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Japan's diversity drive is pushing women out of 'office lady' status and up to new heights

Kumi Hatsukano was introduced to cultural diversity at Nissan's Michigan tech center.
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Spurring gender diversity in Japan's male-dominated workplace is such a priority for the country that the government even has a name for the campaign: Womenomics. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to accelerate the country's stuttering economic recovery by harnessing the largely untapped pool of underemployed women.
In previous eras, their participation in the work force largely was relegated to "office lady" status, pouring tea until they found a husband and retired. But the Japanese auto industry is evolving.
Today, women are reaching new heights: holding key r&d posts, achieving chief engineer status, running overseas subsidiaries. Japanese automakers have public targets to promote more women to management.
Kumi Hatsukano, a veteran engineer at Nissan Motor Co., exemplifies the trend.
She joined Nissan in 1993 as a body design engineer at a time when there were virtually no other female engineers in her department. Now, she is the global r&d director for joint product planning between Nissan and its French alliance partner, Renault SA.
She splits her time between Japan and France. "Except for the language difference, working in France is very comfortable for me. They had two female engineering executives. That was amazing," said Hatsukano, 46. "Females are still in the minority in Japan. Here, it is difficult for me to find a role model."
Hatsukano sits at the center of CEO Carlos Ghosn's push to develop shared platforms and common technology. Her responsibilities span cost containment to new-vehicle development.
At joint meetings between animated French engineers and more reticent Japanese engineers, Hatsukano needs to bridge the cultural gap to optimize input from both.
"Every time, the French people will start to talk, and they don't stop," Hatsukano said. "But now, Japanese are starting to talk more, and the French are beginning to wait."
Hatsukano counts her assignment to Nissan's technical center in Michigan as her big breakthrough. "That was my first experience in cultural diversity," she said.
It also provided her first lesson in negotiating with global suppliers. That is a key carryover skill to her new role, where she must navigate sometimes sensitive purchasing issues, such as when Renault and Nissan squabble over suppliers for a shared part.
The highest-ranking woman at Nissan is Asako Hoshino, 55, the company's first female senior vice president. Ghosn poached her in 2002 from an outside career in market analysis to lead market intelligence at Nissan. Hoshino, who has an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, quickly demonstrated such a knack for nailing sales forecasts that Ghosn promoted her to head of the company's critical Japan operations.

Power players
Some of Asia's top female auto executives
> Kumi HatsukanoAGE: 46 COMPANY: Nissan Motor Co. TITLE: Alliance Global Director, Alliance R&D Strategy and Planning Officer DUTIES: Mid- to long-term planning and strategy for Renault-Nissan Alliance
> Asako HoshinoAGE: 55 COMPANY: Nissan Motor Co. TITLE: Senior Vice President DUTIES: Japan marketing, sales, fleet business and administration
> Hiromi TsutsumiAGE: 58 COMPANY: Fuji Heavy Industries TITLE: Corporate Vice President DUTIES: Human resources
> Tomiko TakeuchiAGE: 41 COMPANY: Mazda Motor Corp. TITLE: Program Manager DUTIES: Nameplate oversight of product planning, development, marketing, sales
> Chika KakoAGE: 48 COMPANY: Toyota Motor Corp. TITLE: Chief Engineer DUTIES: Oversight of engineering and product program for Lexus CT
> Charon MorganAGE: 44 COMPANY: General Motors TITLE: Director of Engineering, China DUTIES: Lead vehicle engineering and technology operations in China
> Chie Kobayashi AGE: 47 COMPANY: Nissan Motor Co. TITLE: General Manager DUTIES: Diversity and inclusion > Masako TakamichiAGE: 46 COMPANY: Nissan Motor Co. TITLE: General Manager DUTIES: Domestic market vehicle logistics management, delivery lead-time improvement, logistics cost-competitiveness, logistics quality > Asako SuzukiAGE: 51 COMPANY: Dongfeng Honda Automobile Co. TITLE: President DUTIES: Running Honda joint venture subsidiary in world's biggest auto market
> Wang FengyingAGE: 45 COMPANY: Great Wall Motor Co. TITLE: CEO DUTIES: Running China's largest SUV maker

