The question everyone asked when this chief engineer got her first job in the car industry was: ‘when will you marry?’

Chika Kako, chief engineer on the new Lexus UX. Simon Thomsen
  • Chika Kako made history when she became the first female chief engineer at Lexus.
  • Her first car in the role, the Lexus UX, a compact crossover SUV, has just been released.
  • While there are measures in place to improve the number of women in senior levels of the motoring industry, they remain exceptions rather than the rule.

Chika Kako is a pioneer.

The chemical engineer still remembers sitting down for an interview at Toyota nearly two decades ago.

“They asked me ‘would you like to continue your job after you get married?’,” she told Business Insider at the Geneva motor show, where she starred in the global debut of the new Lexus compact crossover, UX, as chief engineer.

But in 1999, in an already notoriously masculine industry – even more so in Japanese culture – she still recalls her reaction when asked about her career after she married, thinking: “what a strange question.”

But it was indicative of the era, as Kako recalls.

“At the time we didn’t have a system for women who got married or had children,” she said.

“There was not system to continue my job.”

Toyota has come a long way since then, this year introducing a more family-friendly policy that allow women to work from home so they can meet their commitments there as well as at work.

As International Women’s Day was held on March 9, it’s still all too obvious that women are notable exceptions in the car industry, despite their long history of involvement. It was US actor Florence Lawrence, who designed the precursor to car signals using flags to indicate turning and holding up a stop sign when hitting the brakes.

Mary Barra broke new ground in 2013, when she became CEO of General Motors, and the first female leader of a car company, while Dr Annette Winkler is CEO of Smart, the electric car division owned by Daimler AG.

And Michelle Christensen made headlines in 2015 when she became the designer of the new Acura/Honda supercar NSX at age 34.

Earlier this month, Toyota announced Teiko Kudo, a managing executive officer at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp, will become the first woman on Toyota’s board if shareholders approve her appointment as an outside director. 

But Kako remains part of an elite group in motoring, making history has she goes.

Amid questions about either when she was getting married or why she wasn’t already hitched, she rose quickly through Toyota’s ranks, and two years after joining the company, realised her dream of working overseas when she was posted to Europe as part of the R&D team. She was the first female engineer to work overseas.

“When I was in university, I was thinking maybe in the future I wanted to go abroad,” she recounts.

“It was very ambitious, but I thought why not?”

She didn’t waste that time, developing her own philosophy around what the Japanese call kansei engineering – meeting the emotional and psychological needs of a customer in a product.

“Design is still the main purchase reason for every car,” she explains.

Kako-san given a special assignment to enhance the product appeal of interiors, analysing differences between European and Japanese values from the kansei emotional engineering perspective. One fruit of her labours was the original Lexus LS prototype focusing on European values.

She overhauled the interior to give it design consistency and also researched local tech trends and what gave European-produced cars their appeal – a key challenge Lexus grapples with to this day as it seeks to carve out its market share in the luxury sector.

Back in Japan three years later, Kako was installed in the Lexus brand planning department, then a year later, transferred to the product planning division, developing the interior of the RX, and the first generation remote-touch navigator interface, the controller in the centre armrest.

Becoming chief engineer

In 2012, Chika Kako made history as Toyota’s first female chief engineer, tasked with refreshing the Lexus CT 200h – the sport hatchback. She made nearly 100 changes to the design.

The UX, a compact crossover SUV is her first project from scratch and takes Lexus into a whole new and competitive genre targeting people she calls “creative urban explorers”.

Launching the car at the Geneva motor show this week, she listed the interior was the thing she was most proud of in the car.

The interior of the Lexus UX, which Chika Kako oversaw as the project’s chief engineer. supplied

Kako said she was surprised when she was asked to become chief engineer “not because I am a woman, but because I am a material engineer”.

It’s a role normally handed to someone from the chassis design and prototype side of the business.

Which means she stands out on two fronts in forging a new path for women in motoring. She admits she was a little scared in taking on such a critical role, but adds: “It was a real challenge for me, but OK, why not?”

Women behind the wheel

The paradox in motoring is that while women are central to the purchasing decision, they are spectacularly underrepresented on the manufacturing side of the equation.

While recent data found women make up 47% of the US workforce, that figure halves when it comes to the automotive industry.

In Australia, for example, 45% of new cars sold go to women and they’re involved in 82% of all decisions. They make their own choice on 47% of purchases.

But up until now, one of the most common industry roles given to women was to be tall, thin and evocative as they stand next to cars at motor shows – a job deficient in career progression.

The contrast is even starker in Japan, although the tide is beginning to turn, pushed by the likes of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” – his policy to see women in 30% of leadership roles in business by 2020. It’s extraordinary ambitious given the figure was 11% when he set the target in 2012.

Toyota produced its own plan in 2016, setting targets of 40% of administrative roles and 10% of engineering positions going to women. It also wants to treble the number of women in managerial positions in the six years to 2020, and fivefold by 2030.

It’s a realistic ambition given the starting point had women in just 1% of managerial roles – around 100 amid 10,000 – in 2014, so the targets are 3% and 5%.

While she acknowledges her own role as a pathfinder in the company, Chika Kako doesn’t see things in terms of gender. When Business Insider asked her about her advice to women, she emphasised collaboration, saying: “If you have a vision – what do want? Why do you want to do that? – then people can help”.

It’s that approach that’s allowed her to succeed as chief engineer. Coming from the materials side, she willingly acknowledges there was plenty she didn’t know about car design when she took on the job and her willingness to listen drove the collaboration towards a final product such as the Lexus UX.

Her philosophy on career success is simple.

“If you have a hope or vision, if you believe it is good, if you believe it is your destiny, the you should try [whatever role comes you’re offered],” she said.

Kako is as much an advocate for diversity in the workplace as women.

“It’s not just gender, but nationality also. Many different kinds of thinking can help reinforce the strengths and creativity in a business,” she said.

Which is why she doesn’t see herself as as woman designing cars for women. Kako believes her goal as a designer and engineer at Lexus is to create broad appeal and grab attention.

“Male chief engineers never think ‘what should I do as a man?’. It’s the same thing for me,” she said.

“If a customer looks at a car and notices something is different, then I am there.”

The Lexus UX compact SUV. supplied

* Business Insider travelled to the Geneva Motor Show as a guest of Lexus.