College of Natural Sciences alumna, Hideko Kunii (Ph.D. ’83) is a trailblazer in a culture that has a history of discouraging women from advancing in the workforce, most notably in the technology industries.
Despite these hurdles, Kunii has had an illustrious career and is one of very few women to be promoted to the top levels of the tech industry in Japan. For over twenty years she worked in upper management at the Ricoh Company, Ltd. and is the only woman to have risen to the rank of corporate vice president. Kunii attributes much of her success and skill to the time she spent at the College of Natural Sciences.
Kunii came to The University of Texas in the late seventies on her own, although one summer her husband, Tosi Kunii, joined her as a visiting professor in the Department of Computer Science. Hideko Kunii had master’s degrees in physics from Ochanomizu University in Japan and computer and information sciences from San Jose State University. She originally considered studying for her Ph.D. degree in Japan but was so impressed by the practical applications of computer research at The University of Texas at the time that she decided to come to Austin.
Kunii pursued a Ph.D. in graph databases under the guidance of her advisor and now good friend, James C. Browne (Professor Emeritus, Department of Computer Science). In a graph database, each bit of data includes information about how it relates to other bits of data. The most well known example is Facebook, where that photo of you at Disneyland also contains information about who else has seen the photo and liked it or shared it. Kunii's research explored how databases could be represented visually using a Graph Data Model (GDM). According to her dissertation, “The capabilities of the GDM include direct representation of many-to-many relationships and of the relationships within a single record type.”
“She was a person of determination, as well as talent and class. She finished an excellent Ph.D. in graph databases, which at the time was extremely pioneering. When you think of Facebook and things like that, the underlying technology is a graph database. Her work was too pioneering to get the recognition it deserves today,” remarks Dr. Browne.
After graduating from the College of Natural Sciences in the early eighties, Kunii returned to Japan, armed with newfound confidence and superior computer software skills and joined the Ricoh Company, Ltd. as a manager. At the time, Ricoh was in need of employees with software experience but they couldn’t find a man with her level of proficiency.
Recalls Kunii, “The attitude toward women was getting better in Japan… but once you join companies, the promotion is quite slow for women. I was introduced as a man when I joined Ricoh. It meant I was treated as a professional.”
According to Kunii, she did not set out on a mission to change the cultural norms for professional women in Japan but she now acknowledges that since graduating with her Ph.D. in Computer Sciences from The University of Texas at Austin, this has become a very important part of her personal mission.
“When I went back [to Japan] in 1982 I had two missions. One was to push the issue of women’s empowerment in society and industry. The other is software,” reflects Kunii.
Over the years Kunii has continued to break down gender barriers and pave the way for Japanese women in the technology industry. Last month the Honda Motor Company appointed Kunii as the first female board member in the history of the company, marking a turning point in Japan’s biases towards women in the technology industry. She currently serves as general manager of the Gender Equality Promotion Office of the Shibaura Institute of Technology and won the 2006 IEEE Tokyo Section Women Pioneer Award. She has also been nominated to the Tokyo Electric Power Company Board, which has been tasked by the Prime Minister to carry out a compensation plan for Fukushima losses as well as decontaminate the site, and provide a stable electric supply.
Dr. Browne sums up the life and attitude of his friend and former student best, “There are people that want to use their positions for self aggrandizement… and then there are people who want to use their position to make the world a better place and I think she is one of those people.”