Meet Our Future: Dr. Jackie F. Steele, Strategic Advisor to WE Int.
Since the founding of WE Int., the co-founders have sought an experienced and compassionate advisor who could guide the organization in the right direction. It has become increasingly clear, however, that UTokyo lacks experts in the field of gender equality and diversity, and who publicly share the vision inspiring WE Int.
One day, one of the co-founders came across an interview with Professor Jackie Steele, featured on the official UTokyo English website, and in which she shares her concerns about the slow progress in gender equality in Japan and her wish for the University of Tokyo to become a “beacon of hope for younger generations and notably for young women in Japan.”
Without further delay, WE Int. Board reached out to Dr. Steele and asked her to consider becoming a Strategic Advisor to the organization. She kindly accepted our request.
WE Int. Board of Directors is honored to benefit from Dr. Steele’s expertise on intersectional understandings of diversity and policy design, her advice on how to sustainable build the capacity of our organization, and her strategic guidance on how to foster impact and inclusion for diverse young women students at the University of Tokyo and in Greater Tokyo.
We interviewed Dr. Steele about the challenges facing WE Int. and young women in Japan in the Reiwa era.
1. Why did you accept to be WE International’s advisor? What kind of potential did you see in the organization?
During my 6 years as associate professor at the Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo, I became increasingly aware of how national universities in Japan, including my own employer, had fallen behind on some of the most pressing social and democratic issues confronting contemporary times. Gender equality and the empowerment of women is one such critical example. I was struck by the low numbers of women students (less than 20%), the low presence of women faculty invited to “UTokyo Women” events, and the dismal number of tenured women professors (approx. 8%).
In short, I felt very isolated and decided to seek out research collaborations outside of UTokyo. Today, there are still too few professors researching in Japanese and English on leading international topics of democracy and that are informed by intersectional analyses of migration, multiculturalism, feminism, critical race studies, colonialism, gender, sexuality, LGBTQ rights, disability, among other key areas of law, political science, public policy, globalization, and international relations. Too often professors tackle one facet of systemic exclusion and inequality and then remain in a silo of thinking that fails to explore transferable lessons across multiple social groups and positions of marginalization. We need more intersectional analyses and intersectional conversations across scholars working on democratic equality.
Of all Japanese universities, I believe that Todai has a pivotal civic and democratic duty of educating the next generation of leaders in Japan, and of role modeling how higher education can serve Japanese democracy by nurturing a vision of Reiwa Japan as the land of the rising sons AND rising daughters. Currently, political leaders are attempting to find proactive structural measures to close the gap and to close it quickly. Hearing from the next generations of brilliant Todai women graduates is an important place for governments, political parties, and companies to validate whether they are on the right track or not.
This is where WE Int. is uniquely well situated to be of service and offer advice to the University of Tokyo and guidance to the political and economic elites attempting to walk the talk. If young women are not supported by the establishment, we know that young women vote with their feet and they go abroad to find professional opportunity. Or if they return to Japan, they often choose multinational corporations to help them make a more inlusive workplace environment that does not discriminaste based on gender. Young educated women have power on the current job market and I want them to be aware of their choices and to choose eyes wide open for the adventures and pursuits they deem most rewarding for their lives.
As a newly established organization, it is important for WE Int. to receive all the guidance and support possible to advance gender parity and women’s empowerment on campus. The structural issues from educational institutions directly feed into those of the professional world, and by nurturing a collaborative relationship between the two, there is more potential for impact for both sides. Therefore, if I can help support the women students at the University of Tokyo in their own voluntary efforts to make the lives of women students better during their time at the university, in feminist solidarity, I am pleased to help in whatever way possible. We all want the University of Tokyo to be a beacon of hope and to model what it looks like to provide a truly progressive training ground for the thought leading daughters and sons of Japan.
2. What do you think is the strength of a student-led organization like WE Int., or what do you think are the strengths of operating at a university campus?
