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.