This blog is translated into Japanese. To see the Japanese version, please visit “女性の仕事場”.
In the early 1980s when the computer world was booming at alarming rate, I graduated from a college in Tokyo, and I went on to get a professional job in Japan, which was unheard of during that time period. I was one of the “firsts” of women who aspired to get a job equal to men. Before then, women only did jobs that were considered suitable to women. The majority of women were housewives supported by husbands. It was acceptable for women to be nurses, teachers and in academic professions. Other college educated jobs strictly belonged to men.
I was always an excellent student throughout my school life. I was not the most talented or the smartest in the class, but I was determined and tenacious. If I wanted to get good grades, I would make myself study until I got perfect grades. In Japan, where the academic achievements are highly valued, you are well respected if you are a top student. I remember in the middle school, boys were lining up to ask for my help on homework and test preparations. I was on the equal ground with any boys throughout my school life.
The respect is totally lost when you graduate from college to pursue a career. Being a woman meant you were supposed to stay home to take care of the family and have babies. In reputable Japanese companies, college educated women would get jobs to serve tea and coffee and make photo copies. They were expected to find husbands, get married and quit at certain age. I was not going to be brought down by nonsense like that.
I was educated at a liberal arts college (International Christian University) which was funded by the Americans after World War II. Because of this, I was equipped with independent and critical thinking skills, as well as fluency in English. In addition, during my college years, I took some Computer Science classes, and I did very well. I found that I just LOVED the computer classes. I was always an analytical and logical thinker, but I hated math in the Japanese school system. It was always about crunching numbers and getting the right answers. In Computer Science, it is about logic and process. It suited my brain very well. I was very patient and would stick with the task until it was totally done (and dead).
After the graduation, I took several aptitude tests offered by the high tech companies. During the tech boom time, the computer companies needed to attract talented college grads from different fields because there weren’t enough Computer Science majors coming out of the school system. I aced the tests and was offered multiple jobs. I chose to go to work for Digital Equipment Corporation which was an American company. For women, working for foreign companies were the only way back then to even have a chance to be treated equally with men, and I was lucky to have made the choice.
At Digital Equipment Corporation, I was given a 6 month intensive computer science training class specializing in the computers that I would service later in the job. I was given a job that was considered only for men, and my superiors picked me to be assigned to the toughest of all the customers. They thought that I was the most vocal and resilient out of the class of women (5 of them). They assigned me to the installation and maintenance upgrade work for the OEMs. Since OEM customers depend on their own products to work on top of the computer, down time means lost revenue for their own companies. They were naturally the most demanding of all the customers.
I was a 22 years old female in a skirt carrying packs of removable system generation disks visiting the customer sites. The disks were big and heavy. There were no CDs, or even floppy discs to boot and install to the computer systems. I must have been quite strong and in shape back then. I had to walk to and from the train stations and go up and down the stairs with the disks every working day.
It was quite a sight at the customer sites. The men who were in charge of IT didn’t know what to do with a young female coming out for real jobs. I had numerous looks, rolled eyes and questions about what exactly I knew. They realized that they bought the computer systems from an American company. My guess was that if they knew in advance that a female engineer would come to service the system, they might have changed their minds. Of course I had to work twice as hard not to make ANY mistake on the jobs. If I made one mistake, all the females in the world would be blamed. It was never fair, but that was how things were. I was idealistic and I needed to prove to myself and to the people around me that I could be on the equal playing field with men. In my mind, I was trying to make a tiny dent in a huge boulder, but these changes come slowly in a traditional society like Japan.
Since then, I have worked in the computer field for over 30 years and held different positions throughout the years. However, my very first job in Digital Japan was the most memorable and socially significant to me although it was a very small influence on the Japanese society as a whole. However, numerous women who came before and after my time in 80s all made their own gradual and small changes in Japan. Together these small impacts results in bigger changes, and I now see more women in jobs that were totally limited to men in the past.