Artwork by Kelly Ye

Planting the Seed

Earlier this year, the Fortune 500 celebrated a record high of female CEOs leading America’s top companies. In the past decade, female representation in the C-Suite has more than doubled, from 15 female CEOs in 2010 to 38 in 2020, with Jane Fraser adding to the list in 2021 as Wall Street’s first female CEO. However, as a Fortune Magazine study indicates, the 500’s 38 female CEOs are concentrated in the bottom-tier of the list, mostly in the retail industry, while female leadership in tech companies remains uncommon. 

There are significant barriers for women in the tech industry. Harvard Business Review recently highlighted that a greater emphasis tends to be placed on the role of individual women rather than collective organizational policies in reducing gender inequality in the tech industry. Each woman is expected to change her own attitudes and behaviours to navigate the existing structural inequalities in hiring procedures and corporate culture in order to progress. However, this practice is counterproductive to a company’s outlook as corporations exceeding in female empowerment have been shown to experience 47% higher returns than industry average, showing a positive correlation between diverse leadership and business performance.

Within the tech industry, Apple possesses the greatest brand value in terms of financial power and consumer sentiment. However, their gender equality efforts are some of the lowest among tech companies, since women only occupy 33% of Apple’s workforce, 23% of tech roles, and 29% of managerial positions as of 2018. Innovation is at the core of Apple’s business performance, and numerous studies have shown how diversity of all dimensions is critical to fueling innovation. Therefore, Apple should bolster its gender equality efforts by implementing strategies adapted from Womenomics principles.


Womenomics is a poignant gender-based policy agenda that was implemented specifically at the corporate level by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The term “Womenomics” was coined by Kathy Matsui, the Chief Japan Strategist at Goldman Sachs. With a shrinking workforce and ageing society, Abe’s strategy was to use Japan’s under-represented female workforce to increase economic activity while simultaneously tackling Japan’s long-standing gender inequality. 

As a global economic leader, Japan’s female labour participation rate before Womenomics was implemented was well below the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average, and the environment is generally male-dominated with fewer opportunities for females in managerial roles. The OECD comprises 37 countries, with the goal being to stimulate economic progress and world trade. Abe’s government had implemented various Womenomics initiatives that were directed by five key performance indicators (KPIs). Out of the five KPIs, Female Labour Participation rate most notably increased by 15% over the last two decades. Progress was achieved with strategies that enhance workplace culture through employee benefits and targeted training programs. 

Notably, Japan is at the forefront of global technology innovation, housing tech giants such as Sony, Canon, Nintendo, and Mitsubishi. Therefore, Abe’s Womenomics serves as a valuable example of a diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiative applied to a broader socio-economic environment that is facing a similar narrative of gender inequality as Apple.

Apples to Oranges

Goldman Sachs’ 2019 report, written by Matsui on Womenomics, suggested that unconscious biases and gender role stereotypes play a large role in the outcome of Womenomics policy and that its targets for various KPIs may be too ambitious for Japan’s cultural climate. For instance, Abe’s goal to increase female representation in leadership to 30% and paternal leave ratios to 13% by 2020 showed slow signs of progress. Therefore, cultural differences between Japan and North America are useful to keep in mind when understanding how Apple may adapt certain Womenomics principles. 

Japan is largely a patriarchal society which informs how most Japanese corporations operate. Japan emphasizes tradition in cultural and societal practices and may often refrain from adapting progressive strategies. Comparatively, North America generally prioritizes adapting their practices with evolving shifts in society. Given its dominant North American presence and western perspective, Apple will presumably be more receptive to strategies that address persistent gender inequality in its corporation. 

Lady Apple: Apple and Female Representation

Apple’s overall D&I agenda has focused on racial, cultural, age, and gender diversity. A key focus has been placed on increasing diversity via new hires, improving the gender pay gap, and advancing racial minorities in leadership positions. Apple has implemented programs that improve the gender pay gap internally and externally and support racial minorities internally. However, despite progressive hiring policies, they have fallen short in improving internal female representation, specifically in tech and managerial positions. In Apple’s most recent D&I report, there was an overall 3% increase in female representation in tech roles between 2014 to 2018, while there was double that increase in the same time frame for non-tech roles. 

Apple can increase female representation (or participation) in tech and leadership positions by using strategies inspired by select Womenomics KPIs. These strategies require collaborative organizational action to tackle structural inequalities in workplace culture and employee development and benefits.


Womenomics KPI 1: Workplace Culture 

Womenomics spurred the Nadeshiko Brands designation and the Eruboshi certification, two external factors that have encouraged Japanese companies to improve gender equality in the workplace. Apple can pursue public-private partnerships inspired by the first and internal programming inspired by the second to increase female representation in leadership and tech positions.

