Trailblazer: Atsuko Onishi Brings Her Values to the Factory Floor
26th November, 2020
Atsuko Onishi started at Mitsubishi Electric as an engineer. She has since gone on to become the first female manager at the company’s Nagoya Works, where she plays a key management role in one of the company’s major businesses: factory automation. She talks about how she approaches her job.
A Lifelong Fan of Science
From a young age, Onishi was a voracious reader. She would pore over the pages of literary classics and lose herself in the worlds she discovered in field guides and illustrated science books. After studying chemistry in university, she joined Mitsubishi Electric. She is now a leader in the company’s critical factory automation (FA) business. As head of the HMI System Department at the company’s Nagoya Works — which develops human-machine interfaces — she supervises a large team of developers.
She recalls with a smile that it took her some time to adjust to the old-fashioned engineer uniform she was required to wear when she first started at the company. This was the path she had chosen: she had come in as an engineer and had fully expected to spend the rest of her career acquiring the knowledge and skills she would need to become a specialist.
"My sole focus was on exploring how I could apply new technologies and development methods to build better products for our customers in the most efficient and reliable way," says Onishi.
However, her path eventually diverged, and she set out in a new direction.
"I became a group manager in 2011 after attending a management workshop at the recommendation of my boss at the time," so she explains. "I was surprised at the recommendation, because there were plenty of female managers who had come from marketing and other non-technical fields, but not a single one had an engineering background. But as a result of attending the workshop, I began to view my career differently — that I didn’t have to remain an engineer and could work in management if I wanted to."
A Focus on Team Building
As a group manager, Onishi supervised the development of control systems that play an important role in FA, while also managing projects and personnel. In 2016, she became deputy manager of the FA System Department, where she led development of the CC-Link IE TSN open industrial Ethernet — a major project that involved a staff of 400.
Currently, she is the manager of the HMI (Human Machine Interface) System Department, which develops the Graphic Operation Terminal graphical interface for displaying data and operating machinery in FA systems. She was appointed to this position in 2019, becoming the first woman manager at Nagoya Works.
She attributes much of her managerial success to her focus on team building and her ability to organize her team for optimal performance. Projects, of course, do not always go according to plan, but she says her ability to consider a multitude of views offered by her team always gets her through the day — although her optimistic personality certainly helps.
"I’m just a very positive person," she laughs. "If something bad happens, I don’t let it get to me. I look for a solution or do whatever I need to do to take us forward. If you just charge ahead without thinking, you might end up tripping on something you’ve overlooked. So, I try to avoid that by carefully analyzing the situation with my team and coming to a decision together. I look at problems from many different angles and listen to a diverse range of opinions."
Setting an Example for Future Generations
Onishi has 300 people working under her, including employees at affiliates. "I didn’t get here because I wanted to climb up the corporate ladder," she says. "I got here simply by fulfilling every mission that was given to me."
In 2019, she received the Pioneer Award at the Forbes Japan Women Award 2019. It was an experience that caused her to further reflect on her role in the company.
"I asked the judges, ‘Are you sure an ordinary engineer should be winning this award?’ And they told me: ‘Japan is ranked 121st in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index — far below other industrialized countries and Japan’s worst ranking yet. The fact that a woman has worked for 30 years as an engineer in a Japanese company is extraordinary.’ That may be true, but I still felt a bit uncomfortable about receiving the award."
Since the award ceremony, she has been inundated with interview requests from the media. Although she does not consider herself a torchbearer for female engineers-turned-managers, she has begun to see how her career can set an example for young people who are just entering the workforce.
"You can try to be a universal role model, but the fact is that each person is different," she says. "Everyone has their own work-life balance and lifestyle. This is true whether you are a man or a woman. But if I can set an example in any way, it is to show women that they can have a career in engineering. There is a lot of groupthink that goes on in product development, and I think having more female engineers can help create an environment that is more conducive to new ideas. What motivates me now in my job is a deep need to provide strength and support to anyone who wants to go out and accomplish something — and not just in my department."
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