“Many thought that women should just decide on the color of a car”

Asako Hoshino was in many ways the face of a new era for Nissan when she joined the Japanese automaker in 2002.

Carlos Ghosn, its managing director at the time, had relaunched the company from near bankruptcy in what remains one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of the company. Hoshino had left a Japanese bank after feeling exasperated by the grim prospects for female employees to be promoted – not to mention posted overseas. Nissan, meanwhile, promised to be more diversified and international thanks to its alliance with French Renault.

Nissan executives were hopeful that Hoshino, who had worked at a consulting firm after earning an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, would inject new blood into the organization. His first role was to lead the creation of a new division to forecast customer demand.

Two decades later, she oversees global marketing and sales for Nissan, the highest-ranking female executive promoted internally in Japan’s conservative auto industry. She is also one of the few executives to have emerged relatively unscathed from the radical overhaul of Nissan’s management team following Ghosn’s arrest and ousting in late 2018.

“Things have changed dramatically since we started making diversity a pillar of our strategy,” Hoshino, who helped set up Nissan’s diversity development program, said in a video call. . “Twenty years ago people didn’t understand when I said we should listen to the opinions of women in car manufacturing. Many thought that women should just decide on the color of the car, but that is obviously no longer the case. ”

Gender stereotypes continue to hamper the advancement of women in Japan, ranked 120e in the world on gender equality by the World Economic Forum and where less than 8% of leadership positions are held by women.

In February, Tokyo Olympics President Yoshiro Mori resigned amid growing public criticism of sexist remarks that women don’t sit on committees because they talk too much.

“I think Mr. Mori’s resignation was an epoch in Japan as politicians would not have resigned in the past for similar remarks,” Hoshino said. “Characterizing people with stereotypes leads to discrimination, and people need to be trained not to make assumptions using stereotypes. ”

Parts of Hoshino’s career at Nissan have been defined by struggles to overcome norms and stereotypes that have been built over decades in an industry that continues to be dominated by male executives. His early days in the business, for example, were devoted to clashes with male engineers. The latter thought they had a better idea of ​​how many cars would sell than the Hoshino team, which analyzed past sales figures and market trends.

As the arguments continued into the late evening, she often missed her last train home and stayed at a nearby hotel. “Are you trying to kill me?” A disgruntled engineer once asked that his market forecast had effectively killed the budget for a product he was working on.

Internal relations did not improve until 2004, after its market forecasts proved correct for six of the new car models launched. “I used to walk around with printouts of the graphics of the six car models and told people I met how accurate they were. Some said ‘you’ll be wrong next time’, but I hit back by saying [that] so far I have been right.

Hoshino is married to Yoshiharu Hoshino, the Managing Director of Hoshino Resorts, the operator of one of Japan’s most famous luxury inns. The couple had a young child by the time Hoshino joined Nissan, and she used to travel from Karuizawa, a hill station about an hour and a half from Tokyo by high-speed train. To balance work and childcare, she hired four nannies – she found them by posting an ad in a local newspaper – who were able to look after her son from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The Nissan production line at the Yokosuka plant. Asako Hoshino made a name for himself in the business predicting which models would be popular with customers © Bloomberg

“It was after moving to Tokyo that I struggled the most. I couldn’t find a babysitter and I couldn’t find a daycare center with an opening, ”says Hoshino. After failing to find a daycare near her mother’s house, she decided to move to an area of ​​the city with fewer children.

At the time, the gap between the company’s aspiration for diversity and reality was glaring. “I didn’t have a single female boss at the time, so if you ask me if my career path was visible, it was absolutely unclear,” Hoshino says, noting that it was hard to imagine how his career would advance without a wife. model within the company.

Even now, Hoshino is the only female among Nissan’s seven senior executives, excluding the board. Overall, the proportion of female group executives in Japan has fallen from just 1.6% in fiscal 2004 to 10% today. This is more than the average of 4 percent in the country’s auto industry. Nissan’s 12-member board also includes two female directors.

Despite the scarcity of female executives early in her career, Hoshino says she barely questioned whether the resistance she first faced in the company was due to the fact that she was a woman. She says her main goal was to get results. This, she thought, would be the fastest way to win over her detractors.

“It’s a waste of time to fight over issues like this,” says Hoshino, adding that she would not have chosen Nissan if the company had not evaluated individuals for their skills and performance. .

Looking to the future, she sees different obstacles to the advancement of women in Japanese workplaces. “The biggest challenge for the diversity movement in Japan is gender-based job definitions. A woman should do this or a man should do this. These stereotypes have to go, ”says Hoshino.

Such stills limit career opportunities for women, she says, citing her own experience of being denied a chance to work in London for no other reason than the bank she worked for had never assigned a woman abroad.

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