When it comes to providing opportunities for women, the automotive industry has been stalled, but recognition of our buying clout might just be our key to the driver’s seat and the C-Suite.

BY RHEA SEYMOUR

Shifting-Out-of-Neutral-2

When Marta Moren goes to work at Georgetown only female mechanic on the shop floor, and even though she’s only 24 years old (and always sports pink nail polish) she’s got the talent of a veteran.

For the last two years, Moren has won a Grand Master Gold Technician Award in a hands-on skills competition. She competed against 160 finalists (selected from 7,000 technicians) and earned one of the 44 awards handed out in Canada annually. In the final test, participants move through four stations, performing a range of tasks from engine testing to diagnosing faults like brake problems and electrical malfunctions. “I love my job, especially the electrical part,” she says. “I like disassembling a car to figure out a problem and then the challenge of putting it all back together.”

From the shop floor to the C-suite, Morenis just one woman changing the face of the traditionally male-dominated automotive industry.

THE OPPORTUNITY

In Canada, women now make up more than 27 percent of the labour force in the motor vehicle parts manufacturing industry. Once relegated to the reception desk, assembly line and administrative roles, women now hold top positions across the industry: Dianne Craig is President and CEO at Ford Motor Company Canada. Plant manager Carolyne Watts, recognized by Chevrolet Inc., she’s the Automotive News as one of the Top 100 Leading Women in the automotive industry in 2010, oversees 2,000 employees at General Motors St. Catharines operations. Jackie DiMarco is the chief engineer of the Ford F150 pick-up truck — the best-selling truck line in the U.S.

Women are also running the show at more car dealerships. Mary Nurse, who oversees 140 employees as President of Nurse Chevrolet Cadillac Ltd. in Whitby, Ont., won the 2011 Canadian Automobile Dealers Association Laureate Retailer Award, one of three dealers selected out of 3,200 in Canada.

Carole Leblanc, the first female president of the Montreal International Auto Show is co-owner (with her sister) and VP of sales and operations at Mercedes-Benz Laval, Que., which has a staff of 110. She took over the family dealership from her father. “When I started in my 20s, I didn’t know much about mechanics and men looked at me like I was a little girl,” recalls Leblanc, who worked as a receptionist, service advisor and sales rep, before being promoted to general manager and then VP.

“It’s rewarding to see the advance- ments women have made,” says Janice Dickey, Director, Dealer Organization, Business Management and Network Planning at General Motors of Canada Ltd. She started her career in the industry as a district sales manager 30 years ago, calling on male dealers at a time when few women held that job. “There have been many times in my career when I’ve been the only woman in the room,” says Dickey.

GETTING ACCLIMATED TO THE CULTURE

Despite the inroads women have made into the industry, we still hold only 17 percent of all management positions. According to the Women at the Wheel report by Deloitte, when Automotive News named 100 Leading Women in 2005, the final list included 20 CEOs or presidents but by 2010, only a handful of women held those high-ranking titles.

To understand what’s driving women out of the industry — or preventing them from opting in — Deloitte surveyed the 2010 Automotive News 100 Leading Women and asked 12 senior women executives at automotive companies to join a roundtable discussion. More than half claimed the playing field isn’t level in automotive and 90 percent of those said that the standard of performance is higher for women. The majority (85 percent) of women surveyed said their companies were average or above average when it comes to promoting women, but 59 percent reported that their employer has only one to three female corporate officers. While women’s experiences varied at different companies, one participant described a hierarchy where being a woman is a disadvantage:

“A lot of companies have programs to make women visible, but at the end of the day, the senior officers are mostly men, and they promote people they are comfortable with. Male executives tend to go to lunch, chat in the hall, and play golf with other men. Relationships often trump capability.”

The boys’ club was very much in existence at Chrysler’s Brampton, Ont., manufacturing plant when Christine Laperriere worked there as a design engineer less than a decade ago. “You need to be comfortable being one of the guys to succeed in that environment,” explains Laperriere. “They grew up talking cars with their dads in the garage and they have that historical enthusiasm. At work they’re talking about cars with each other and some go out to race cars together after work.” A car enthusiast from Detroit, Laperriere was sometimes able to keep up socially, “but tons of women were left out.”

Laperriere sometimes struggled with her male colleagues’ approach to work, too: “The problem is the jobs in automotive engineering are designed in such a linear fashion — you have one job or metric to chase,” she says. “I’d be considering several different aspects of a project, including customer perception and impact, while a lot of guys in the plant were focused on one metric, for example, building 400 vehicles a day. That used to drive me crazy.” Laperriere eventually left Chrysler to work in management consulting.

FINDING A PLACE

A lack of work-life balance in the automotive industry is another barrier for women. In the Deloitte survey, 40 percent of those surveyed complained about their company’s culture when it came to flexible work arrangements. That’s one reason it’s hard to attract and keep women in sales. “It’s not the nature of the work, it’s the hours,” says Leblanc, who currently employs no female sales reps at her dealership, despite her desire to hire them. “The industry is very competitive and it’s difficult if you have a family and children because you work nights.”

Besides creating a more balanced and diverse workplace, manufacturers have an incentive to recruit women and keep us happy. Women influence 80 percent of new car purchases. We also made up 44 percent of primary vehicle buyers in 2010 (up from 20 percent in 1990) and 47 percent of women car shoppers prefer women dealers, according to Catalyst Quick Take: Women in the Automotive Industry. But there are only a small number of women-owned dealerships and female sales reps, so female customers are losing out — and so are automotive companies. “There’s a big discrepancy between the percentage of women working in automotive and women’s purchasing power,” says Jody Devere, CEO of AskPatty.com, a US website and marketing-to-women agency that provides automotive education to women consumers and training to automotive retailers. “At dealerships, when you create an environment women want to shop in, you’ll also attract women to work there.”

Perhaps, though, some women don’t aspire to work for companies that don’t appear to understand them. “Consumers view brands based on marketing and advertising and there is still a lot of overtly sexual advertising from some automotive companies,” says Devere. “Women want to see themselves empowered and they see these ads and perceive ‘this company is not marketing to me’.” She says companies need to do a better job of understanding the women’s market. “For a long time the idea was all women drive mini-vans and are soccer moms. But women come in all types; women buy 48 percent of pick-up trucks and 62 percent of Corvettes. One size doesn’t fit all.” Having women involved at all levels of decision-making — from design to engineering and management — will result in more automotive products that appeal to a wider range of women. “If women are not in the room, they don’t have the input,” says Devere.

It’s clear that some automotive companies are aware they’re missing the mark with women: “Globally, 74 percent of women feel misunderstood by automakers in the USA,” said Andrew Palmer, Executive Vice President at Nissan Motor Company, during his keynote speech at the SMMT International Automotive Summit in June 2013. “Our industry is failing the largest and most influential customer segment in the world. Perhaps one factor is the lack of women in our business: I’m sure that Nissan is not untypical in employing less than 10 percent female managers in our ranks.”

There’s no question that companies could be doing more. Fifty-six percent of women surveyed by Deloitte reported their companies do not have an active recruitment program targeting women. In Canada, Ford and Chrysler have no programs that specifically target women, however, in 2001 General Motors created The Women’s Dealer Advisory Council to increase its number of women car dealers, and its Women’s Retail Network to recruit and train women as well as provide a support network and scholarships. That’s a good start.