For new managers in foreign countries, many things can be surprising. For Jean-Marc Gilson, the newly-arrived head of a 90-year-old Japanese chemical giant, it was an absence that stood out.

"I’ve been to 25, 30, 40 meetings so far, and I have yet to see one woman from a management position in any of these meetings,” said Gilson, the Belgian who took over as chief executive officer of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp. this month. "I was amazed.”

Gilson, 57, is no newcomer to Japan, having spent five years in the country in the 2000s as an executive of what is now Dow Inc., where he managed a venture with Toray Industries Inc. He was headhunted from France’s Roquette to lead the ¥1.2 trillion member of the 225-issue Nikkei average that has interests in everything from petrochemicals to pharmaceuticals.