Promoting gender equality in a challenging environment. The case of Scandinavian subsidiaries in Japan

Published date04 February 2019
Date04 February 2019
AuthorLena Elisabeth Kemper,Anna Katharina Bader,Fabian Jintae Froese
Subject MatterHR & organizational behaviour,Global HRM
Promoting gender equality in
a challenging environment
The case of Scandinavian subsidiaries in Japan
Lena Elisabeth Kemper and Anna Katharina Bader
University of Goettingen, Göttingen, Germany, and
Fabian Jintae Froese
National Research Base of Intelligent Manufacturing Service,
Chongqing Technology and Business University, University of Goettingen,
Göttingen, Germany
Purpose Gender diversity and equality vary tremendously among countries. This is a particular challenge
for foreign subsidiaries, when the level of gender diversity and equality differs between the home and host
country. Various indicators such as a low-gender pay gap or a high ratio of females in managerial positions
suggest that Scandinavia is ahead in terms of gender diversity and equality, whereas those indicators suggest
that the level in Japan is currently lower. The purpose of this paper is to investigate how executives leading
Scandinavian subsidiaries operating in Japan perceive this situation, and whether and what kind of actions
they take to initiate change.
Design/methodology/approach This study is based on a qualitative analysis of 20 in-depth interviews
with executives of Scandinavian subsidiaries in Japan.
Findings Findings reveal that executives of Scandinavian subsidiaries respond to the major differences in
gender equality between Scandinavia and Japan with three strategies of change: resistance and rigid change,
compromise and moderate change, and adaptation and maintaining status quo. Moreover, the findings
indicate that the strategy of change varies depending on individual differences of the executives, e.g.,
nationality, and organizational differences, e.g., subsidiary size.
Research limitations/implications Due to the small sample size, the generalizability of the findings is
limited. Given the paucity of research on this topic, this approach provides first insights for building a basis
for future studies.
Originality/value This study contributes to the scarce literature on gender diversity and equality in
multinational enterprises by identifying strategies of how gender equality can be fostered in a non-Western
context from a top executive perspective.
Keywords Japan, Qualitative, Diversity, Gender, Institutional distance, Strategies of change
Paper type Research paper
Prior research has proposed that foreign subsidiaries of multinational enterprises (MNEs) will
face challenges when fostering gender diversityandequalityintheworkplacewhenoperating
abroad (Nishii and Özbilgin, 2007) because gender roles are culturally constructed (Moore, 2015),
and the level of gender diversity and equality in the workplace varies among countries. This is
particularly prominent in foreign subsidiaries stemming from countries with higher gender
equality, such as the Scandinavian countries, which operate in host countries with lower gender
diversity and equality such as Japan. Scandinavian countries havea good reputation in terms of
gender diversity and equality, as beside a high share of women in the workforce and managerial
ranks, they are also characterized by a low-gender wage gap (Ellingsaeter, 2013). In Japan, in
turn, gender segregation is still very common and Japan is characterized by a rather low
representation of women in managerial ranks, a high-gender wage gap, and a low-return rate
after maternity (Kemper et al., 2016; Nemoto, 2013b; The Economist, 2017). Our study
investigates how executives perceive and respond to these differences and whether and which
strategies they apply in order to increase gender diversity and equality in their subsidiary.
Personnel Review
Vol. 48 No. 1, 2019
pp. 56-75
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/PR-02-2017-0035
Received 7 February 2017
Revised 2 January 2018
13 April 2018
Accepted 4 July 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Our study intends to make three contributions. First, we contribute to the scarce
literature on gender equality in foreign subsidiaries of MNEs. Nascent empirical research on
diversity in MNEs has either focused on diversity in general or on national diversity in
particular (Egan and Bendick, 2003; Nishii and Özbilgin, 2007; Peretz et al., 2015; Sippola
and Smale, 2007). Given the fact that pronounced differences in gender roles exist across
countries (Hofstede, 2001; House et al., 2004) and that this has a strong influence on gender
diversity initiatives in MNEs (Moore, 2015), we argue that gender is a sensitive topic, which
requires more consideration in research on MNEs.
Second, we increase the understanding of the role of home and host country context in
global gender and diversity research. Prior studies have highlighted the importance of the
institutionalenvironment when implementingdiversity managementin subsidiaries(Lauring,
2013; Nishii and Özbilgin, 2007; Peretz et al., 2015; Sippola and Smale, 2007). However, the
majority of cross-cultural studies on global diversity management have been conducted on
Western subsidiaries located in Western countries and thus in rather similar institutional
home and host contexts(Egan and Bendick, 2003; Ferner et al., 2005;Jones et al., 2000); for an
exception see Lauring, 2013). In contrast, we investigate Scandinavian subsidiaries in Japan
where the institutional host context differs strongly from the home context. Furthermore,
research on gender diversity and equality in Japan in particular is still sparse (Magoshi and
Chang, 2009). Accordingly, we offer new insights into an underexplored context.
Third, increasing gender diversity and equality has proven to be a demanding and
complex endeavor accompanied by numerous challenges and dilemmas (e.g. Acker, 2012).
By fostering gender diversity and equality, we do not only refer to an increase of females in
the workforce (diversity), but also to equal opportunities and treatment regardless of gender
(equality). Previous studies have primarily captured the role of equal opportunity officers or
human resource managers in these processes (Cowan and Fox, 2015; Kirton et al., 2007;
Lawrence, 2000). In contrast, chief executive officers (CEOs) and executives of the top
management team (TMT), who exercise a great amount of influence on behavior in
organizations (Hambrick and Finkelstein, 1987), have received less attention (Højgaard,
2002; Parboteeah et al., 2008). In this respect, we answer the call for studies exploring the
behavior of top decision makers regarding workforce diversity by investigating subsidiary
top executivesstrategies. These executives are of particular importance in the MNE
context, as they are linking pins between home and host country. Furthermore, due to this
key role, they influence if and how gender diversity and equality is implemented. Beyond
identifying their strategies of handling gender diversity and equality, based on upper
echelon theory (Hambrick and Finkelstein, 1987), we investigate if particular organizational
and individual characteristics relate to the pursuit of a particular strategy of change. This
allows us to provide implications for the selection of subsidiary executives and establishes a
basis to identify candidates for these positions matching the global strategy of gender
diversity and equality of a respective MNE.
Theoretical background and literature review
Institutional theory proposes that an organization is influenced by its institutional
environment (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). This environment of an organization can be
categorizedinto formal and informal institutions(North, 1990). While formal institutions refer
to binding rules, such as laws or constitutions, informal institutions relate to culture and
conventions. These institutional factors differ between countries (Xu and Shenkar, 2002).
MNEs need to considerboth formal and informal institutions, because a misfit with and a lack
of legitimacy in the institutional environment of the host country will endanger corporate
survival (Kostova,1999). As an MNE continues to diversifyinto more distant foreign markets,
it is confronted withlarger institutional differences(Chao and Kumar, 2010). Considering the
focus of our study, gender diversity and equality, this is the case for Scandinavian MNEs
equality in a

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