William Pesek: Prada lawsuit may help change nation

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Rina Bovrisse isn't Japan's Gloria Steinem. Yet, she may just be the heroine economists have been waiting for.

Bovrisse, 36, became a cause celebre because of her sexual-discrimination lawsuit against Prada. The former senior retail manager claims she was harassed as "ugly" by Prada Japan's top executive and was unfairly dismissed.

This drama might garner modest attention in Milan, New York or Paris. Coming in Japan, where women's rights are often a novel idea, it's a shocking spectacle.

Japanese women are supposed to maintain a stiff upper lip when being mistreated in the workplace. That's how it is. Deal with it.

Bovrisse is having none of that, and good for her. In her frustration, she's doing more than anyone in recent memory to highlight a major cause of Japan's malaise: a chronic disregard for the female workforce.

It hinders growth, adds to public debt, reduces competitiveness and feeds other challenges like the nation's falling birthrate.

"So many smart, driven, talented Japanese women are tired of not being treated equally," Bovrisse said last week. "I am speaking out for them. We must have the courage to demand to be treated fairly."

The 18-year fashion-industry veteran and Parsons School of Design graduate had worked at Prada USA and Chanel. She had worked in New York, London, Paris (the name Bovrisse comes from her marriage to a Frenchman) and Hawaii.

Presumably, it was that resume that prompted Prada Japan to hire Bovrisse in April last year to oversee 500 employees in 40 shops. And then, she says, the trouble began.

Bovrisse says she was told to get rid of 15 managers and assistant managers for being "old, fat, ugly, disgusting or not having the Prada look".

Later in her six-month stint there, she claims to have been told to lose weight and change her hairstyle. Bovrisse says she complained to company headquarters in Milan and was fired soon after.

Prada spokeswoman Mia Morikawa said the company wouldn't comment for this column, and referred me to previous statements dismissing Bovrisse's claims. Last month, Prada Japan countersued Bovrisse for allegedly damaging its image.

I find Bovrisse's story persuasive. Two former Prada staffers have joined her lawsuit. And, at the risk of making a sexist observation, she is far from ugly or fat. Even if she were, you would think that in 2010 neither could be held against a woman in an advanced nation.

That's just the point. There's a reason representatives from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women met with Bovrisse last month.

It's the same reason the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calls on Japan to empower women.

Japan's per-capita-income rankings tend to be a mirror image of those reflecting women's participation in politics and corporate management.

At present, none of the companies in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average is run by a woman.

Women have fared poorly since the Lehman Shock of late 2008, being hit disproportionately by Wall St's meltdown.

Because many are hired on part-time contracts, they are easiest to cut when corporate profits evaporate.

Japan's seniority-based and male-dominated model has been slow to better use fully one half of the nation's 126 million people. Neglecting 50 per cent of your labour force is terrible economics. Japan built bridges, dams and roads to nowhere and cut interest rates to zero in a bid to raise living standards. It's dragged its feet on better harnessing the talents of its female masses.

"It pains me to think women haven't come further than this," Bovrisse said.

Japan needs more Bovrisses to step forward. If Japanese women are waiting for their male leaders to champion their cause, they're mistaken.

They need to demand a bigger say in Japan's business and political systems if they want true change.

It's a key to Japan becoming a meritocracy.

Societal norms are a powerful dynamic and they're sometimes summed up with a proverb: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Cases of sexism often don't get reported for fear of making waves or being at the centre of a potential scandal.

Yet women should make waves, and big ones. Gender discrimination in Japan often seems like one of those unfixable issues. When you talk about it, people nod knowingly and shrug.

Job applicants in Japan find nothing odd about attaching a photo to their resumes, or including their date of birth.

There's little outcry when the response of Tokyo subway operators to complaints about groping on trains is segregation: women-only cars.

The literary and cinematic worlds tell us The Devil Wears Prada. In Bovrisse's story, you could say Prada wears the devil.

Yet, as even our heroine will admit, this tale is much bigger than the experience of one woman. It's about the future of the third-biggest economy.

And grudgingly, Bovrisse is sensing her Steinem-like role in this economic drama. It's on her new business cards, which read: "Fashionista Feminista".

- BLOOMBERG

* William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

- NZ Herald

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