“Diversity is an issue not just for Mercari, but for Japanese society at large” CEO Shintaro Yamada & Outside Director Makiko Shinoda emphasize the importance of dialogue

A conversation with Mercari Representative Director Shintaro Yamada and Outside Director Makiko Shinoda about Diversity & Inclusion (referred to below as “D&I”). In Part 1, Shintaro commented that while the company has made progress with international D&I, it is lagging behind in terms of gender diversity and inclusion.

In Part 2, Makiko says “it is very difficult for one to recognize the gender biases embedded within oneself”. Biases that take root within us over time, unnoticed, may very likely have negative effects within the organization, especially for decisions related to HR and evaluations. Such issues are not specific to companies like Mercari, or even to Japan as a country. Biases exist inside as well as outside of Japan, and the roots they have established are very deep. As people and as organizations, we have to figure out how we will face them going forward. This is a challenge that simply cannot be avoided.

Shintaro and Makiko’s dialogue will make clear the D&I best practices Mercari aims to achieve, as well as the small steps we each can take right now.

*Face masks were temporarily removed for photos

Featured in this article

  • Shintaro Yamada

    Mercari’s Representative Director, CEO. Born in Seto, Aichi. After graduating from Waseda University, he established the company Unoh Inc., where he was responsible for launching various internet services such as ‘Eiga Seikatsu’ (a movie information site), ‘Photo Zou’ (a photo community site), and ‘Machitsuku!’ (a city-builder game). In 2010, Shintaro sold Unoh, Inc to the mobile games company Zynga. After leaving Zynga in 2012, he went on a trip around the world. In February 2013, he established Mercari, Inc.

  • Makiko Shinoda

    Mercari Outside Director (Independent Director) Born in Shinjuku, Tokyo. After graduating from Keio University, she joined the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan (currently Shinsei Bank). She received an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and an M.A in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University, to later work as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. Later, she worked for Novartis and Nestlé to create and execute their business plans, build their internal management system, and lead the PMI. She joined Hobonichi in 2008, and contributed to their IPO as CFO, Director & Manager-Administration. She left the company in 2018 to recharge, and joined YeLL’s Board of Directors in March 2020.

Mercari’s three values wouldn’t work without D&I

In Part 1 it was stated that while Mercari has produced some results, there is still a way to go for gender diversity and inclusion. What path do you foresee in Mercari’s future for D&I, Makiko?

Makiko: Before looking ahead, I’d like to say I personally feel Mercari’s three values would not work without D&I in the first place. First there is “Go Bold”. In order to take greater actions exceeding one person’s imagination, you need to gain new perspective from other individuals. As for “All for One”, I think it already represents D&I itself. The “Be a Pro” mindset means each of us keep improving our expertise, at which point I think demographics become less and less relevant. After all, professionalism is not tied to any gender, nationality or religion. Committing to these values in an honest manner is very much in sync with what D&I stands for.

-So the mindset forming the basis of D&I already exists within Mercari. However, we haven’t been able to take concrete action specifically for gender.

Makiko: That’s right. I feel the next step is to dive into our own subconsciousness. We all have some degree of gender bias deeply embedded in our subconsciousness, even if unwillingly. We are assigned a gender at birth, and raised with voices of those around us saying “you are a girl so do this,” “you are a boy so do that”. The first time we notice race is when we run into someone of another race. Gender, however, is all around us, which in a way also makes it hard to recognize. That is why we need dialogue with a wide range of people to notice our own biases.

-Many companies, as their first D&I initiative, focus on increasing the number of women in executive and leadership roles. But…

Makiko: While it is definitely not a bad thing to say “let’s add more women”, “let’s listen to what the women are saying”, it can be a bit superficial. Even if there are more women in the conference room, if the vote at the end says “with three women and seven men, the men’s proposal is accepted” then it does not mean anything. I think we can achieve concrete and significant results if the men in majority and the women in minority looked at one another and asked the question “Why does this person think this way? What makes them act in a different way than I do?”. Directing your professional curiosity towards a fellow team member should lead to various insights and realizations. I picked the example of men and women because of its simplicity, but the challenge does not end there.
Makiko Shinoda(Mercari Outside Director)

