For some people, working as a software developer in Japan would be a dream come true. As an Australian software developer who has been in Japan for 6 months, I’m one of those dreamers.
If you’ve been looking to work in Japan for a while, I’m sure you’ve read other articles and heard rumours of what it’s like. The more common things to hear are that the hours are long, the pay is low, and the expectations of women are slightly outdated. According to the TokyoDev 2022 International Developers survey, only 10% of the respondents identified as women - and if we compare this to the 2021 JISA Basic Statistical Survey the results aren’t much better, with women making up around 20% of IT Engineers.
But looking past the numbers and rumours, what is it actually like to work as a female software developer in Japan? To try and get a better picture, I spoke to a number of women at various points in their careers about how they got here, what their experience has been, what challenges they face, and where they see themselves going.
[Disclaimer: This article only covers the feedback from the women I spoke with. Many other women have had different experiences in Japan that are completely valid. There are plenty of articles that focus on the negatives of working in Japan, and the women I was able to chat with were all quite positive about their experiences, so I’ve tried to focus on that area.]
Why choose to work in Japan
The response everyone who moved here gave me was they wanted to try living in Japan. Whether they wanted a new adventure, or there was something they had fallen in love with in the country, they wanted to experience life here – and work was just a part of that.
A factor for many was the feeling of safety. For many women, walking at night in Japan does not evoke the same sense of trepidation that it does in other places around the world. It helps that there are brightly lit 24 hour convenience stores on every other corner! Japan is a popular country to visit, and its fantastic public transport system makes it easy to travel around. It’s no wonder people are attracted to explore life here.
What are the positives of working as a female software developer in Japan
All the women I interviewed had good things to say about their time working in Japan. Whether they were just starting out or had years of experience, their journeys have been positive and fulfilling experiences.
Those who held more senior positions related to me feeling as though people appreciated their expertise, and those just starting out recalled how their companies had given them plenty of support to find their feet. While acknowledging this isn’t the experience all women have had here, everyone told me they felt respected in the workplace, supported in their work and in growing their careers.
Everyone was also comfortable with their work-life balance. When asked about overtime, they said they didn’t feel pressure from their company to work extra hours, but they did sometimes pressure themselves into working overtime to get things done. The pandemic has accelerated the uptake of remote work. Many of the women I talked with were working from home, saving time on their commute and regaining time back into their lives.
Tech is a modern field and the treatment of women in tech is generally considered to be better than other industries in Japan. Japanese culture has traditionally had conservative definitions of professional behaviour for women, but foreigners are generally not held to those same standards. For those of us who are obviously not Japanese this can be an advantage, as Japanese culture can at times be difficult to navigate smoothly.
In a time when tech layoffs are at the forefront of our minds, Japanese companies can offer more stable employment. Those I spoke to who have worked for/with Japanese companies, told me there has traditionally been a strong sense of loyalty and family within the company and that mass layoffs like the ones seen recently in big tech would be very unusual. While legislation in Japan can make it difficult to fire people, foreign companies often follow the trends set by their parent organisations
What challenges do women face as software developers in Japan
Software development is not the highest paying job in Japan, and TokyoDev’s survey indicated that women are often paid less than their male counterparts. However, the women I chatted with were generally satisfied with their compensation. They felt the amount they were earning was enough to enjoy a life in Japan, but were aware they could be earning much more in other countries such as the US.
The lack of women in technology did create pressure for some of the women I spoke with. It not only presented an external challenge - sometimes you have concerns you might want to share with another woman - but also internal challenges - imagine imposter syndrome but with the stress of being the only female developer ever hired by the company.
Moving to a new country means adapting to new systems. Most women I spoke with were still learning Japanese and used English as their main language of communication at work. Without Japanese skills it can be difficult to navigate other aspects of life, such as filing your taxes or applying for leave. Additionally, even if you are fluent in Japanese, there still may be challenges that come with adapting to a new culture.
There is a cultural expectation that women will not return to the workforce after having children. This can present itself in women not receiving the same opportunities, promotions, or salary raises as men. A few of the women I interviewed commented on how sometimes it feels there’s an attitude where women are treated more gently, as it’s felt they cannot work as hard as men, because they have more household responsibilities.
On the topic of children, Japan has great legislation in place for expecting parents, as the government wants to encourage people to have children. Both parents are able to take a year’s leave with pay (albeit reduced), there are child care subsidies until the end of junior high, and some companies even offer egg freezing. Japanese parents can be hesitant to take long-term child care leave though, usually due to company loyalty and guilt of leaving the team short handed.
What does the future hold
Everyone I spoke with was optimistic about their own futures, and the future of women in tech in Japan.
Even though there is a large gender imbalance among software developers, there’s a rising awareness (not just in Japan, but globally) that as an industry we need to do more to bridge the gender gap. Many of the women I talked to agree that, while it may be slow, companies in Japan are taking actions to increase gender diversity in tech.
The Japanese government is also pushing for more women in the workforce and more women in leadership positions, setting a goal of 30% of leadership roles to be held by women by 2030. The motivations here may be more about economics than about empowering women, but the end result is the same.
Now, when the industry is pushing to close the gender gap, is a great time for women who want to be recognized and receive the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
Advice for other women wanting to get into the industry
The most common piece of advice from the women interviewed was to learn Japanese. While more experience does increase your chances of finding work where Japanese is not required, not being fluent can limit your options considerably. Having those communication skills, especially if you are just starting out in your tech career, will make you a more attractive applicant and open many doors.
When interviewing, take the time to interview the company as well. Not every company in Japan will be the right one for you. The women I talked with all felt very lucky to have found companies that work well for them. The interview is where you’re both putting your best foot forward, so if you feel uneasy during the interview process – perhaps you sense they’re looking down on you – it’s not a good sign.
Don’t be afraid to be the first woman joining the team either, there really is a pipeline issue in Japan - there’s a lack of women going into STEM and IT. The company could be great and just not have had the chance to hire a female developer before.
Finally, find your people, find a community for yourself - outside of your company. Moving to a new country can be daunting and it can be hard to connect with people outside of your job. It’s good to have a support network you can rely on. There are plenty of friendly, welcoming tech groups in Japan with a focus on empowering women. See my guide to tech meetups in Tokyo to find people who share your interests.
Japan has a lot of potential and opportunities for women wanting to get into the software development industry. The companies that you’ve heard horror stories about do exist, but there are also companies here that will treat you with respect and help you grow your career. While attitudes are slower to change, the laws and legislation are quite progressive and Japan is investing to try and close the gender gap in tech.
Going into writing this article, I thought there would be more negative responses. I was pleasantly surprised that the women I talked to had such positive experiences and that they were so hopeful about the industry in Japan.
For women who read this and want to work in Japan - believe in yourself! Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself or make mistakes. You’re not expected to be perfect, just that you keep learning and growing.
Hope to see you in Japan!
Many thanks to the women I interviewed, including Ann Kilzer, Cédrine Monnet, Christine Gerpheide, Nicole Wong, Riho Takagi and others who gave up their time to chat with me and share their experiences for this article. Also thank you Paul McMahon, Sasha Kaverina and Scott Rothrock, for their support in completing this article.