The Role Model: Kathy Matsui, Goldman Sachs
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The Role Model: Kathy Matsui, Goldman Sachs

Japan’s banking system is a tough place to work for ambitious women. But Kathy Matsui shows it is possible to rise to the top.


Goldman Sachs bigwig Kathy Matsui has a laugh line that she squeezes into speeches about Japan’s misogyny problem: “There is no such thing as a glass ceiling; it’s just a thick layer of men.”

Like all humour, this joke has its basis in truth: Japanese leadership is, after all, packed full of men. Japan ranks 121st out of 153 countries – just behind United Arab Emirates and Benin – in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, and it trails Saudi Arabia and Libya in terms of the percentage of women in parliament, according to data from Parline.

It’s also true, though, that Matsui is getting the last laugh on a patriarchy that dismissed her as a curiosity – and which now finds itself dancing to a beat she helped inspire.


Matsui’s reputation derives from the Womenomics reports that she began publishing in 1999. Her argument – that making better use of female talent is key to a stronger Japanese economy – caught on slowly.

But in late 2012, Matsui’s musings found their way into the prime minister’s office. Shinzo Abe’s government based a key pillar of its reform push on a central Matsui contention: empowering women would, in one fell swoop, offset a shrinking workforce, boost gross domestic product by 15% and create a more innovative and vibrant Japan.

“There’s definitely a lot of work to do, but at least there is movement broadly in the right direction,” says Matsui, Goldman Sachs Japan’s vice chairman and chief equity analyst.

Case in point: the surge in female labour participation. In 1999, when Matsui put out her seminal Buy the Female Economy research – at a time when a fast-ageing population hindered growth and innovation – barely 50% of Japanese women were in the workforce. Today, female participation is above 71%, which is higher than in the US and the European Union.

“No way I would have expected this 20 years ago,” she says.

My passion is getting more women into the economy
Kathy Matsui

Matsui, now 55, is modest about her role – some might say the leading one – in forcing Japan Inc to harness the “other half” of its 126 million population. The genius of Matsui’s approach was to express Japan’s sexism in financial terms. By not levelling playing fields, she argues, politicians and corporate chieftains squander roughly the annual gross domestic product of Turkey every year.

Sadly, the squandering is still taking place. Women hold just 5% of executive committee jobs at financial services firms in Japan, according to Catalyst research, well below the 20% global average.

Even so, Matsui’s research and her doggedness, are “disrupting a stubbornly male-dominated system stuck in the 50s – I’ll let you decide if we’re talking about the 1850s or 1950s,” says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Kathy, with clear numbers, data and strong logic, forced Japan Inc to listen.”

Matsui’s greatest impact may be as a female role model in a nation with surprisingly few. Even Abe, the rare Japanese leader who talks about gender inequities, prefers tokenism when filling top jobs. Only two members of his 20-strong cabinet are women – and they are in lower positions. Abe has not entrusted a vital portfolio such as foreign affairs, finance or chief cabinet secretary to a woman.

Gender reckoning

As the face of Tokyo’s gender reckoning, Matsui is remarkably candid about hardships along the way and how they shaped her journey. In 2001, two years after she morphed herself into a gender-growth-model think tank of sorts, doctors found a lump on Matsui’s right breast.

The California-born Harvard alumnus returned to the US to take stock. There she was, 36 years old, with a high-profile job and a new child, scheduling chemotherapy and radiation treatments and shopping for wigs to wear to client meetings when she returned to work eight months later.

Rather than step back from her activism, the experience left Matsui more fired up than ever.

“Before that, I thought I was going to live until I was 90 and I had plenty of time to work, then retire and do something to give back to society,” she explains. “But when you face your mortality at such a young age, you have a different sort of timeline and urgency.”

That drive means Matsui travels regularly to Chittagong, Bangladesh, to serve on the board of the Asian University for Women. She also mentors younger women around the region, from high-flyers entering finance to students mulling their place in a fast-changing world.

“My passion is getting more women into the economy,” Matsui says. “In a country like Japan with a shrinking economy and population, using half that population more efficiently makes sense.”

Whether it’s made of glass, concrete or a thick layer of 60-something-year-old men, Matsui remains determined to break through that gender ceiling and be the role model Japan needs.