By Jackie Steele, FEW Co-Programs Director
On June 20 we were delighted to welcome Cynthia Usui, author of 専業主婦が就職するまでにやっておくべき8つのこと (Eight things Full-Time Housewives Should Do Before Entering the Workforce) and Head of Hospitality, Tokyo 2020 Olympics, The Coca-Cola Company, as our guest speaker at the June Monthly meeting entitled, “Breaking the Mold: Finding New Beginnings at Any Age.”
Although Cynthia frequently appears in the Japanese media and is often asked to talk about her work encouraging and empowering Japanese housewives to pursue careers and (re)enter the workforce, this was one of the first times she has addressed an international women’s group, such as FEW.
The evening kicked off with Cynthia sharing her unique career journey. After a 17 year break from paid employment while she focussed on raising her daughter, she accepted a position as the school cafeteria manager at her daughter’s international school in Bangkok, Thailand. This was the fifth country she had lived in as a diplomat’s wife, and given her depth of experience with various international school children, she leveraged these insights to create a menu and system that would meet the needs of the international kids and parents. Using various skills gained over many years as the head of the PTA, a role that many parents shirked, she revamped the school’s disorganized cafeteria into an efficient and cost-effective system that reflected the international composition and nutritional needs of the students in the school. Throughout this experience, she slowly gained confidence in herself and realized that she had the ability to run a highly complex system in ways that was profitable and aligned with the client’s expectations.
Soon after returning to Japan seven years ago, Cynthia decided to return to work full time, but she was consistently turned down due to her age and her career gap. She finally landed a job answering phones at a private members club. Bringing the same level of professionalism that she had sought to bring to her past positions as PTA president, Cynthia carried out her role answering phones perfectly and ultimately, she went beyond the confines of the job description and proactively took on the role of hosting events that no one else wanted to manage.
Armed with this experience in events planning, Cynthia’s earned a position as a sales manager at a leading Tokyo hotel. Rather than focus solely on her own area of responsibility, Cynthia’s curiosity once again saw her making the rounds of the restaurant, banquet rooms and wedding halls, and also inviting cleaners, waiters and kitchen staff to lunch so she could find out all she could about how the hotel operated. This in-depth knowledge of the hotel’s inner workings enabled her to differentiate herself from other staff members. She developed unique proposals that contributed to an increasing sales record that went far beyond just room bookings. Just three years after taking on the sales role, she was promoted to Assistant Director of New Sales Development and within four years, she went on to be appointed as Director of another global hotel brand.
While the traditional concept of “work-life balance” narrowly aims to offer support to parents (often mothers) in the coordination of daily/weekly efforts to reconcile the high demands of working hours with the heavy responsibilities of family and caregiving, it often assumes that these are happening concurrently. In short, it is a concept that targets women and men in the paid workforce who are struggling to juggle caregiving challenges. By contrast, Cynthia offers a lifelong approach that sees work, family/childrearing, community participation, and personal growth as a series of activities that may or may not be understood to happen concurrently, temporally speaking. For example, her “paid” career began after 17 years of an unpaid career in childrearing and intense school involvement.
Following the dominant corporate life course and assumptions of men, rather than the realities of the full diversity of working styles chosen by men and women, housewifery and related kinds of “unpaid” activities are erroneously framed as a “break” from productive “work.” Thus, Cynthia is challenging HR managers, companies, society, media, and housewives themselves to re-cast how we value this “break”. In so doing, we must take stock of the important activities women and mothers are pursuing, whether paid or unpaid, and then also consider how the tremendous skills (communications, interpersonal, project management and implementation, fiscal planning, self-directed innovation, multitasking etc) gained throughout those activities offer crucial transferable skills that are required in a vast range of well-paid employment contexts.
Now that her daughter has graduated from college, she is focusing on her career and learning and developing her skills through paid work contexts. She believes this has offered her an important new way to maintain connection and relevance to her daughter’s new young adult life. Their experiences as professional women opens up a different kind of relationship for them to develop together as they learn and evolve. In an age where people live to 100 years old, Cynthia believes that there is ample time for women in their 50s to embark on and then build meaningful careers, in addition to other kinds of rewarding pursuits they may determine for themselves, including community participation and self-care.
So what advice does Cynthia have for those who want to reenter the workforce after a long career break?
- Whatever your small or big task or responsibilities, tackle them with a level of professionalism and efficiency that shows you are serious about what you do and how you spend your time.
- If you can’t find work in your desired field, go to where jobs are – with Japan’s target of 40 million tourists by 2020, the hospitality industry is desperate for talent
- The first step is getting your foot in the door and gaining experience. Only after that do you have room to negotiate what you want
- Do jobs that others don’t want to do and consistently build your network- you never know when an opportunity will arise
- Be curious. Never stop learning!!
- The most important skill that you can have is knowing how to acquire a new skill
- Impressions matter. Appearances still matter, even for men. Regardless of how old you get, always make an effort to present your best energetic self.
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