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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Toyota's first female manager takes Lexus reins

While six foreigners have risen to the company’s highest ranks, the elevation of women has been slower

Chika Kako, managing officer at Toyota Motor. Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg
Chika Kako, managing officer at Toyota Motor. Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg

Chika Kako is a rarity in Toyota Motor’s upper echelons.

Last month, the 50-year-old was promoted to the No 2 job at the luxury Lexus division, becoming the only woman among the car maker’s top 53 managers. Company president Akio Toyoda has made diversifying his executive line-up a priority, but while six foreigners have risen to the company’s highest ranks, the elevation of women has been slower.

“To be honest, I never really thought about approaching my work from the point of view of being a woman,” said Ms Kako at Toyota's main Nagoya office. “My mission has always been to just speak my mind.”

Even with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” push, the country hasn’t made much progress at getting women into positions of power. The car industry, in particular, remains a man’s world. Nissan Motor leads the pack in terms of gender equality, with women making up more than 10 per cent of its domestic managers. At Toyota, fewer than 2 per cent of the company’s 9,977 managers are women.

“Kako-san is a role model,” said Tatsuo Yoshida, an car analyst at Sawakami Asset Management in Tokyo. “There are a lot of young women engineers in the company who can look at her career path and say, ‘I want to be like her.’”

Toyota’s diversity push suffered a setback in 2015 when its then-highest-ranking female executive, head of communications Julie Hamp, was forced to resign after she violated Japan’s drug laws by illegally importing painkillers. Ms Hamp was hired away from PepsiCo in 2012.

Ms Kako is the first woman to reach the rank of managing officer by climbing the corporate ladder inside Toyota, according to Bloomberg. She joined in 1989, the same year the car maker made women eligible for career-track jobs.

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After a stint in Belgium, where she worked on refining vehicle interiors, Ms Kako became Toyota’s first female chief engineer. Her first assignment, in 2013, was overseeing a refresh of the Lexus CT hybrid hatchback.

Now she’s the second-in-command for the entire Lexus division, an important business that’s lost a step lately. Lexus hasn’t led luxury car sales in the US since 2010 and last year the brand slipped below the industry average in a closely watched study of new-car quality by JD Power. This month, Lexus came first in the survey of owners of three-year old cars for the seventh consecutive year.

Toyota cars won in six of the 19 categories, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles trailed in the bottom three of the report’s main rankings.

The US Vehicle Dependability Study put Toyota ninth overall, Reuters said.

Overall the study showed a 9 per cent improvement in vehicle dependability in 2017, the first time the industry-wide score has improved since 2013.

“Strong dependability scores not only improve demand for used vehicles, but also are a contributor to higher residual values,” Jonathan Banks, Vice President of Vehicle Analysis and Analytics at JD Power said.

“We need a broad vision for Lexus,” Ms Kako told Bloomberg. “We want to be a distinctive brand. Trying to cover everything is not our style.”

One thing that hasn’t changed in the almost 30 years since Ms Kako started at Toyota: she’s still single.

“I just didn’t have a chance to get married,” she said. “Maybe in the future, why not? I don’t think it’s good to just focus just on your job and not have any experience outside work.”