In historically male dominated institutions, professional fields, or universities, we know that there is often a “chilly climate,” and at times an overt culture as well as unconscious lack of inclusion of women students, their needs, perspectives, and of critical career mentorship of women students by male professors. To generate a change in organizational culture and values, and to generate a more inclusive space of engagement for diverse students, it is key for social groups to carve out safe space for peer to peer connection, solidarity-building, and collective empowerment. Women faculty role models are few and far between and yet young women, and notably, young men need a diversity of role models.
I hope that this innovative student-led organization can help raise the voices of women students to the attention of the university, their male student peers, and also to broader Japanese society.
(Jackie discussing female leadership at the Mashing Up Conference in Shibuya, 8th November 2019).
Young men need to learn from women professors of diverse disciplinary backgrounds such that women’s authority will cease to be constantly challenged due to patriarchal assumptions about the gender hierarchy of intelligence and thought leadership, nor as a result of more subtle unconscious bias. Young women need to see people like them at every level of the university hierarchy to aspire to these roles, and to really experience a truly inclusive organization as the default “norm,” where respect for radical individuality, diversity and innovation is a confirmed and shared value. That kind of formative experience marks young women and prepares them to aspire to, and then achieve greatness in all fields. I hope that this innovative student-led organization can help raise the voices of women students to the attention of the university, their male student peers, and also to broader Japanese society. At a minimum, I hope diverse women will connect and feel supported by one another during their studies to validate each other’s courage and confidence. I am personally very excited to meet, exchange ideas, and collaborate with these impressive young minds.
3. What are some difficulties women’s organizations face when they operate in Japanese society, and what are some strategies to overcome those difficulties?
I have collaborated with a variety of organizations over the last two decades in Japan. In 1999, I founded the Chikuma International Exchange Association in Nagano to tackle multicultural exclusions in rural Japan. Given the chilly climate I was finding in Japanese political science, in 2014 I co-founded (with M. Miura and K. Shin) the Research Network on Gender and Diversity in Political Representation to create a bilingual informal network for junior to senior scholars interested in these topics. I was honoured to serve as a diversity advisor to the Japan Women’s Network for Disaster Risk Reduction, led by Domoto Akiko and Hara Hiroko, and to engage in participatory action research with NPO Women’s Eye, led by Ishimoto Megumi. I have regularly attended QnoKai’s efforts to promote the adoption of gender quotas in electoral politics, and I am a member of many LGBTQ advocacy organizations in Canada and Japan as well. Throughout these various roles over the past 20 years, and building from my own academic expertise in intersectional diversity and feminist political theory and public policy, I have facilitated exchanges between Canadian/Québécois “diversity feminist frameworks” and Japanese research, governmental, and civil society partners working on diversity and gender equality from grassroots to national and multilateral (UN) law reform activism.
As much as possible, I have shared with Japanese stakeholders (academics, governments, parliamentarians, civil society, women’s organizations, etc.) my Canadian intellectual training and philosophical grounding in intersectional understandings of complex diverse identity. I see myself as a pivotal bridge, given that I can convey these ideas in English, French, and Japanese. These ideas about the value of diversity are the key to holistic paradigm shift. Why? In practice, it is very difficult to get law reform or paradigm shift through the use of dichotomous, single-issue social issues. Work-life balance is not a women’s issue. It will not gain traction if it continues to be framed as such. Law reform requires coalitions of support across multiple stakeholders. Dichotomous, zero-sum formulations are ineffective, even when gender is cross-cutting demographically.
Work-life-balance, declining birthrates, aging society, child poverty, male monopolies over electoral offices have all been reduced to men versus gender issues
when they are democratic issues, economic issues, and shared collective challenges that require collective democratic solutions and buy-in. Similarly, in my writing, I work from a diversity analysis. It is not just about getting more women elected into politics. The goal must fundamentally be about “diversifying” the holistic talent pool so there are diverse women and significantly more DIVERSE MEN competing and gaining office to bring their unique worldviews to enrich public policy for everyone’s benefit.
