PEOPLE

Kellogg's executive Yukari Inoue on hurdles women face in corporate world

Ms Yukari Inoue, Kellogg's managing director for Japan and Korea, attributed her sense of drive to her younger days at an all-girls' school where she was appointed to student leadership roles.
Ms Yukari Inoue, Kellogg's managing director for Japan and Korea, attributed her sense of drive to her younger days at an all-girls' school where she was appointed to student leadership roles. PHOTO: KELLOGG

Kellogg's executive on hurdles women face in corporate world

When economics student Yukari Inoue graduated from Osaka University in 1985, she soon found that being a women in corporate Japan required developing a thick skin and plenty of perseverance.

The male-dominated nature of corporate Japan meant she rarely got the chance to make her case with potential employers.

Ms Inoue told The Straits Times by phone recently: "The process of recruitment, for us, used to start with companies first sending out recruitment letters to students. My male classmates received a lot of those letters, multiple boxes of them. I didn't receive a single one."

But Ms Inoue, 53, tried another tack and applied to a multinational company on her professor's advice. That landed her a job as a brand assistant in the marketing department of Procter & Gamble (P&G) - her first step up the corporate ranks.

Ms Inoue is now the Japan and Korea managing director of American food manufacturing giant Kellogg Company.

While acknowledging that things have improved in Japan, with the government promoting fairness in the workplace, Ms Inoue said there is "still a lot of room" for women in the corporate world, especially in leadership positions across Asian companies.

"Even now, there are only a few females in top general manager roles across the food industry," she noted, adding that women leaders are essential, as women "are responsible for 80 per cent of all consumer spending".

Ms Inoue, who was in Singapore in September to speak about gender diversity in business at the "Break The Ceiling Touch The Sky" women's leadership summit, said she was "lucky" to have worked at firms that offered opportunities regardless of gender.

After 15 years at P&G, she became marketing director at Jarfin Wines and Spirits, now known as Moet Hennessy Diageo.

In 2005, she became president and representative director of Cadbury Japan - now Modelez Japan - and led the merger and acquisition of Sansei Shokuhin before moving into her Osaka-based role at Kellogg Company in 2013.

But her journey had been an uphill one, even at home.

"In those days, a lot of people believed that the woman's primary job was to take care of her husband, the kids and the family. The man's job is to work outside and bring home the bacon," she said.

"My father didn't expect me to work like this. He thought there was no point in graduating from university because no one would want to marry me, and he couldn't understand why I had to stay late at the office or go on business trips."

Ms Inoue, who is not married, added with a laugh: "Eventually he understood."

The Japanese business scene had been "a different story" as well.

During her stint at Cadbury, she had to attend industry conferences where she would be the only woman amid hundreds of men. But her perseverance and winning strategy - to "approach them one by one, let them feel comfortable and build (rapport)" - eventually paid off.

She attributed her sense of drive to her younger days at an all-girls' school where she was appointed to student leadership roles.

"There was no space for a boy to take a president role and a girl to take a vice-president role, we had to do everything ourselves," she said. "I knew I felt very motivated and I enjoyed that kind of responsibility."

She added that while her own grit played a part in her success, she had help as well.

"I just tried my best at every step and challenged myself to learn new things. I also had mentors who inspired and motivated me to step up to the next level to reach where I am now."

She pointed out that Asian countries still have quite a strong social and cultural bias that hinders gender equality within a company or an organisation.

But such diversity is crucial: "Diversity brings different voices and perspectives to the table, which can only come from people with different backgrounds, experiences and thinking.

"In today's complex, fast-paced and inter-connected world, diversity and inclusion is a critical component for success," she said.

"I'm now in a position to share my experience and journey with the next generation of female leaders. For me, I'm happy even if only one person can walk away with something to learn from my story."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Food for thought in a male-dominated world People'. Print Edition | Subscribe