TOYOTA CITY, Japan -- Back when Chika Kako was a junior engineer for Toyota Motor Corp., she had to run the gantlet of cringe-worthy questions from her predominantly male cohorts.
"Why aren't you married?"
"When are you going to get married?"
Such occurrences were common in 1990s Japan, where women in the workplace often were relegated to "office lady" status, pouring green tea until they found a husband and retired.
"Gentlemen never ask that question, but when I was young it was common," she recalls.
But the soft-spoken chemical engineer stuck with it, silencing the naysayers. And in 2012, she made history by becoming Toyota's first female chief engineer and the first to earn that title in Japan.
Notwithstanding General Motors' Mary Barra, who achieved celebrity as the first female CEO of a major automaker, executive-level women are still few in the automotive industry.
Especially so in Japan. Yet Kako's ascent to top boss for the Lexus CT hatchback underscores a dramatic shift in a country notorious for its men-first mentality. Japanese carmakers, long a preserve of tight-knit, workaholic old boys' clubs, have finally tuned into the need for more diverse input into developing, making and selling their products.
Epiphanylike, Japanese business leaders and politicians suddenly see Japan's largely untapped female labor force as a secret weapon in jump-starting the nation's bogged-down economy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even coined the catchphrase "womenomics" for an official policy to have women occupy 30 percent of business leadership positions by 2020.
The ratio stands around 11 percent today, according to his cabinet office. Japan's ratio ranks just ahead of South Korea's 10 percent, but far behind the 43 percent in the United States, 35 percent in Britain and 30 percent in Germany, according to its data.
At July's annual conclave of top Toyota management at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya, guest speaker and Honorary Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda delivered an address extolling the virtues of bringing more women into the work force. He opined, according to one participant, that Japan's biggest challenge was creating a society that can better balance work and family life.
He then asked for a show of hands of any women in the crowd of some 400 attendees.
No one lifted a finger, according to one former executive in attendance.
In Japan, Nissan Motor Corp. has been at the vanguard of the diversification push. The instinct to bring in different perspectives runs deep in a company run by a foreigner, CEO Carlos Ghosn, and populated at the executive level by numerous overseas managers.
"Women control 65 percent of global spending," Ghosn said at a July news conference. "This includes making the final decision on more than 60 percent of new-car purchases."
That matters, because women home in on vehicle attributes such as seating position, quality of materials, functionality and safety, not such specs as horsepower and displacement.
"What women are looking for in a car is very different," Ghosn said. "If you don't pay attention to those features, you end up having a customer base which is mainly male. ... Who is going to pay attention to this? Female designers, female marketers, female engineers. It's mandatory to make sure the car is going to come with attributes pleasing women."
Nissan has pioneered putting women in charge of product development.
While it hasn't named a woman to the post of chief vehicle engineer, in 2009 Nissan appointed its first woman as chief product specialist, a position leading overall nameplate development.
In that role, Mie Minakuchi oversaw all aspects of the Nissan Note compact, from design and marketing to manufacturing and equipment. She was succeeded by another female chief product specialist, Sachiko Aoki, on the next-generation Note that debuted in 2012.
Nissan leads Japan's automakers in female executives, with women accounting for about 7 percent of its Japanese managerial ranks. It aims to boost that to 10 percent by 2017.
At Toyota, by contrast, women occupy only 1 percent of managerial positions -- or 101 of the 9,458 spots. Toyota's meager figure is up from a paltry 16 women in 2004. Toyota aims to increase the number of female managers to 320 by 2020 and 570 by 2030.
As long term as those goals may seem, Japan's other automakers don't even have targets.
What's more, Suzuki Motor Corp. and Mazda Motors Corp. have no female executives. And often the highest ranked woman at a Japanese automaker is an outsider.
Toyota, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Honda Motor Co., for example, each has a female board member. But they are external appointees with no automotive experience.
Nissan's top woman is Asako Hoshino, a corporate vice president in charge of market intelligence. Mazda's highest-ranking woman is Nobuko Watanabe, general manager of the social responsibility and environment department. Fuji Heavy Industries, maker of Subaru-brand vehicles, has only four female managers, for a ratio of 0.4 percent. Fuji Heavy's top woman is Hiromi Tsutsumi, corporate vice president in charge of customer service.
