I was introduced to my male colleagues as “a man”—which meant that they were to treat me like a professional, not like a woman.
Hideko Kunii made history in 2014 as the first woman appointed to the board of Honda. A lifetime crusader for gender equality, Kunii, ’76 MS Computer and Information Systems, has been fighting for this kind of shift in Japanese corporate culture since before the start of her 26-year tenure with technology powerhouse Ricoh.
Today, Kunii is deputy president, general manager of gender equality promotion and a professor in the Graduate School of Engineering Management at Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo, Japan.
In April, she returned for a visit to the SJSU Lucas College and Graduate School of Business, where she earned her second master’s degree as a working mother of a toddler, to discuss her career and gender bias in the workplace.
When you began your career, did you set out to tackle gender inequality?
Kunii: I decided when I was 20 years old that I wanted to reform the social structure in Japan. That decision changed my life. My career is in technology and management, but my goal has always been social progress.
From the beginning of my career I have been an advocate for gender equality in a grassroots way, talking with woman employees in the company about how we could improve things.
How did you become interested in technology and decide to attend SJSU?
Kunii: I became familiar with science at a young age. My father was a geophysicist and in high school I was inspired by Marie Curie, a chemist and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. I studied science and earned a master’s degree in physics at Ochanomizu University in 1973.
My husband has been a professor for many years, first in chemistry, then in computer science. He recommended that I look into computer science as well because he wanted us to do research together. At first I said no, but when his job brought us to Silicon Valley I changed my mind because it was so exciting. The field was growing and this was the place to be. I had always wanted to be economically independent. Technology was a new field, and I thought it might be easier for a woman to work in technology than in physics.
Our son was three years old, and I was working full time when I went back to school at SJSU. In Japan, it would have been impossible at that time, but there were better childcare systems in the United States, and my husband has always been supportive. When I was young, everyone told me that I should stay home and take care of my child. Everyone else was saying no, but he always said yes.
Did you ever feel intimidated by the prospect of pursuing a career in a male-dominated field like technology?
Kunii: Studying in the U.S. made me brave. I was shy when I was younger, but when I came to the U.S. I couldn’t speak English very well so I had to smile and be friendly to survive. I learned to be more open and aggressive. I was exposed to more experiences and diversity. I learned how to handle lots of different opinions. That changed me. But I still felt discrimination once I began my career.
The gender bias in Japan was much worse than in the U.S.; in my experience, a woman with a Ph.D. was on the same level as a male high school graduate and the regular full-time jobs were all given to men. When I joined Ricoh as the only female manager, I was introduced to my male colleagues as “a man”—which meant that they were to treat me like a professional, not like a woman. Several times I wanted to quit Ricoh because of the very bad jokes made about women in the workplace.
How do you promote gender equality in your professional life today?
Kunii: The first thing I wanted to do as general manager of gender equality promotion at the Shibaura Institute of Technology was change the ratio of women and men, so I set a numerical target. Also, education within the organization is very important. I hold symposiums and panel discussions about gender issues involving all the key institutional leaders. It’s not enough to just say politically correct things to the public. I make sure they stick to what they say!
What advice do you have for women who wish to advance their careers and shatter glass ceilings?
Kunii: Get the qualifications—the degrees and certifications—so people will take you seriously. Widen your field of interest to open up your career; emerging fields can be easier because they are less competitive. Network. A role model or mentor can make it easier to survive. Get advice from experts who have experience. Have something special to differentiate yourself from other people.