Shintaro: In the end, the “I” in D&I, meaning Inclusion, holds greater importance. As we had more people join the company from outside of Japan, certain conventions that were a given in Japanese companies were questioned point-blank: “Why does Mercari do it this way?”. It happened several times, and in many of those cases it was a first time we noticed that certain oversight. You don’t notice that kind of thing when everyone is Japanese. We were making Slack posts in Japanese, thinking nothing of it, until some non-Japanese speaking members said putting text through auto-translation makes it very hard to understand, so we started the practice of always making public messages bilingual. It is very important to point out what you don’t understand and ask “Why are you doing it this way?”. In film photography, there is a phenomenon of light called “halation”. It happens when light spills beyond its boundaries and makes a colorful halo around the light source. I’d like to think the conflicts that happen as diversity moves forward are a bit like that. The light that each one of us casts is spilling onto each other, and we just need that extra bit of preparation to get a clear image. That is why I think the phrasing “Diversity and Inclusion” happens to demonstrate the chronological order of these actions as well. Diversity, then Inclusion. Our job doesn’t end with pushing diversity. We will also give inclusion the proper care and attention it deserves.

-A survey was conducted in January 2021 targeting all employees, and while 72% answered they believe Mercari to be a diverse company, only 56% said they believe it is an inclusive company. The order you mentioned also seems to show up in the numbers.

Shintaro: Everyone has their own opinions, which is why halation happens when we all come together. Resolving that collision of light is what makes progress for inclusion. All of that ties into All for One as well as Go Bold, just like Makiko said. The way we trigger such chemical changes in the company ultimately has large effects on our product development, I believe.

“Not just men, but women too.” The path to recognizing our unconscious biases

-We now understand that further progress in D&I requires facing the unconscious biases within us all. Makiko, have you noticed any unconscious biases within yourself, maybe stemming from your formative years?

Makiko: When I looked back on my years as a new grad, I noticed I had internalized some gender biases unacceptable by today’s standards. At the time it did feel a little unnatural, but that was all the resistance I showed. In fact, my mindset changing over time to thinking “this is unacceptable now” also happened unconsciously.

Shintaro: I feel the same way. So, I think what the Chairman of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Organizing Committee said the other day was in line with what was normal in his day, and rooted in the unconscious. There is a high likelihood that I could be carrying a similar unconscious bias and one day commit a similar faux pas. If we look at the past, we were raised in a country where in elementary school, for example, boys’ names would always be at the top of the class roster. Everyone has unconscious bias. I first wanted to fully understand the danger of that, before starting to think what I could do for my part.

Shintaro Yamada (Mercari Representative Director and CEO)

Makiko: I think the same goes for women too, maybe even more so. Until now it was commonly accepted that men would be at the top, women at the bottom. Currently the tone is shifting towards “we should be elevating women”. Such a framework of thought and action may lead to a misconception that “women are always right and men are always wrong”. This also is very dangerous. No woman is correct all the time just because they are a woman. Us women should also be aware of the bias we have towards ourselves.

-The bias that women have towards themselves?

Makiko: Shintaro was just talking about class rosters. Many, many women also lived through that time, when the order was boys first, girls later. The buildup of such experiences over time must have had an effect on the lives of these women. Maybe some women falsely believe that they cannot have “motive” as women, and their role is to only support the motives of men.

-In other words, women trapped in supporting roles instead of being protagonists.

Makiko: In the family drama TV shows of the Showa period (1926-1989), there often is the scene of the husband coming home drunk and acting violently towards the wife. The wife pleads with him to stop, asking the children to go to their room. She never talks back to him, or tells him to be responsible for his own emotions. She silences herself and puts the family first. I think such stereotypes are surviving within women as well. Carrying them to the workplace leads to a situation where even though they are supposed to work as professionals, they are blocked by biases that don’t allow them to fulfill their roles entirely. This is what made affirmative action necessary, to elevate women to where they should be. But relying on the action of others is not enough. Women themselves also should be aware of the bias they have towards themselves. Of course, I don’t mean to be berating women to “focus on what they should be doing”. That would be another form of aggression.

Shintaro: If men do their due diligence, and women do their due diligence, and we all recognize the unconscious biases we have, a lot would change. Going back to the Kathy Matsui example from before (Part 1), she was talking about women not showing off enough. If so, it is the duty of managers to draw it out of their female team members.

-So such recognition from each of us will allow for other actions to be taken, yes?

Shintaro: That’s right. Let’s say you are looking at two profiles that are entirely the same, but one is that of a man, and the other a woman. You look at the man and say “he looks like a go-getter”, but for the woman, “she looks egocentric”. If you recognize your bias then and there, you can regulate it to the best of your ability, then rise above it and conduct the proper communication and evaluation. So it is not only a gender issue. People of all attributes must be aware of our tendencies and differences.

Drawing additional lines and mutual understanding through dialogue

-What do you do to shed your unconscious biases?

