In car sales and vehicle quality, Japanese automakers have long led the pack globally. Yet there’s an area where they bring up the rear: putting women in management jobs at home. At Nissan Motor (NSANY), 6.7 percent of managers are women, the highest showing among Japan’s carmakers. Toyota Motor (TM) and Honda Motor (HMC) each have less than 1 percent. In contrast, about 33 percent of managers at U.S. automakers General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F), and Chrysler Group are female, according to Catalyst, a New York-based group that works to expand opportunities for women. “Nissan stands out among companies in a country and industry that lag behind in female workplace participation,” says Tetsuo Kitagawa, a management professor at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.
At Japanese companies with at least 5,000 employees, women made up about 2.9 percent of managers in 2011, data from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare show. Among the 780,000 people employed in the nation’s auto industry, only three are women responsible for the rollout of new models. They all work at Nissan, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, where French-Brazilian Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn has made female advancement a priority. “I’m very glad to be the poster boy of women’s empowerment,” Ghosn told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011. “It’s not only about women but about men. I think there is a lot of wasted talent that the world cannot afford to waste.”
The manager behind Nissan’s hottest-selling car in Japan, the Note hatchback, is a woman. In 2009, Mie Minakuchi, 44, who joined Nissan in 2001, became the company’s first female chief product specialist—the manager who oversees all aspects of a car line, from conceptualization to design to rollout—after working on the redesign of the Cube. That car became a favorite of Japanese women’s magazines, as Nissan targeted buyers with colors such as “Bitter Chocolate.” “I knew the company wanted to confirm whether a woman could really do the job,” Minakuchi says. “I thought I lacked experience, but colleagues gave me support.”
Sales of the new Note, introduced in September, have been triple those of its predecessor a year earlier. “The vehicle’s design, interior, and color variation together project an image that women prefer,” says Yoshiaki Kawano, an analyst at researcher IHS Automotive (IHS). A popular feature among Note buyers: the car’s easy-to-open doors. Explains Minakuchi: “I myself am not very strong, and I didn’t want to make a car that I wouldn’t find easy to use.” Sweating such women-friendly details is smart in Japan, where three out of every four big-ticket purchasing decisions are made by women alone or jointly with their husbands, according to a survey last year by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Nissan last April appointed two more women as product chiefs. Yoko Yanai, 45, took charge of the Qashqai crossover SUV, and Sachiko Aoki, 44, is shepherding a new model whose details are still secret. The company says it has one product chief for each of about 30 car models. 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 child-care centers.
Nissan’s diversity development office, established in 2004, has installed female career advisers, held career events, and invited female managers to give lectures and serve as role models—one of the top requests in a survey of female employees. Promoting women helps Nissan retain female employees, says Rika Kiritake, who heads the diversity program. So does boosting child care. In 2004, 22 percent of women who quit Nissan cited child-care concerns as a reason. By 2011, the figure had fallen to 4 percent, according to the company, which opened a third day-care center last month at its headquarters in Yokohama.
Nissan says last year it 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. Although “not all male employees understand the importance of diversity,” says Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga, such targets force the company to find talented women “hidden behind men.”