TOKYO (Bloomberg) -- Among the 780,000 people employed in Japan's auto industry, only three are women responsible for the rollout of new models. They all work at Nissan Motor Co.
Mie Minakuchi is behind the newest Note hatchback, Nissan's top domestic seller, which has seen sales triple in five months. A popular feature among buyers: its easy-to-open doors.
"I myself am not very strong and I didn't want to make a car that I wouldn't find easy to use," said Minakuchi, the 44-year-old chief product specialist for the Note.
Though it's a laggard internationally, Nissan leads Japan's car manufacturers in the number of women in executive jobs. Women account for 6.7 percent of managers at the company, Japan's No. 2 automaker. In the U.S., about one in three auto industry managers are women, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit group in New York, while at Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. they account for less than 1 percent.
"Nissan stands out among companies in a country and industry that lags behind in female workplace participation," said Tetsuo Kitagawa, a professor at the business school of Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. At Japanese companies with at least 5,000 employees, women made up about 2.9 percent of managers, figures from the Labor Ministry show.
Less than 5 percent of listed-company board members in Japan are women, one of the lowest rates among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to an OECD report. New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said his administration will support women at work by increasing nursery places.
"Women are a very important, still untapped resource," Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said in a statement on the company's Web site. "The market requires much more female input in terms of product design, engineering, and even manufacturing and distributing the product."
Globally, companies with at least one woman on the board from 2005 to 2011 had a higher return on equity than those that didn't, according to a Credit Suisse report last year. Those with female board members had faster profit growth, according to the report, "Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance."
Nissan aims to increase female managers to 10 percent of its total by 2017. Toyota and Honda, which together with Nissan account for more than 80 percent of car sales in Japan, said they haven't set targets, though Toyota says it has a team to boost diversity and has established childcare centers.
In Japan, three of every four big-ticket purchasing decisions are made by women or jointly with their husbands, a survey last year by the Ministry of Economy showed.
At a Nissan showroom in the company's hometown of Yokohama last month, Fumiko Koyama, a 33-year-old housewife, weighed her options. "The Note is cute but not too feminine, and is also very easy to drive in narrow alleys."
Her view counts more than her husband's, she said. "I drive the most."
Half of Note buyers are women, said Minakuchi, who joined Nissan in 2001. She became the automaker's first female chief product specialist in 2009 after working on the redesign of the Cube, a people carrier that became a favorite of Japanese women's magazines as Nissan targeted female buyers with colors such as "bitter chocolate."
"I knew the company wanted to confirm whether a woman could really do the job," Minakuchi said over tea at an Italian restaurant in a Tokyo suburb. "I thought I lacked experience, but colleagues gave me support."
Nissan last April appointed two more women as product chiefs, who oversee all aspects of a car, from conceptualization to design to rollout. Yoko Yanai, 45, took charge of the Qashqai crossover SUV, and Sachiko Aoki, 44, is leading a new model whose details Nissan declined to provide. The company says it has one product chief for each of about 30 car models.
"I've never felt that I'm different from men in this company," Minakuchi said. "A car reflects the designer's personality."
Nissan sold more than 63,000 Notes in the five months through January, versus about 21,600 for the same period a year earlier, according to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association.
The Note's growth outstripped that of the latest Corolla, introduced in May, and the Honda Fit, which went on sale in 2007. Honda plans to release a new Fit in the second half of this year.
The Note's appeal to female buyers has helped Nissan in the competitive compact segment, said Yoshiaki Kawano, an analyst at researcher IHS Automotive in Tokyo. "The vehicle's design, interior and color variation together project an image that women prefer."
Promoting women also helps Nissan retain employees, said Rika Kiritake, who heads the diversity development office that the company set up in 2004.
That year, 22 percent of women who quit Nissan cited childcare concerns as a reason for their departure. By 2011, the figure had fallen to 4 percent, according to the automaker, which opened a third daycare center last month in Yokohama.
Nissan says it last year exceeded targets set in 2004 for women to comprise at least 50 percent of new college hires in administration and 15 percent in technical divisions.
Targets force the company to find talented women "hidden behind men," said COO Toshiyuki Shiga, who declined to specify the financial impact of the program. "Not all male employees understand the importance of diversity."