Shintaro: I talk. Sometimes I find myself placing distance between myself and women, fearing I will offend someone in some way. The same goes for avoiding the topic of D&I and not just for gender. How it should really be is people from different demographics should come together and figure out the next move. So, dialogue has tremendous importance. As mentioned in Part 1, we have the cross-organizational D&I Council within Mercari, which I hope will be a platform for such dialogue.

Makiko: I agree on the importance of dialogue. In addition to properly talking to one another, if everyone could acquire certain general knowledge, such as the skill to resolve issues through dialogue, as well as the various tendencies of different groups demonstrated through research, we would achieve further progress. As this is a difficult discussion to have without any preparation, it helps to have material that can be used for course-correcting the conversation. Dialogue is not there for one person to accuse another of doing this or that the “wrong” way. It is there for each party to ask themselves “what makes me tick?”. Having a permanent platform for such discussion would be great, I thought. D&I comes with the need to clash at the various layers of “individual”, “team”, and “organization”. This can lead to chaos easily. Therein lies the complexity as well as the fascination of the issue.

-Emphasizing the importance of dialogue, as individuals and as an organization. If mechanisms for this were created, it would have tremendous effects.

Makiko: Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley companies hold training sessions for individuals to recognize the biases within. If the first step of D&I is to know what diversity and unconscious bias mean, the next step is to know what biases one holds inside oneself. Even for the people who can recognize that they may be holding biases, it is always shocking to see it appear clearly in numerical data. But bias is a part of human recognition. Bias is not bad or evil by itself. It is just that it may have unpleasant effects in the workplace, especially in the areas of HR and performance evaluations. In other words, it is only in certain cases that having bias has bad results. So there is no need to feel extreme shame once one’s own bias shows up in data. Just take it in stride and rise above it. I think the companies who have produced good results have been utilizing such initiatives for a long time.

Shintaro: In Mercari, we have recently been holding Unconscious Bias Workshops, the material of which has been released on our D&I page. With such initiatives I hope we can impact society at large one step at a time.

Individual and organizational practices to change Japan slowly but surely

-It is not only a Mercari issue that biases are too deeply rooted and D&I doesn’t progress well. Many companies, in fact Japanese society in general have that problem.

Shintaro: I think so too. That is why Mercari must have a clear stance on it and make continuous effort. If we can keep creating best practices and through them improve our service, it will surely reflect on the company’s output. An ideal organization is one that maintains their competitive power while every member demonstrates their abilities. We have to take the initiative and create that organization.

Makiko: Maybe it is difficult in today’s Japan to feel a sense of urgency for D&I. But if Mercari is to succeed globally, hiring activities are more important than ever before. If we can’t get world-class talent to say “I want to join Mercari”, searching for highly skilled members will get harder and harder over time. Which means, it is also more important than ever before that the people who identify as minorities feel they can realize their potential without worry in this environment.

Shintaro: Awareness of D&I varies greatly between companies, even domestically. Global corporations create services meant for people of various countries, races, and religions. They have high awareness. The allure of the inclusive environment that can be found there draws in all sorts of talent to such companies. Mercari has a lot to do before we can compete with those titans in the same coliseum. It would be ideal if we could naturally get to that point, but it doesn’t happen that way. Our awareness and will to evolve as much is being tested right now, I feel.

Makiko: That is why I think we each individually must keep on learning. Someone’s statement making news as “inappropriate” means that are people out there that are hurt by it. We each have our opinions and it is okay to complain amongst friends, but we also must deeply think and understand what the issue is.

Shintaro: So when I think about what I can do right now, as I am an entrepreneur at heart, I realized I have to push D&I forward within Mercari. I usually take care to not make any political tweets. But after the faux pas mentioned before, I couldn’t adhere to that principle and I tweeted my opinion, to various types of reactions. While I was happy a bit, the whole issue demonstrates a giant problem for our society.

Makiko: That is exactly what it means for the discussion to move forward. The discussion is there to have mutual understanding of diversity, not to come up with an ultimate consensus. That is why it will not end, in fact it should not end, only continue. Speaking to the friends and co-workers around us is a good step we can take right now towards the next stage of D&I. Even 5 or 10 years ago, such ideas were not spoken out loud. I am very happy to see an abundance of platforms to raise my voice. I think Mercari has helped make that a reality.

Shintaro: I am happy to hear our efforts have been bearing fruit in some way. I hold no despair for the future as well. If we give it enough time we can solve this issue for sure. Maybe 10, maybe 20 years, but one day we will. It took a lot of time to change the norms of society to how they are today as well. I will do my best to help push the change forward.

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