Breaking the 'glass ceiling’

As women advance, auto industry must be flexible

Automotive News Europe presents its list of 25 Leading Women in the European Auto Industry.
The glass ceiling.

If you haven’t heard the term, you surely will recognize the concept.

Simply, it refers to an invisible barrier that prevents someone from advancing past a certain level in a company. That person can see where she or he wants to go but can’t get there for a variety of reasons.

Christine Gaskell, Bentley’s board member for personnel, knows how it feels to hit that invisible ceiling.

“My head has the scars to prove it,” she says.

Eight years into a new century -- and more than a century after the invention of the automobile -- the glass ceiling remains a reality for women in the auto industry.

Yes, progress has been made.

Women are breaking through that ceiling and slowly transforming the automotive centers around Europe. As Automotive News Europe’s list of 25 Leading Women in the European Auto Industry shows, women have key jobs in engineering, sales and marketing, purchasing, finance and human resources.

But few women are at the top of an automotive company in Europe. Only one of the 25 leading women heads a company. And role models are scarce -- only four of them have had a female boss.

The ceiling still exists.

“Women don’t believe they can win in the car industry,” says Anne Asensio, vice president of design experience at Dassault Systemes near Paris.

25 Leading Women in the European Auto Industry
Anne Asensio, Dassault Systemes
Birgit Behrendt, Ford of Europe
Sue Brownson, Blue Bell Group
Marie-Christine Caubet, Renault
Sara Cummings, Jaguar and Land Rover
Odile Desforges, Renault
Sophie Desormiere, Valeo
Elke Eller, VW Financial Services
Rita Forst, GM Europe
Beatrice Foucher, Renault
Christine Gaskell, Bentley
Annette Grimm, Continental
Gundula Haase, Mazda Motor Europe
Anja Kleyboldt, GM Europe
Diana Körner, Kiekert
Liliane Lacourt, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen
Isabel Marey-Semper, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen
Martina Merz, Robert Bosch
Glenda Minor, Visteon
Lena Olving, Volvo
Barbara Richmond, Inchcape
Cristina Siletto, Fiat Group Automobiles
Lucie Toscani, Continental
Andrea Urban, Robert Bosch
Annette Winkler, Daimler

What women add

If opportunities for women in the auto industry are to increase, the top women say families and schools need to make young women aware of the industry as a career and encourage them to study technical subjects. Also, the industry needs to change its macho image.

Listen to what the leading women say about strengths women bring to the car business.

-- Lena Olving, a senior vice president at Volvo: “Women add a different dimension to business. More needs to be done to recognize women’s needs when it comes to car design. Research shows that if you can satisfy a woman’s requirements for a car you will exceed a man’s expectations.”

-- Odile Desforges, head of purchasing at Renault: “In the complex world, women can bring simplicity.”

-- Barbara Richmond, group finance director of Inchcape, a UK-based dealer group: “The women I’ve encountered in senior positions are extremely hard working and tend to focus on their jobs rather than on organizational politics. They bring more clarity to what they do.”

Society’s expectation that women play a greater role than men in bringing up children makes the auto industry a difficult place for women, says industry observer Nina Raftry. Raftry, 32, spent eight years in the auto industry, most recently as a virtual build engineer with Bentley. Now she is an automotive recruiter with Jonathan Lee Recruitment in Stourbridge, England.

She says the industry needs “flexibility for mothers because it’s always the mothers” who pick up children from day care, or after school, or stay home with them when they are ill.

Sophie Desormiere, group product marketing director at Valeo, also calls for flexibility.

“I don’t think that working 60 hours a week at the office is the definition of performance. If we want to see more women at the highest levels, we have to move toward new organizational systems,” she says.

“We don’t have to make ourselves more masculine to become top executives. But today the system is still oriented toward the male career path, which can be linear.”

Conversation stops

When recruiter Raftry worked in automotive jobs, she wasn’t always comfortable.

“Men would change their behavior and speech when I came into the room,” she says. “You want people to behave normally. I felt like I was always the outsider coming in. It was quite difficult, especially in the early days.”

Anja Kleyboldt, a manufacturing manager leading a team of 1,000 building the Opel Vectra and Signum, recalls when she was an apprentice at a mechanic’s shop “there were not even toilets for women.”

But times are changing.

Many of the leading women say getting girls interested in engineering will attract women to the auto industry.

Rita Forst, executive director of product engineering at GM Powertrain Europe, says: “It is still uncommon to have a female engineer in a man’s world. It will take years before we see an equal number, if at all.

“Interest needs to be created early. It starts at home.“

Few women study engineering, says Forst. “In very traditional countries like Germany and Austria there is almost no change in attitude from when I started. But where I am now, Turin, 13 percent of the engineers are female. This is great.”

So attitudes are adjusting. Roles are reversing. Misperceptions are being corrected.

Says Beatrice Foucher, vice president of product planning at Renault: “This is a really interesting industry, so don’t hesitate. You don’t have to jump at the first offer that comes from L’Oreal. Don’t be afraid of the automotive industry. It’s not the old steel industry of the 1950s.”

A lot has changed in the last few decades thanks to trailblazers such as Bentley’s Gaskell, who is proud of her scars from the slowly disappearing glass ceiling. “If I have made it easier for other women to move to the top,” Gaskell said, “it was worth it.”

You can reach Mary Beth Vander Schaaf at mvanders@crain.com

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