One of my strategies within Japan over the past 15 years has been to consciously publish in Japanese about the endogenous kanji and concept of 多様性 (diversity). I have also then brought forward the Canadian concept and public policy practice of intersectionality 交差性分析 (intersectional analysis) so as to encourage academics, researchers, governments, and civil society organizations to move beyond the dichotomy of single-issue ideas. Silos of “gender”, or “race” or “disability”, when taken separately and when they stay in silos separate from each other, do not bring paradigm shift. They are reductive and limit the conversation to single-issues, and a zero-sum, largely inaccurate and stereotypical series of generalizations about “all men” and “all women”, or “all Japanese” and “all gaijin”.
We need to resist the intellectual laziness that these frameworks perpetuate.
Men and women are exceptionally diverse groups. Men are diverse. Women are diverse. We need all actors in society, including social and natural scientists to evolve their research methods and theoretical and empirical paradigms towards more nuanced and intersectional understandings of diverse contemporary human political identities, such that our findings will do justice to the complexity and contingent fluidity of the human condition in this time of globalization.
I am very pleased to have seen a distinct “discursive shift” in the last 8 years, with increasing numbers of stakeholders attempting to take diversity (多様性) more seriously.
As a consultant and founder of en-joi Diversity & Inclusion Consulting, I am excited for the opportunities to engage with thought leaders in corporations, universities, government ministries, and civil society organizations to facilitate paradigm shifts in how we structure our organizational culture towards horizontal collaboration and innovation, how we re-think our decision making processes towards inclusive leadership, and how we imagine the future of work to unleash the potential of all stakeholders. I am very pleased to have seen a distinct “discursive shift” in the last 8 years, with increasing numbers of stakeholders attempting to take diversity (多様性) more seriously. While it is often not accompanied by intersectional foundations, it is my hope that en-joi D&I consulting will further support that development in very concrete ways to foster more meaningful practices of belonging and social solidarity.
My advice to WE Int. has consistently been to focus on intersectional understandings of diversity to foster broad coalitions of stakeholders who will feel likewise included and affected by the movement to build inclusion on campus. Allies of all walks are essential to change agency. And naturally, there is likewise value in having a diversity of tactics in your toolkit so as to reach out to diverse women and men on campus differently. Using a diversity of events and messages that all convey and mobilize solidarity-building on campus will allow WE Int to be the change and validate diverse women and men students’ realities and shared values as expressed through the organization’s words, deeds, and inclusive thought leadership.
(Dr. Steele speaking at a panel discussion on education and gender identity hosted by WE Int. on December 13)
4. Where do you see WE International In 5 years?
I believe it will depend on the vision and institutional sustainability of the organization that is currently being built by the board of directors, and which I am honoured to guide and support actively. WE Int. has the potential of mobilizing UTokyo Women Alumni and of creating UTokyo Women Alumni Chapters in major cities across Japan and also in major cities around the world. These inspiring alumni of the University of Tokyo would ideally become active collaborators in raising funds for the organization, creating scholarships for Todai women in STEM or other under-represented fields, and of contributing their mentoring and soft power in ways that supports the empowerment, academic success, and future careers of women students at UTokyo, until such time as UTokyo women constitute a majority of students in all disciplines, and a majority of tenured professors. How many years do we think it will take to enact this change? How can we accomplish it together as women supporting women, and with our progressive male allies supporting us as well? Perhaps the WE Int. website should visibly track the progress on these data points to raise awareness and further motivate the University and all allies for equality.
Jackie F. Steele (PhD, University of Ottawa) is a trilingual political scientist and longtime (1997) Japan resident with expertise in holistic diversity integration policies, women's empowerment, disaster risk governance, and inclusive decision-making institutions and practices. She is currently Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Law, Nagoya University. As a bridge offering her expertise outside of academia, and as the Founder of en-joi, Dr. Steele is guiding corporations with change management grounded in intersectional approaches to diversity, technical policy design and implementation, and interdisciplinary insights from her research on gender equality, LGBTQ inclusion, multicultural diversity, and innovation through inclusive talent mobilization.