Wed, Jun 03, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Even a jealous mountain goddess couldn’t stop her

Barred from working as a civil engineer in Japan due to her gender, Reiko Abe has found success overseas, most recently in India

By Natalie Obiko Pearson  /  BLOOMBERG

Reiko Abe, president of Oriental Consultants India Pvt, has found success overseas after facing gender discrimination as an aspiring civil engineer in her home country of Japan. She is shown here at a construction site for a subway station in Bengaluru, India.

Photo: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Reiko Abe became a civil engineer in Japan, but she couldn’t find a job. An ancient Shinto superstition, made part of Japan’s labor law, held that if a woman entered a tunnel under construction, she would anger the jealous mountain goddess and cause worker accidents.

Two decades later, Abe has become the face of Japan’s global engagement as the nation seeks to overcome its image as an economic laggard and a wasteland for career women. Television advertisements featuring her have run on CNN and the BBC. She’s been lauded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (no relation) for showcasing Japan’s strengths abroad and symbolizing why the country needs to promote more women in a workforce where less than 5 percent of managers are female.

The irony? Abe, 51, had to leave Japan. After overseeing construction safety on Indian metro projects for seven years, she’s been promoted to head Oriental Consultants India Pvt, a unit of Tokyo-based ACKG Ltd. The company is working to extend subway systems in New Delhi and Mumbai and build them in cities including Bengaluru and Ahmedabad. Abe is also overseeing a mass transit project in Jakarta, having previously worked on Taiwan’s high-speed rail, the metro in Ukraine’s capital, an undersea tunnel in Norway and an urban-planning project in Qatar.

SAFETY FIRST

Striding across a construction site, the diminutive Abe yells at a worker who isn’t wearing a safety helmet.

“The most important thing to me is safety,” Abe, wearing her own hard hat, neon safety vest and construction boots, says. “That may be because I’m a woman. I feel that deeply, and I think I sense it in a different way from other engineers because I’m a woman.”

She’s also aware of the impact she’s having for women in providing safe transportation. In a city ignominiously known as the nation’s rape capital, Abe says Delhi’s women tell her that being able to ride without fear in a clean, air-conditioned car in segregated carriages has been unimaginably liberating.

“It’s something that was taken for granted by men, but wasn’t the norm for women,” Abe says. One of her happiest memories is of a young woman thanking her for the subway extension that allowed her to move freely across the city.

“As a result of what I helped construct, women in Delhi are able to have a mode of public transport that’s safe for the first time,” she says. “That’s an incredible outcome. I’d like to see that across India.”

Delhi has seen a scourge of high-profile assaults on women. A 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a moving bus sparked nationwide protests. Other rapes have made headlines since then, including of a Danish woman who had lost her way back to her hotel and an Indian woman taking an Uber last year.

TOUGH SUPERVISOR, ROLE MODEL

Abe follows a punishing travel schedule. She lives out of hotels and doesn’t bother renting a home. She’s usually the only woman on site surrounded by as many as 40,000 male workers.

“She’s a very bold and daring lady,” GK Reddy, a contractor on the Bengaluru metro who has known Abe since 2010, said while describing how she clambered up a reinforced slope during a quality audit to test its safety. “I was shocked.”

South Asian projects can test the most experienced engineers. Boring tunnels below poorly constructed buildings is challenging because shaking the ground can topple them. The armies of laborers often are illiterate, speak a multitude of languages and lack skills. In Bengaluru, the state-run company that contracted Oriental Consultants to help build the metro was comprised of 100 people who had never seen a subway, let alone built one, Abe said.

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