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Miyuki Kashima was one of the first female fund managers in Japan, with a career that dates back to the mid-1980s, before the bubble burst. Now she’s outperforming the benchmark index by buying companies that hire and promote more women.

For more than three decades, the BNY Mellon Asset Management investor was a rare female voice in an industry dominated by men, in a country where women were underused and treated as second-class citizens in the workforce.

But in recent years, she’s seen clear signs of change. So much so that she and her team built a fund around the theme. The BNY Mellon Womenomics Fund, which has $22.2 million in assets in Japan, picks companies that hire and promote women or develop products designed to meet their needs. It’s beaten the benchmark Topix index every year since its inception.

Now Kashima is taking her team’s fund on tour, launching a version of it, the Dreyfus Japan Womenomics Fund, for customers in the U.S. market last week. Her thinking is that the conditions are ripe to buy Japanese companies in general, but particularly those tied to empowering women. She gives two main reasons: female presence in the Japanese workforce is increasing sharply, and the economy continues to expand at a healthy clip.

“Japan is starting to change,” Kashima said in an interview in Tokyo. “The ball is now on a roll, and it’s not something you can stop.”

In the early days of his second term in office, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe outlined goals to create a “Japan in which women shine.” He pushed policies to enable women to work and have a family at the same time, and initially set a goal of having women hold 30% of supervisory positions in all fields by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020. The target was later scaled back.

The fund, which roughly coincides with Abe’s so-called womenomics policies, posted a total return of 84% since its launch in 2014, against a 60% return for the Topix. It counts companies including Daikin Industries and Nidec among its top holdings. The manufacturing firms have set clear targets for increasing the percentage of women in their workforces or in management positions.

Kashima says the country is starting to make significant progress in gender diversity, which will serve as a profitable investment theme that will last for decades.

The money manager points to the growing percentage of working-aged women in the workforce, which reached a record of 70% in July. That’s up 9 percentage points from the same month in 2012, before Abe returned to power, according to data from the Statistics Bureau. For 15 years from 1990, the figure was always in the mid to high 50% range.

Foreign investors, who have been huge net sellers of Japanese equities this year, are ignoring the country’s steady economic expansion, according to Kashima. Japan’s economy grew at the fastest pace in more than two years during the second quarter, as companies cranked up capital spending to meet global demand and cope with a severe labor shortage. The country is also on track for its longest stretch of economic growth in a generation.

“For about 20 years, it was right not to think about Japan” as the country was crippled with deflation and a shrinking population, she said. But “it is out of its phase of contraction, and is expanding again.”

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Kashima heads BNY Mellon Asset’s Japanese equity team, which includes Makiko Togari as lead portfolio manager. Kashima started her career as an analyst in 1985 at Morgan Grenfell, which became Deutsche Asset Management. She became a fund manager in 1987. Kashima joined BNY Mellon in 2013 following stints at ING Mutual Funds and Merrill Lynch Investment Managers.

The Japanese investor says she’s not so worried about the declining population, an often cited problem facing her country. In her view, women and immigrants will fill the gaps. She notes that since the global financial crisis, Japan has added 2.3 million female workers, which compares to fewer than 0.3 million men. The difference is “striking,” she says, while adding the caveat that many of the jobs are not full-time positions.

But despite her optimism about the changes in Japan’s society, she’s also realistic about how much work still needs to be done.

“We’re quite behind in terms of gender equality,” Kashima said. “We’ve got a long way to go and this is just the beginning.”

Bloomberg News