Japan: The Glass Ceiling Stays Put

It's a shocker all right: Sanyo Electric Co. on Apr. 8 hired a woman as its CEO and chairwoman, making her the highest-profile female executive in Japan Inc. Tomoyo Nonaka's selection followed by a week the appointment of former BMW Tokyo chief Fumiko Hayashi as CEO and chairwoman at Daiei Inc., the ailing retailer.

Could it be a trend? Are women in Corporate Japan finally breaking through the glass ceiling? Don't bet on it. There's not a third example that stands out, and few expect women to make much more progress into Japan's executive suites anytime soon. "Nonaka seems to be an individual case," says Mariko Kawaguchi, an analyst at Daiwa Institute of Research Ltd. in Tokyo.

The real reason Sanyo and Daiei chose Nonaka and Hayashi may not be that they're women, but rather that they're outsiders. Sure, Nonaka was a board member at Sanyo. But she had only had her seat for about three years, while five of the other six members of Sanyo's board -- all men -- are Sanyo lifers. Hayashi hadn't ever been part of Daiei and hadn't even worked in the industry, though she was well regarded at BMW. Both Sanyo and Daiei, of course, are deeply troubled: Sanyo is poised to post a $1.1 billion loss, its biggest ever; Daiei is under the control of the Industrial Revitalization Corp., a state turnaround body, and just announced a loss of $4.8 billion for fiscal 2004.

While Japan Inc. may not be much more receptive to women than it has been in the past, it has sharply changed its stance toward outsiders. Think Carlos Ghosn at Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) and Howard Stringer at Sony Corp. (SNE ) Those two foreigners were chosen for what board members perceived as their ability to push through much-needed change at troubled companies. Women -- at least those with weak ties to the corporate structure -- may be able to do the same. "Japanese companies often need some outside pressure or shock to change -- even if they know the direction they should be heading," says Yuki Sugi, an analyst at Lehman Brothers Inc. (LEH ) who covers Sanyo. "Employing a female leader could be something like having a foreigner."

Of course, Nonaka and Hayashi will be under tremendous pressure to succeed. If they do, they'll likely be remembered as the people who saved failing enterprises. But "if Nonaka fails, it's very possible that people will attribute it to her sex," says Makiko Matsumoto, project manager at Asia Japan Women's Resource Center, a Tokyo nonprofit.

Even so, there are signs of improvement. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (MC )says it boosted the number of female managers by 170% last year. And Nissan in February said that by 2007 it wants to triple the number of female managers to 120 -- 5% of the company's total, compared with the Japanese average of just 2.8% (and a paltry 1% in the auto sector). "We want to be a company that talented, capable women want to join, to contribute to, and, ultimately, to lead," Nissan CEO Ghosn said in announcing the targets. It's not a trend, but if more companies follow the lead of the likes of Nissan and Sanyo, it may yet become one.

Corrections and Clarifications "The glass ceiling stays put" (Asian Business, May 2) understated the size of Sanyo's board. The board has 12 members including three independent directors.

By Hiroko Tashiro, with Ian Rowley, in Tokyo

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