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Nissan hopes its diversity drive will boost sales

While US vehicle manufacturers have fairly diverse management, women make up less than 5 percent at their Japanese counterparts

AP , ATSUGI, JAPAN

Chiharu Ikahata, 26, a plant manager, smiles at the assembly line of Nissan Motor Co's Tochigi plant north of Tokyo on June 18.

PHOTO: AP

Although "diversity" is such a novel and foreign word in Japan it's a tongue-twister, Nissan is determined to promote women and make "die-bah-she-tea," as it's called here, a pillar of its image.

The diversity drive comes at a time when Nissan Motor Co is seeing slipping sales and its first drop in annual profit in seven years -- struggling to draw the global limelight from booming Japanese rivals Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co.

Wooing women isn't likely to win too many accolades in a nation where laws against discrimination in employment lack enforcement power or merely carry small fines as penalties and largely depend on public opinion to sway management into political correctness.

But Nissan's onsite day-care, family leave of up to two years and flexible work schedules are helping attract more women and keeping them. Nissan has also been spreading the word about diversity at universities and seminars to recruit women.

And it's one clear way Nissan, 44 percent owned by Renault SA of France, can hope to send a unique message as a cross-cultural automaker -- and hope to beat Toyota and Honda.

Diversity programs are fairly established at US automakers, with women making up 27 percent of management at General Motors Corp. At Toyota, women comprise 1 percent of management and 0.4 percent at Honda.

At Nissan, women in management have risen to 4 percent from 1.6 percent in 2004 under the diversity drive; it is targeting 5 percent by March next year.

Women make up 10 percent of management overall in Japan -- compared with 42.5 percent in the US -- but tend to be underrepresented in manufacturing.

"Things are definitely changing," said Kumi Hatsukano, a manager for car body design at Nissan. "But what would be ideal is if we could stop talking about this topic of being a woman or a man altogether."

When Hatsukano, 38, joined Nissan in 1993, she had her share of run-ins with sexual harassment. Male workers gave her unwanted attention and asked personal questions about her love life, especially when she was working late.

Today, she is reaping some of the benefits of the diversity initiative. Her co-workers are understanding when she leaves early to pick up her one-year-old son at the company-run day-care center.

When Chiharu Ikahata, 26, was hired as the first woman on her assembly line in 1999, the women's restroom was so old and dirty one had to be built at her request. Today, she is plant manager after studying production methods for two years at a Nissan-run school and hopes to be a role model for women workers.

With a culture that encourages women to become meek housekeepers, Japan has lagged behind Western nations in accepting women on the job.

"The obstacle for working women are the long hours prevalent in Japan and the lack of understanding from men," Japanese Labor Ministry Deputy Director Kumiko Morizane said. "Women simply can't endure overtime alongside the men while giving birth and raising children."

Japanese women lose out more than their Western sisters in a corporate culture that values seniority, rather than performance, for promotion and pay. Women fear getting penalized for taking time off for childbirth, Morizane said.

In Japan, employers are required to give six weeks leave before the due date and one year of child-care leave and must guarantee a comparable job afterward. But 67 percent of working women quit after giving birth to their first child, a government study showed.

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