As a young litigation associate at global law firm Morrison Foerster, current AlixPartners Senior Vice President Emiko Ito found a niche in forensics and eDiscovery—specifically advising Japanese corporations on the nuances of data preservation and collection.

There was no pre-trial discovery practice in Japan, and so it was not a well-known concept.

“In the US, discovery was a critical part of any litigation investigation. It was a big deal,” Emiko explained. “But when I started my career, Japanese companies often had no idea what discovery was, because we just didn’t have much of it here.”

However, a rise in cross-border antitrust and FCPA investigations in the late 2000s forced these companies to quickly play catchup on understanding international compliance standards.

Seeing an opportunity, Emiko transitioned into the consulting industry, and joined AlixPartners’ Tokyo office to advise Japanese companies and global law firms on eDiscovery best practices.

But in Japan, Emiko, an expert in a complex and increasingly important field, was an outlier.

Despite recent efforts to promote gender parity in the workforce, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying that helping women “shine” was key to the country’s economic revitalization, Japan has one of the widest gender gaps in the world, according to the World Economic Forum.

Emiko believes traditional mindsets and a lack of policies supporting working mothers forces many young women out of the workforce, and then it’s almost impossible to return to a career after taking time off.

She remembers managing the discovery process on a large case and needing to hire a team of document reviewers. Looking over the applications for the relatively tedious work, she was shocked by the accomplishments of many of the women applicants.

“These were women who were former prosecutors or had big law experience, but they weren’t able to find a job that was consistent with their experience,” she said. 

With so few role models—less than 8 percent of managers in Japan are women—it’s hard for young women to see a path for themselves in corporate Japan, a reality that Emiko is actively trying to change.

In summer 2019, Emiko was contacted by Kaede Toh, a partner at law firm Latham & Watkins, about starting a Women’s White Collar Defense Association (WWCDA) chapter in Japan.

“At the time, there were about 40 chapters around the world, and so my first thought upon getting that email was that Japan must be pretty far behind to not have a chapter,” Emiko said.

Emiko and her fellow co-founders got to work, and within only a few weeks after receiving that initial communication, the Japan chapter of the WWCDA held its first meeting. 

In its first year, the group has primarily focused on amplifying the voice of its members, showing their achievements, and getting their names more well-known to the public.

“Emiko has been a great ambassador of the organization and a role model to younger professionals who are looking to develop their career in consulting by sharing stories about her career development and challenges she encountered and how she overcame them,” Kaede said.

With so few women in senior positions in corporate Japan, Emiko understands the power her presence, and the presence of other women like her, can have.

After giving a presentation to a corporate legal team, Emiko was approached by the only female member of the legal team.

“She told me how rare it was to have another woman in the room with her, and how just seeing me give my presentation made her feel more comfortable to speak out and participate in the meeting,” said Emiko.

Emiko hopes her presence can have a similar impact within AlixPartners. As a member of the Women’s Empowerment Matters (WE Matters) employee resource group, Emiko helps organize activities and events to attract more female applicants. One initiative Emiko is particularly excited about is a planned series inviting successful Japanese businesswomen to come and speak at the firm.  

Over time, little moments like these will change the mindsets, which is why Emiko has worked so hard to make sure her voice is heard, even when it’s hard.

“Emiko is a warrior, and a special one who works diligently and endures, while at all times exuding bright energy,” said Jungmin Lee, a Director based in AlixPartners’ Seoul office and one of WE Matters global leaders.

“I’m not sure how many times I got frustrated or disappointed or upset by being the only woman or not having my expertise and opinions taken as seriously as my male colleagues. When that happens, I remind myself about the passion I have for my work and think about what I can do to make my industry more welcoming to young women,” Emiko said. “Women should be encouraged to seek careers in a field that they love.”

In recognition of Women’s History Month, AlixPartners is sharing stories of how the women of AlixPartners have championed their colleagues and challenged the status quo throughout their careers.

Click here for more information about our D&I initiatives, WE Matters, and our other ERGs.

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