Suzuki declined to identify its highest-ranked woman.
Because studies show both women and men prefer buying cars from female salespeople, Nissan has launched a program in Japan called Ladies First.
It is piloting a dealership in Tokyo with a female shop manager and assistant manager and two female sales reps. The female-friendly showroom takes a fresh look at retailing.
For starters, there is only one car in the showroom, instead of several.
"They feel it is too packed with cars," a Nissan spokeswoman said, citing surveys that suggest women prefer uncluttered floors. Instead of cars, there are plenty of other props, such as child seats and camping gear, for potential buyers to try loading and unloading.
The practical aspects of daily use get top billing with these customers.
Additionally, the first point of contact at the showroom is not a salesperson, but a female concierge, who offers a low-key invitation to browse at the customer's leisure.
"There is no pressure to suddenly buy a car," the Nissan spokeswoman said.
If a sale gathers speed, expect more incongruities. The saleswoman might escort her customer to the well-equipped kids playroom, where smack in the middle is a deal-making desk where mom can haggle over the fine print while keeping an eye on her youngsters.
But old thinking dies hard. Even within crusading Abe's own political party.
In June, fellow ruling-party members reduced a female Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member to tears as she spoke during a formal session. In a video clip that went viral on the evening news, they heckled Ayaka Shio-mura with barbs familiar to Toyota's Kako. "You should get married." "Can't you even bear a child?" At the time, Shiomura was trying to deliver a speech advocating more public support for Japanese expectant mothers.
Even Ghosn calls Abe's female manager target of 30 percent "ambitious."
"What I don't want is a burst of females in management, with a lot of failure after," Ghosn said, adding that failures would be counterproductive. "You need to show role models. You need to show successes.
"You can move faster. But you'll be taking some risks I don't want."
In Japan's auto industry, women are traditionally relegated to the soft side of product development: design, color coordination, interior finish and quality control. Maybe marketing.
In fact, that's how Kako, 47, started -- developing materials to make Toyota's cars appear more refined and luxurious. She showed such aptitude the company sent her to troubleshoot interiors in Europe, where Toyota's execution was lagging the local rivals'.
That made her the first Toyota woman dispatched to an overseas r&d post.
But Kako had bigger ambitions and visions. Her big break came while making a presentation to the top brass at Lexus about what was wrong with the brand's design language and how to fix it. The problem, in her assessment, was that the cars' interiors were a hodgepodge of clashing design elements with no cohesive, functional integration.
Her pitch was an immediate hit and put her on the fast track. Takeshi Yoshida, then Lexus' general manager, nabbed her for his team and set her to work.
Among her early innovations at Lexus was the remote-touch navigator, a joysticklike controller on the center armrest that debuted in the RX crossover that was easier and safer to use than previous controls.
In 2012, her bosses decided to try something radical. They appointed her the company's first female chief engineer, a position that holds enormous power at Toyota, overseeing every angle of a vehicle's development, from design and engineering to purchasing and manufacturing. They broke her in by tasking her with the CT 200h's midcycle freshening.
She aggressively tackled that, focusing on improving handling and comfort. She made 94 engineering changes, including modifying the spring ratio and adjusting shock absorbers to deliver a stiffer ride. She added structural adhesives to improve rigidity, and she oversaw a redesigned front and rear fascia to give the car a wider, lower, more planted stance.
"I'm not really a specialist in the engine or transmission. But as a chief engineer, I oversee the total package of the vehicles," Kako said. "Every day I'm learning, and it's very tough."
While she is already working on the next generation, she is guarded about spilling details.
"I want to make a very stylish vehicle, first of all. Especially for ladies," she said.
Kako is quick to say that she doesn't spend a lot of time fretting over how to inject her gender into the product. But she feels that pressure to do so anyway from outside.
"I need some kind of signature, to express that this is because of a female chief engineer. I'm looking for that," she said. "My boss is expecting me to do something differently."
Mark Templin, executive vice president of Lexus International, says Kako has already left her mark on the overhauled CT and that obsessing about gender is only half the story.
"Women have an attention to detail that most of us don't have. So it's refreshing to see the attention to detail she brings to the role," he said. "I don't think she wants to be known as a great female chief engineer. She wants to be known as a great engineer."