Firstly, the Nadeshiko Brands designation highlights Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) listed companies that empower women in the workplace through targets focused on progressing female leadership. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) has selected 46 companies from the TSE that are outstanding examples of female empowerment. The initiative also attracts investors seeking to invest in top-performing diverse companies, encouraging other TSE-listed companies to promote gender diversity. 

Apple can pursue public-private partnerships with subsidiary ministries parallel to METI in Japan that support objectives for increased female labour participation within their region. For example, in Canada, if Apple were to partner with the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED), a recognition list similar to the Nadeshiko Brands could be established for companies in the tech industry leading in gender equality. This public-private partnership can be beneficial in providing Apple and the tech industry gender equality targets that can incentivize internal changes in gender policies. 

Having an industry recognized list of tech companies progressing in female representation not only encourages other industry competitors to follow in line, but can also attract investors, while reducing gender barriers across the industry. It is important to note that in Japan’s context, government involvement in private affairs is common and at times encouraged. While North America has a favourable stance on public-private partnerships, this should not be taken for granted for Apple’s global strategies. 

Second, the prestigious Eruboshi certification awarded by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare offers an incentive for companies to adopt gender equality targets including extension of child care leave period, increase of females hired after childcare leave, and female leadership ratios, among others. For example, as a recipient of the Eruboshi certification, Sony continued to hold diversity seminars for managers and career programs exclusively for female employees. 

Similarly, Apple can provide greater training opportunities for the female workforce, thus broadening the talent pipeline of candidates qualified to advance into tech and managerial roles. Upskilling can take the form of online courses through platforms such as Udacity and supporting university-level education. For instance, Google introduced free training programs (Google IT Support Professional Certificate) and a Women Techmakers program to develop core skill sets needed in tech positions. 

The funding and resources needed for upskilling such as facilities, digital tools, and expanding community partners can be supported by Apple’s current investments in D&I initiatives. The tech industry can best prepare their workforce for the growing demands in technology through upskilling, and the government can play a fundamental role by incentivizing employer-led programs through funding, tax incentives, and challenges grants. Moreover, technology leaders in Silicon Valley will benefit from close partnerships with educators and government leaders.

This aligns similarly with the Eruboshi certificate and emphasizes the importance of collaboration between the private and public sector. Apple can adapt similar initiatives to the Eruboshi certification, by rewarding internal departments that promote female representation through their hiring practices and promotion opportunities. In the long-term, this allows Apple to focus their financial resources to areas that can benefit from upskilling and empower females in tech-specific and leadership roles. 

Womenomics KPI 2: Female Labour Participation Rate

Womenomics 2019 progress report shows that female labour participation rate in Japan surpassed leading OECD countries in America and Europe at 71%. There are various factors behind Japan’s rapid increase in female labour participation. One factor is Japan’s workforce reform called ‘Equal Pay, Equal Work’. This reform came into full effect in April of 2020 and requires employers to pay and provide benefits for part-time workers that do the same work as full-time workers. The increase in pay, benefits, and recurring education opportunities for part-time positions incentivized many females to enter into the labour force. This policy not only limits unwarranted discrimination by basing pay on skill and merit, but also provides a strategy for corporations to increase their female talent pool. 

Similarly, Apple has also made substantial changes to how it compensates its employees. In the U.S., Apple has remedied pay gaps by analyzing salaries, bonuses, and annual stock grants. After a year-long study in 2016, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook reported that female employees made 99.6 cents to the one dollar earned by men in the same role. Now, Apple has mentioned that in the U.S. and U.K., female employees are paid equally to male employees. However, a key note to mention is that 67% of Apple’s workforce is composed of white males, which has not changed at all (~1%) since 2014. 

Apple’s equal pay initiatives in the U.S. and U.K. is certainly a step in the right direction, but equal pay will not work alone to bridge gaps in female representation without other policies as suggested in this article. By applying the Womenomics’ example of ‘Equal Pay, Equal Work’, Apple can consider how broader policies and workplace culture initiatives play a significant role in bridging the gap between the representation of females across its workforce. 

Moving the Dial

Apple plays an increasing role in shaping global culture through advancing technology that further connects our world. Given Apple’s global operations, it would be valuable for Apple to analyze the trends in female leadership among its various regions. As the discussion of female leadership in Japan suggests, training and career experience play a key role in advancement opportunities. Similarly, Apple can modify this concept and invest further into upskilling and career experience opportunities for current and future female employees in tech specific roles. 

Moreover, this discussion reflects on how government policies can complement corporate strategies and vice versa. This can be reflected through the upsurge in public-private partnerships in various industries and could be a strategy, as discussed, to implement for D&I issues in years to come. Apple and the technology industry at large will benefit from using their global platforms to lead the dialogue for female representation in the workplace by initiating strategies and concepts discussed in this article.

While Womenomics as a policy framework has flaws of its own, it provides a starting point for Apple to consider broader strategies that can move toward resolving gender inequality in the technology industry.