Skip to content
Thomson Reuters
Gender Equality

Naoko Ishii: Social norms and the barriers to progression

Naoko Ishii

31 Oct 2016

“It’s a social norm, and actually it’s a difficult one because it’s not  something you can work hard to change immediately”

How do you manage and excel as a woman leader in different cultural settings and norms? How do you adapt to ensure you achieve your potential? Naoko Ishii, Chief Executive of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), shares her journey and experiences as a leader working for the World Bank, IMF and Japanese Government as Deputy Vice Minister of Finance.

For the last 35 years I’ve spent maybe half of my life within international organizations like the IMF, World Bank and now GEF, but half still with the Ministry of Finance [Japan].

So interestingly, those two places, international organizations and the Japanese Ministry of Finance, have totally different cultures.

When I was with the IMF, World Bank and GEF, particularly in the World Bank, when I was at mid-level management, it was so important for me or for women to be very explicit about who I am and what I want to do. And always make sure that I invest in myself into getting the next position. So to be accountable or responsible for my own career, and to express my interest or objective or aim for what I want to do next in the international organization is absolutely important – but that was not the way the Japanese Minister of Finance behaved.

Basically with the Japanese Ministry of Finance, we should not express our own goals, or objectives of what I want to do next. It’s basically up to the top leadership to decide what’s best for you or for me.

So whenever I switched the workplace, from Japanese Ministry of Finance to international institutions, I would always have to modify myself –

“Ok, I’m now in Japan, I shouldn’t say this, I shouldn’t behave like that.” I’d have to mould myself to the Japanese social norm. When I am in the international organization; I have to be more explicit, more assertive.

I wouldn’t say aggressive, but be very clear, of what I want to do or want to do next.

In Japan it is actually more like a social norm, and this recognition that a male colleague or male boss, [is better than a female boss]… simply to say. Even after I gained some recognition in the Ministry of Finance, to deal with outside of the Ministry of Finance is another barrier because apparently society itself is still very much lagging behind.

Sometimes I was told when I picked up the phone, “could you change to somebody male.”

So it’s happened many many times and sometimes, I clearly saw the disappointment from the other side [when] they found out that it’s a woman they had to deal with. So it’s –

…a social norm, social barrier – maybe the most difficult one, because it’s not something you can actually work hard to change immediately. It really takes time for the entire society to gain that kind of perception.

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: On Leadership from Lucy Demery, finance executive EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: “It is okay to fail” Ifedayo Durosinmi–Etti EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Women Leaders are the Key to a Sustainable Future – Jane Reindorf-Attoh Gina Miller: Becoming a Leader and Advocate in the Face of Adversity EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Becoming a Leader and Advocate in the Face of Adversity – Gina Miller EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Measuring What Matters on Gender Equality Newspaper sanitary pad wakes Britain up to ‘period poverty’ Record number of LGBT people run for U.S. office Burundi reversing school pregnancy ban not enough to protect girls – campaigners Colombia shatters glass ceiling with gender-equal cabinet