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

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

Carlos Ghosn, its executive director at the time, had revived the company from near bankruptcy in what remains one of the biggest shifts in corporate history. Hoshino had left a Japanese bank after feeling exasperated by the bleak prospects for employed women to be promoted – let alone being assigned abroad. Meanwhile, Nissan promises to be more diverse and international because of its alliance with the French Renault.

Nissan executives hoped that Hoshino, who had worked in a consulting firm after receiving 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 anticipate customer demand.

Two decades later, she oversees the marketing and global sales of Nissan, the oldest ranked among the internally promoted female leaders in Japan’s conservative automotive industry. He is also one of the few executives to have emerged relatively unscathed after Nissan’s management team was radically renewed after Ghosn’s arrest and dismissal at the end of 2018.

“Things have changed dramatically since we started putting diversity as a pillar of our strategy,” says Hoshino, who helped implement Nissan’s diversity development program, in a video call. “Two decades ago, people didn’t understand it when I said we should listen to women’s opinions in car manufacturing. Many thought that women should only decide the color of the car, but obviously that’s no longer the case. “.

Gender stereotypes continue to impede the advancement of women in Japan, classified 120th in the world on gender equality from the World Economic Forum and where less than 8 percent of managerial positions are held by women.

In February, Tokyo Olympic President Yoshiro Mori renounced after growing public criticism over sexist remarks that women do not belong to committees because they talk too much.

“I think Mr. Mori’s resignation has come a long way in Japan since politicians have not resigned in the past for similar remarks,” Hoshino says. “Characterizing people by 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 the standards and stereotypes that had been built up for decades in an industry that continues to be dominated by male leaders. His early days at the company, for example, were spent meeting male engineers. The latter believed they had a better idea of ​​how many cars they would sell from Hoshino’s team, which analyzed past sales figures and market trends.

When arguments continued late into the evening, he often missed his last train home and stayed at a nearby hotel. “Are you trying to kill me?” a shocked engineer once asked after his market forecast effectively slashed the budget for a working product.

Internal relations have only improved since 2004 after their market forecasts proved accurate for six of the new car models that have been launched. “I walked around with prints of the graphics for the six car models and told the people I met how they were spot-on. Some have said “you’ll be wrong next time,” but I countered by saying [that] so far I have been right. “

Hoshino is married to Yoshiharu Hoshino, the executive director of Hoshino Resorts, the operator of one of Japan’s most famous luxury restaurants. The couple had a young son at the time Hoshino joined Nissan and used to travel from Karuizawa, a mountain resort about an hour and a half away from Tokyo by bullet train. To compensate for the work and care of the children, she associated four babysitters – she found them publishing an advertisement in a local newspaper – who were able to care for her child from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The Nissan production line at the Yokosuka plant. Asako Hoshino made his name in the company by predicting which models will be popular with customers © Bloomberg

“I struggled the most after my move to Tokyo. I couldn’t find a babysitter and I couldn’t find day care with an opening, “says Hoshino. After not finding a daycare center near where her mother lived, she decided to move to an area of the city with fewer children.

Then, the gap in society’s aspiration for diversity and reality was strong. “At the time I didn’t have a single female boss, so if you asked me if my career was visible, it wasn’t clear,” says Hoshino, noting that it was hard to imagine how her career would progress without a female. role model in society.

Even now, Hoshino is the only woman among the seven highest-ranking – off-the-board – executive officers at Nissan. Overall, the ratio of women group managers in Japan has increased from just 1.6 percent in fiscal year 2004 to 10 percent currently. It is higher than the average of 4 percent in the country’s auto industry. The 12-member Nissan board also has two female directors.

Despite the scarcity of female management during the first half of her career, Hoshino says she hardly thought about whether the resistance she had initially faced in the company was because she was a woman. She says her main focus was to provide results. This, he thought, would be the fastest way to win over his critics.

“It’s a waste of time to battle for these subjects,” says Hoshino, adding that he wouldn’t have chosen Nissan if the company hadn’t valued individuals for their skills and performance.

Looking ahead, we see different obstacles to the advancement of women in Japanese workplaces. “The biggest challenge for Japan’s diversity movement is job definitions that are based on sex. A woman has to do this or a man has to do this. These stereotypes have to go away,” says Hoshino.

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

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