When Chizumi Moriki joined Mazda Motor Corp. in the customer service department in Tokyo in 1975, she expected her life to follow the traditional pattern for Japanese women. She would work for five years, perhaps until she was 23, then quit to become a housewife. Like all female Mazda employees at the time, she was hired on a clerical track, not a career track. So her low expectations seemed appropriate.
That is not how it worked out. In September, Moriki was one of two Mazda female employees promoted to assistant manager. Her move was part of a sweeping promotion of 500 female Mazda employees, roughly half of the women working at Mazda.
The promotions mainly moved women into the lower rungs of middle management. No woman at Mazda has cracked upper management. Still, said Gary Hexter, Mazda's CFO, 'This brings a significant increase in the number of women who are positioned for future advancement.'
Moriki said, 'I consider this a big opportunity.'
Mazda's opening of career paths for female employees represents one of the most fundamental ways in which the management practices of foreign companies are changing the Japanese auto industry. Traditional Japanese sexist attitudes are falling as foreign-affiliated carmakers such as Mazda, owned 33.4 percent by Ford Motor Co., re-examine personnel policies.
Sales a side issue
New policies may help sales by improving Mazda's corporate image. Thirty-four percent of Mazda's Japanese customers are women, compared with 30 percent for the industry as a whole, according to Mazda. But that would be just a side effect, said Masakatsu Takeyari, Mazda director in charge of personnel and human development.
'For women to hold a good image of a company is a key goal of marketing,' he said. 'But the real goal here is not just marketing or even diversity. It's to take advantage of the potential of our skilled female employees.'
Another benefit could be higher-quality female applicants for Mazda jobs. For years, IBM Japan Ltd. and other foreign-affiliated companies have topped surveys that asked female college students where they wanted to work. The best students gravitated to companies that would offer them real careers, not just a job as an office lady pouring tea.
'A lot of career-oriented females in Japan used to target Western companies. Now they are coming to Mazda. That's a reflection of the fact that they see we have progressive policies,' Hexter said.
Although Mazda's new policies were developed by its Japanese staff, few doubt that Ford played a role in promoting gender equality. Moriki's college-era classmates 'all think it's because of the Ford-Mazda connection,' she said. 'They think it's terrific that I'm working for a company with foreign capital.'
To be sure, many Japanese companies without foreign ties are rethinking their personnel policies. Toyota Motor Corp., for instance, has been seeking to base promotions on merit, not age. But those changes generally benefit only male employees. Female employees are governed by different rules.
For example, most companies hire men with a four-year college degree, while women have better chances of landing a job with a two-year junior college diploma. Companies assume women will quit to get married by age 25, so hiring a younger woman means less turnover and lower training costs.
Women who stay beyond age 25 often hear blunt warnings from bosses that it's time to get married.
Other sexist barriers to job opportunities abound in Japan.
According to a '1999 Summer Employment Black Paper' compiled by a group of female university students seeking jobs, women looking for work frequently encountered violations of new laws that took effect in April.
Some were told they should wear low-cut dresses to job interviews. Others were ignored when they asked for information about job openings, even though the new laws ban gender-specific job ads.
The average female job-seeker spent ¥88,900, or about $850 at current exchange rates, on their job hunt, while the average male spent about $740, the student group found.
Laws but no penalties
The new laws for the first time define sexual harassment and outlaw workplace discrimination against women. However, the laws contain no penalties for violators.
Moreover, Japan's minister of gender equality is a man who has been criticized for his own sexist attitudes. Labor Minister Hiromu Nonaka publicly suggested that a female cabinet official should get married so the she could get pregnant and set an example to help reverse Japan's falling birth rate.
A recent international survey ranked Japan 19th out of 23 nations in terms of women's status in the workplace. A United Nations study of elected female officials placed Japan 38th out of 102 countries.
Although the laws are essentially toothless, they have encouraged an increasing number of sexual-harassment lawsuits. In one high-profile case, a judge on Dec. 15 awarded $104,760 to a female campaign worker who sued Osaka Governor Knock Yokoyama for groping her in the back of a campaign van. He called her a liar outside the courtroom but declined to say anything in his defense under oath.
Mazda had not waited for the new laws to review its personnel policies. In 1991, the carmaker began hiring women for its career track, meaning that, in theory, they could aspire to any job. Until then, women were hired only on a clerical track.
In 1997, a year after Ford raised its stake in Mazda from 25 percent to a controlling 33.4 percent, Mazda began basing promotions on merit rather than seniority. In 1998, it opened a Female Employee Counseling Office.
The feedback from the counseling office indicated that Mazda's female employees, including those originally hired on a clerical track, wanted a shot at a career. That, plus passage of the new laws last April, prompted Mazda to examine its policies, Takeyari said.
In late May, Mazda began to survey female employees. It asked them what kind of work they would like to do, and asked their supervisors to confirm their abilities. This was in addition to the standard performance evaluations held twice a year.
Those evaluations led directly to a wave of 500 promotions.
Hiring freeze thaws
Another reason for the policy review was that, after several years of job freezes because of the company's red ink, Mazda was hiring again. Thanks to the legal changes, it hired 60 women for manufacturing jobs. Until April, women could not legally work night shifts, except for hostesses and others in Japan's sex industry. That effectively barred them from many factory positions.
Of the 51 women who joined Mazda in white-collar positions last April, 37 were four-year college grads who now are on a career track. In the future, Takeyari said, 'We will be ending our division between the clerical track and career track.'
Moriki, though hired for clerical work, managed to break out of it.
After working at Mazda for a few years, her assumptions about quitting after marriage shifted. 'I really liked my job, so I had a heavy feeling when I thought of quitting,' she said.
Marriage and the birth of her first child didn't change her mind. 'I talked about it with my husband, and he thought I should stay with it,' Moriki said.
Good at her job
Not only did she like her job, but she was good at it. Soon she was training new customer-service representatives.
In 1986 she was promoted and put in charge of parts planning and promotion. She contacted dealership sales staff to promote Mazda's aftermarket and dealer-option parts.
She planned and developed posters, catalogs and point-of-sale brochures for parts. She also planned Internet marketing efforts.
Moriki's promotion makes her one of nine women in Mazda's management ranks in Japan.
There are three managers: two in public relations and one at the Mazda Hospital. Mazda also has six assistant managers, including Moriki.
The other five are in human resources, product planning, general affairs and the hospital.
Underscoring the career possibilities now open to women working for Mazda, Deborah Steward Coleman was named president of AutoAlliance International Inc., the Ford-Mazda assembly plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, in August.
Could a woman rise to the rank of director at Mazda?
'We would like to aspire to that,' Takeyari said. 'But the positions are so few.'
Moriki said she is not targeting any specific job level.
Asked how high she would like to advance, she said simply, 'I'd like to keep going.'
Considering that she originally thought her opportunities were severely limited, Moriki's newfound ambitions represent a dramatic change for her - and for Japan.