearly tripled their time with their children. Some may be surprised to hear that mothers’ time with children has also increased to the point where today’s American mothers spend more time with their children than mothers did in the 1960s.  These parents are not only making time to contribute economically, but they are finding time to devote to their children.

So the data shows that increasing options for mothers benefits entire families and future generations. Incomes will rise, and sons and daughters will grow up understanding that equality is not just a lofty goal or an aspiration, but something that has to be worked at every single day. It is a daily struggle but a balance we can achieve. Happiness may not be quantifiable but what is the goal of a rising GDP if not to create a more just society, a more secure future, and a happier life for all citizens?  And that society is something we can each help create through our own personal choices.

We can’t all be the first female Prime Minister, or President, or CEO but we can all become architects of change in our own lives. And each time we stand up for ourselves, ask our husbands to help us a little more, or pitch in for a colleague at work who has a sick child at home, we change the world around us – and those tiny changes add up. They give us the confidence to continue, and the courage to believe that we are part of something larger than ourselves. They give us the knowledge that our efforts will make it easier for our daughters to succeed, and for our sons to experience more of the joys of family life.  They  send out a ripple of hope which touches every life we touch and is passed on to all the lives they touch in turn .So each act is magnified–and over time and across generations we transform the lives of people we will never know .

It’s not going to be easy, but we can do this.  We just have to keep working at it.  In the United States, we have been at it a little longer.  We have made immense progress but we still have a long way to go.

And here is Japan, you are the generation that can change history. Not everyone is lucky enough to get that chance.  It may be painful and slow, but the time has come. Every single person in this room can play a role in the social transformation of 21st century Japan. It’s the right thing for your country, for your family, and for your future.  One of my favorite quotes is from Margaret Mead, the pioneer anthropologist who studied change across many societies. She said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world – indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has .”

Thank you and Ganbatte.