HR Administration

Workforce Management Q&A Driving Opportunities for Women

By Jessica Marquez

Sep. 7, 2011

Recruiting and retaining women is a challenge for many companies. It’s even more so for auto manufacturers, given that most of the industry has traditionally been male-dominated.

    But this challenge is amplified by a thousand for automobile manufacturers in Japan, say executives at Nissan Motor Co. headquarters in Tokyo.

    Women didn’t start entering Japan’s workforce in great numbers until the 1990s. Until then, Nissan had no female managers in Japan.

    In those days, the only time one might see a woman in an office was if she was serving tea, said Miyuki Takahshi, general manager of Nissan’s Diversity Development Office, in a panel discussion at Catalyst’s 2008 Awards Conference, which was held in New York in April. Nissan was a winner for its gender diversity initiative, marking the first time Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on workplace diversity issues, has given the award to an Asian company and to an automobile manufacturer.

    Even when female employees answered the phones for their male bosses, they were discouraged from addressing the callers’ questions— even if they knew the answers, Takahshi said. “They were told to get a male manager on the phone who knows the job well,” she said.

    While the culture held one view of women, Nissan realized there was another view to take into account: Women made up more than half of its customers in Japan. Two-thirds of automobile buying decisions were—and are—influenced by women, says Hitoshi Kawaguchi, the company’s senior vice president for human resources

    That’s why in 2004, Nissan introduced a number of initiatives to increase the number of women in its workforce. From extending maternity leave beyond what is required by law, to allowing shorter working hours so parents can get home to their kids, to mandating that all managers attend diversity training courses, Nissan has been focused on building a more diverse workforce. The company has 32,700 employees in Japan.

    The challenges have been substantial, Kawaguchi says. Not only did the company encounter initial resistance from male employees, who didn’t think there was a problem, but even some female employees had trouble understanding what the goal of the diversity initiative was. Things had been a certain way for so long that it was hard for them to understand how it could be different, he says.

    “The reaction from women was 50-50, because Nissan had been so male-dominated for so long,” he told an audience at the Catalyst conference.

    Nissan has started to see results from its program. Since 2004, the percentage of women hired into engineering positions at Nissan has jumped from 8 percent to 16 percent—a particularly significant statistic given that only 7 percent of 2007 university engineering graduates were women.

    Women hired into non-engineering positions increased from 50 percent in 2004 to 57 percent in 2007. Representation of women in management has increased from 2 percent, or 36 women, in 2004, to 4 percent, or 101 women, in 2007.

    Kawaguchi recently talked with Workforce Management New York bureau chief Jessica Marquez about Nissan’s diversity program.

    Workforce Management: What is the Diversity Development Office?

    Hitoshi Kawaguchi: The Diversity Development Office was created in 2004, and we were one of the first companies in Japan to create such an office. Currently it consists of seven members and it reports to me. Usually the diversity office belongs to the HR group, but our diversity office is separate, but still reports to me. So they can enjoy doing things on their own, but they work with HR on programs like the work-balance initiatives.

    WM: How is Nissan going about creating a pipeline of female job candidates?

    Kawaguchi: Since we started to really focus on this five years ago, it is getting easier. Today, 25 percent of new hires are women. We have worked with a few universities. We have various collaborations with them. It goes two ways. One is a Nissan chairperson [who] goes to the universities and talks about Nissan’s uniqueness in terms of diversity, which can encourage female students. Another element is some collaboration in between the university and Nissan—joint work in marketing and engineering.

    The challenge for us is to encourage women who joined Nissan earlier. Their mentality is still somewhat behind [that of] the new hires in terms of career development.

    WM: I would imagine that work-life balance is important to these women. How is Nissan going about providing that?

    Kawaguchi: There are a couple of initiatives which go far beyond what our competitors are doing. Maternity leave is now longer—up to 2½ years. In Japan, the law is six months. We also offer shorter working hours for employees.

    WM: How do you justify this? What’s the business case behind it?

    Kawaguchi: Four percent of our managers are female, which is 10 times as much as our competitors in Japan. The reason why we want to do this is because more than half of our customers are women, so by having more women, we can have a better approach to those customers. Also, by having a difference in perspectives, we can learn more.

    WM: How do you reach out to women in manufacturing plants where there are only one or two women in the factory?

    Kawaguchi: It’s a difficult area, and we are currently working very hard to develop the female supervisors. Once there are more of them, they can become role models for the others. We have started with close to zero female supervisors, but these days we are hiring more than 50 women for manufacturing plants every year, so the isolation is less than it used to be.

    WM: How do you get managers to buy into the notion of diversity?

    Kawaguchi: For Nissan, diversity started in 1999 when the alliance with Renault began. When that happened, 50 executives from Renault came to Japan and 50 of our executives went to Renault. That kind of cross-cultural exchange was a real shock for Nissan, which was a quite ordinary Japanese company at that time. There was a lot of friction in the beginning. However, it brought a lot of new ideas. Overcoming the initial conflicts, we learned quite a lot and that was the driving force for Nissan to overcome the financial crisis at that time. Therefore, the concept of diversity was already palatable at Nissan. Gender diversity is a second wave of this.

    WM: Which was more difficult: establishing diversity initiatives across cultures or across genders?

    Kawaguchi: Understanding women is easier than understanding the French, maybe. And therefore the shock was less.

    WM: What other kinds of diversity do you hope to establish at Nissan?

    Kawaguchi: Cross-cultural diversity is something that we are enhancing continuously. It started with the alliance. But these days many Americans, many Europeans and Asians are working in Nissan’s headquarters in Japan and in regions throughout the world.

    We are also focusing on mixing the different generations. In Nissan, the youngest manager is 28 years old, which is far younger than any other manufacturing company in Japan. Usually the average is 35 to 37. For a general manager it’s about 31 years old, and that’s a record. So we are focusing on enhancing this and having more employees from different ages.

    We are also focusing on career diversity. In Japan there is usually lifetime employment with a seniority-based ranking system. Fresh university graduates join a company and stay in the company for their working lives. That’s normal in Japan. However, at Nissan about 24 percent of our workforce is midcareer hires. We are hiring 500 midcareer hires a year. We hire the same number of new graduates and midcareers a year.

    WM: How do you help the different generations understand each other?

    Kawaguchi: We took a lesson from General Electric. They have addressed the issue of accommodating newcomers from different generations by establishing a common standard globally throughout the company. They use processes, such as Six Sigma, across all regions and all companies at GE. We are taking a similar approach. We have common processes and employee guidelines across the globe. This way we can have a diverse organization with some commonality.

    WM: Are there metrics that show your diversity initiatives are working?

    Kawaguchi: Attrition among female workers has reduced one-third from what it used to be. Total attrition is now down at 3 percent. And work/life is no longer the main reason that women are leaving. It used to be that when women left the company, half of the time they would say it was due to lack of work-life balance. Now that only makes up 10 percent of those responses.

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