Recession, greener pastures thin the ranks of automotive women

Deborah Wahl Meyer, Former Lexus and Chrysler executive: You just see less diversity now than ever before -- when the car-buying population is more diverse than ever. It's a good time for reflection. What happened? How come we're still not there? Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS

The recession that nearly toppled parts of the North American auto industry took its toll on the women working in it, too.

As General Motors and Chrysler spiraled toward bankruptcy and Ford made severe cutbacks to avoid the same fate, massive cost cutting reduced leadership opportunities for women in the industry. Some lost their jobs outright, but many left the automotive world voluntarily, looking for firmer footing or better positions in other industries.

The cuts affected male leaders, too, though there are no hard data to compare by what degrees for each gender. Most female leaders still in the industry say they think the recession hurt both genders equally. But men remain in the vast majority of management roles in the auto industry.

The 2010 Automotive News list of 100 leading women in the North American auto industry provides a glimpse of the changes. The 2010 list features many high-powered women with strong careers. But the 2010 group is outranked overall by the women on our last list in 2005.

In 2005, five women on the list were CEOs at automaker units or suppliers. In 2010, there are two. In 2005, 64 women on the list had executive officer titles at automakers and suppliers. That compares with 51 in 2010.

Perhaps most startling: Close to half of the women on the 2005 list no longer are in the auto industry. Some retired, but many went to work in other industries.

Women who left

The industry's highest-ranked woman in 2005, Anne Stevens, named Ford's COO of the Americas just weeks after the last list published, left the industry a year later to pursue her dream of being a CEO.

Stevens, now 61, was chairman and CEO of specialty metal provider Carpenter Technology Corp. until last November, when she resigned after the company's board split the role of chairman and CEO.

"I would say the priority of a diverse leadership team and a diverse work force is a lot less in 2010," Stevens said, comparing the auto industry of 2005 with today.

That sentiment was echoed by more former leaders now working in other industries.

"The auto industry is now probably worse off than it was in 2005 when it comes to female representation," said Mary Boland, former CFO of GM North America. She now works at Levi Strauss in San Francisco as senior vice president of finance and distribution for the Americas.

Deborah Wahl Meyer, who held the top marketing job at Lexus five years ago, said 2005 seemed like the peak of women's influence in automotive leadership.

"You just see less diversity now than ever before — when the car-buying population is more diverse than ever," said Meyer, who went on to the top marketing job at Chrysler before leaving the industry at the end of 2008. She is now senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Pulte Homes in suburban Detroit.

"It's a good time for reflection," Meyer said. "What happened? How come we're still not there?"

It's a mix of reasons, according to women who left and those still in the industry.

What they do
Fields of expertise for the 100 leading women
General management7
Information technology6
Human resources3
Corporate planning2

Cultural divide

The auto industry's tough reputation persists. It's a "man's world," echoed many of the women on the 2010 list. Work-life balance is always a challenge.

Other businesses seem to offer better chances of success, said Cindy Niekamp, an executive at PPG. "I really wish I could look my two daughters in the eye and say, 'This is the right industry for you,'" Niekamp said.

Women have lots of choices today. They are trained in disciplines in demand in other industries.

"I think that it wasn't so much that the recession pushed people out," said Nancy Gioia, a Ford engineering director. "But because of where women are today in the companies, their skills are more portable."

Some of those who left said they found more support and appreciation at their new companies — even better compensation.

One woman said that at her new company, colleagues are more likely to pitch in to figure out ways to make a plan work. By contrast, in automotive, she ran into more roadblocks, hearing instead all the reasons a plan wouldn't work. The difference is refreshing: better productivity and results and fewer worries about politics and competition.

But the change is not all about women choosing to go elsewhere. There are fewer senior-level jobs in general and fewer opportunities to move up. Women who remain in the auto industry generally have been hurt worse by the recession, Niekamp said.

"A lot of things got put on the back burner, including proactive career development," Niekamp said. "We lost time."

Before the recession, automotive manufacturers and suppliers already significantly trailed Fortune 500 companies in terms of women's representation as corporate officers and directors, according to surveys this decade by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization that aims to expand career opportunities for women. In 2010, that comparison is more difficult to make: Statistics are no longer tracked specifically for the auto segment, Catalyst says.

Mentors needed

With fewer women in the top ranks, the support network has taken a hit. Mentoring and attention to diversity fall by the wayside when companies are fighting for survival, some women said.

"There are few role models for young women," said Anna Zornosa, a Dealix executive. "And when you go to a reception or meeting, you are often the only woman there."

Women still need the powerful executives, most of whom are men, to champion their careers.

"When things get tough, people often retreat back to their comfort zones. It's just human nature," Boland said. "When you think about guys in the leadership roles, their easiest relationships are usually with other guys."

Some point to the pipeline as an issue, saying that lower female representation in math and the sciences follows through to fewer women available to work in the industry. Other women say the pipeline is there. Women are well represented in the lower ranks of the industry, but too many of them leave during the climb up the ladder.

"It's understandable why everything came to a screeching halt, but it is a weakness now," said Anne Doyle, a former Ford communications executive who is now writing a book about women in leadership. "They were making progress as more women were starting to move up in leadership in significant numbers, but it stopped. Women just jumped off that ship like a rat fleeing a sinking ship."

Behind the curve

Statistics on women's representation in the industry are scarce, said Alice Wachol of professional services firm Deloitte. But the numbers available, such as the Catalyst data from last decade, show that women haven't progressed in automotive as fast as in business as a whole.

"The needle just wasn't moving," said Wachol, Deloitte principal and managing director for Michigan.

It seems clear that a different approach to recruiting, retaining and advancing women is needed in the auto industry, according to Deloitte, which surveyed the 100 leading women.

Auto companies just aren't trying very hard, Deloitte concluded. More than three-quarters of the survey respondents rated their companies' efforts to recruit women as average or below.

Prolonged downsizing is one reason auto companies have done a poor job of recruiting and retaining women — and younger people in general, Wachol said. Once auto companies hire women, challenging assignments and competitive pay are necessities to retain them. Work-life balance also is crucial.

Many are apt to leave in search of more flexibility between work and family demands. That flexibility is not yet part of the fabric of the automotive business, said Wachol, who worked at GM from the late 1970s through the late 1990s and now works with Deloitte's auto clients.

"What do the companies do in 10 years when the boomers retire?" she said. "All of a sudden they're going to hit a wall."

But opportunities are there. Many women on this year's list are hopeful more leadership roles will open up coming out of the hard times.

"On the retail side, the recession, coupled with the growth of technology, can definitely open more doors for women," said Susan Scarola, vice chairman at dealership group DCH. "Women tend to know how to multitask, and people who multitask successfully are wanted in today's business environment."

It's not just about improving women's prospects. Increasing female representation will help the entire industry.

"Women have a lot to contribute," said former Ford exec Stevens, who is now looking for a new CEO job. "I would really hope that maybe some of the women that have leaked from the pipeline get sucked back into the pipeline."

For what it's worth, for the right opportunity, she would go back. c

You can reach Amy Wilson at

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