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Catalysts 2008 Awards Conference

April 10, 2008
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Event: Catalyst’s 2008 Awards Conference

When: April 9, 2008

Where: The Waldorf-Astoria, New York

What: HR executives and diversity officers come together to learn about best practices in creating a diverse culture and discuss the challenges they face. Executives from this year’s winners, Nissan and ING, provided the 574 attendees with great examples of why the business case of having a focused diversity initiative makes sense.

Day 1—Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Moving mountains: Most large companies have to overcome cultural challenges when they launch diversity initiatives, but what Nissan has been up against with its gender diversity efforts in Japan takes it to a whole new level.

In their morning presentation, executives from the Tokyo-based automaker discussed how Japan is behind the United States when it comes to women in the workforce. While women in the U.S. started joining the full-time workforce in big numbers in the 1960s and ’70s, that trend only began in Japan in the 1990s.

"We are 20 years behind the U.S.," said Asako Hoshino, corporate vice president at Nissan. When Nissan first launched its diversity development office in 2004, there were no female supervisors at the company.

During the past four years, however, Nissan has made enormous progress. The company has implemented mandatory manager training, increased its focus on recruiting and retaining women and made ergonomic changes to many of its plants to make it easier for women to work there.

The company also has introduced the notion of work/life balance to a population of women who until recently had to choose between work and staying at home with their children, said Hitoshi Kawaguchi, senior vice president in charge of HR and the diversity development office. Parents at Nissan can take up to 2½ years off when they have a baby. The Japanese government only says that employers have to offer six months.

Since 2004, the percentage of engineering positions at Nissan held by women has jumped from 8 percent to 16 percent—a particularly significant increase given that only 7 percent of university engineering graduates were women in 2007.

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 2007, to 4 percent, or 101 women.

Making it personal: The high point of the one-day conference was a Q&A with Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo.

In her speech, Nooyi was frank about the challenges she faces every day managing her role as CEO and mother of two girls.

Nooyi scoffed at the concept of "work/life balance," saying that "in the C-suite, I don’t think there is a difference between work and life."

Nooyi described that as a CEO and a mom, she has to make choices every day.

"I don’t know that I am always a good mother, a good executive and a good wife," she says. "There is no formula or tradeoff that makes it right."

Her advice to the mothers in the audience? "Make sure you have the right spouse."

Nooyi also advised working moms to create a network of family, friends and even colleagues to help out.

"I refer to this as group mothering," she says, recalling how when her kids call to ask if they can play video games and she is in Asia, the assistants who answer the phone have a checklist of questions to ask the children, such as have they done their homework.

Employers need to realize that women have an undue burden since they are usually the caregivers in their families, Nooyi said. Sometimes companies’ efforts to be sensitive to this fact backfire, she said. For example, PepsiCo recently gave a woman a few months off to take care of a sick family member. However, Nooyi soon got a call from the two employees—both women—who had taken on this person’s responsibilities while she was out.

"They were mothers too and had too much work," she said.

Companies need to figure out a way to fill the holes when employees step out of the workforce for a few months at a time.

"Maybe we need a small group of roving midlevel managers that can step in," she says.
—Jessica Marquez

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