In Japan, Nissan long has been a leader in promoting women, as part of a strategy to create a work force that better mirrors, and relates to, its customers.
By Nissan's reckoning, women account for 3.1 percent of the managerial ranks throughout all of corporate Japan. As of April 1, the start of Japan's current fiscal year, women held 8.2 percent of the managerial posts at Nissan, up from 1.6 percent in 2004, when Nissan began its diversity drive. Ghosn wants to boost that to 10 percent by April 2017.
Other Japanese carmakers have similar goals. But progress varies.
Often, the highest-ranking woman at a Japanese automaker is an outsider. Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., for example, all have a female board member. But they are external appointees with no automotive experience.
The highest-ranking woman at Subaru-maker Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. is Hiromi Tsutsumi, 58, corporate vice president in charge of human resources.
Fuji Heavy launched a program to promote gender diversity in January. The company has seven women ranked manager or above, or 0.7 percent of 1,064 people in upper management.
Suzuki Motor Corp. has no female executives and declined to say how many female managers it employs. But it says it aims to double their ranks by 2020.
Mitsubishi wants 100 female managers by 2020, triple last year's figure.
Mazda Motor Corp. also aims to triple its number of female managers by 2020. As of March, Mazda had about 24 females in midmanagement positions and above, accounting for 1.5 percent of those positions. Women accounted for about 40 percent of this year's recruits in administrative fields and 10 percent in technical fields.

Tomiko Takeuchi, an experienced test driver, broke barriers in the technical realm by becoming Mazda's first program manager in February.
Her post, akin to a chief engineer position elsewhere, gives her oversight of an entire product program, from planning and development to marketing, sales and profitability. Mazda declined to say which nameplate she leads.
She is also the only woman at Mazda with an A-class test-driving license, which she put to use in previous positions evaluating the performance of cars, including the Mazda2 subcompact. Takeuchi, 40, joined Mazda in 1997 in the electrical and electronics department.
In 2008, she helped found an internal committee dubbed C-Lover, comprising female employees from different divisions. Their task: Determine what female customers want in cars and tweak Mazda's product development pipeline accordingly.
In 2012, Chika Kako, 48, took over as the chief engineer for the Lexus CT hybrid hatchback, becoming the first woman at Toyota -- and in Japan -- with that title.
Women hold 1.2 percent of managerial positions at Toyota: 111 of the 9,566 spots, up from 16 in 2004. Toyota aims to increase that to 320 by 2020 and 570 by 2030.
Just three out of Toyota's top tier of 498 nonexecutive managers are women, including Kako and Masayo Hasegawa, project general manager of the environmental affairs division.

Toyota also hosts two female managers who were transferred to Japan on assignment: Susan Elkington, project general manager for the project planning and management division, and Latondra Newton, a project general manager at the corporate citizenship division. Both transferred from Toyota's U.S. operations.
Toyota took a big step this year when the company appointed American Julie Hamp as its first female executive and chief communications officer. But Hamp resigned in July, after just a few months in the job, following her detention in Japan on allegations of violating customs rules. She never was charged and was replaced by a male Japanese executive.

As head of Dongfeng Honda, Asako Suzuki is charged with keeping Honda true to its culture in a JV with a Chinese partner that does things differently.

Last year, Honda appointed Asako Suzuki, 51, as president of one of its Chinese joint ventures: Dongfeng Honda Automobile Co. She joined Honda in 1987 and quickly showed her acumen in navigating different business cultures.
Honda cycled her through back-to-back overseas assignments in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam before sending her to China. She started there as the CFO for Honda's local operations before taking the helm at Dongfeng Honda.
Her challenge now: Keep Honda true to its corporate culture in a joint venture with a Chinese partner that often does things differently. As is often the case, the issues are cultural.
"We are not used to explaining things that have been common practice at all other Honda operations around the world," Suzuki said. "Such common practices are not accepted inside a JV company unless their benefits are well-understood. Therefore, my continuous and biggest challenge is to matter-of-factly explain what is important for our business."
Suzuki isn't alone in heading a Chinese automaker. Wang Fengying, 45, is CEO of Great Wall Motor Co.
In 1991, she joined the sales division of Great Wall as a fresh college graduate. In 2002, she was promoted to CEO after serving as sales chief for several years.
When Wang joined Great Wall, the company built pickups only. She, along with the company's founder and chairman, Wei Jianjun, led the company onto a fast growth track. In 2002, Great Wall's first SUV went on sale. In 2004, the company became the largest SUV manufacturer in China.
Wang has played a key role in shaping the company's strategic direction. In 2009, domestic Chinese automakers, including Great Wall, began expanding in a bid to win market share from global rivals. At Wei's request, Great Wall launched several sedan models under a new brand.
Wang cautioned against the move, citing Great Wall's limited strength in technology, and eventually convinced Wei. In 2011, Great Wall refocused its product line on SUVs.
Wang's caution has paid off. After three decades of fast growth, China's light-vehicle market has run out of steam this year. But SUV sales have remained strong.
In the first half, Great Wall's deliveries surged 23 percent from a year earlier, while profits rose 19 percent.
Yang Jian contributed to this report.

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