Manufacturers and retail groups are striving to attract and retain female employees, but 'it's still a boys' club'
Yet women represented 48 percent of overall employment in U.S. private industry in 2013, the last year for which numbers are available.
The percentages of senior executives and mid- and entry-level managers who are women at automakers and suppliers also have been stagnant.
Why the dearth of female talent in the car business, an industry that can offer lucrative salaries and glamorous careers? Why haven't things changed in the auto world?
Many female executives say the problem remains one of perception -- the notion that the auto industry is simply not female friendly.
And it's a Catch-22. There are simply too few female role models to attract and mentor women.
But increasingly, manufacturers, suppliers and retail groups are taking bold steps to recruit and retain women. They are putting forth more visible female role models and educating women at a younger age about career opportunities. Many companies have provided structured mentoring and training for talented women.
"You can't put unprepared women into roles they aren't ready for," said Francoise Colpron, group president for North America for the French supplier Valeo. "That does not help the cause. We still have to open up the boys' club because it's still a boys' club."
Colpron set about changing things at Valeo in 2012, after global CEO Jacques Aschenbroich spoke out that year at the supplier's annual leaders' meeting in Paris.
Aschenbroich opened the session by noting that Valeo had 300 leaders from around the world in the room. But while 40 percent of them were not French -- reflecting the supplier's cultural diversity -- only 7 percent were women.
He challenged executives to find ways to attract more female leaders. Colpron's response was to launch a networking group called Valeo Women Connected.
"The idea is, country by country, to organize events to promote and develop women," she said. "The members have the opportunity to meet role models inside and outside the organization."
The group hosts four events a year in Paris, most recently in August. The events feature female speakers from Valeo's automaker customers, Valeo board members, authors and inspirational speakers.
Through Women Connected, Valeo also seeks to identify talented young women in the company and to provide mentoring and training.
In 2012, Valeo launched a diversity board that set recruitment targets that match the number of graduates in a field. For example, if 20 percent of all engineering graduates in North America are women, Valeo would decree that 20 percent of its newly hired engineers must be women.
The efforts appear to be paying off. Of Valeo's top 300 executives, now 11 percent are women.
"If we really want to walk the walk, we have to say we want more women and mean it," Colpron said.
In 2012, Lear Corp. launched a female employee support group called Growth Resources and Opportunities for Women, or GROW. In the fall of 2013 the group began sponsoring a speaker series, starting with Mary Barra just six weeks before she was named the CEO of GM.
Men are invited to GROW events, too.
"It's just as important that men see these speakers as women," said Jeneanne Hanley, vice president for global trim and craftsmanship at the supplier.
In June, 125 GM employees from around the world attended the first GM Global Women's Leadership Summit in Detroit. The discussion centered on ways to elevate GM as a "premier destination for women and to continually build an inclusive" culture, said Marina Shoemaker, director of global diversity for GM.
GM now has 18 women's councils around the world that provide networking and developmental support to salaried female workers, and to help find and nurture talent.
In the U.S., the council -- known as GM W.O.M.E.N (women offering mentoring, expertise and networking) -- has about 2,300 members, Shoemaker said.
And the company is investing in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education to encourage women to pursue careers in those fields. The GM Foundation grants Buick Achiever Scholarships to graduating high school students and college undergraduates. This year, 56 percent of the scholarships went to female students, Shoemaker said.
Felicia Fields, Ford's group vice president for human resources and corporate services, says the company aggressively recruits women and minorities on college campuses, and provides mentoring and scholarships for girls as early as middle school age.
To retain female talent, Ford in the late 1980s set up the Professional Women's Network, a global group with chapters organized by region and by specific disciplines, such as finance and information technology.
Ford also participates in programs such as Menttium, an external mentorship program that Fields says provides "a safe environment to talk about what's going on inside of Ford."
Just less than half of Ally Financial's 6,900 employees are women. To help the company retain them, a Women's Leadership Network was established in 2011.
The group conducts regional forums at which women discuss business issues and have opportunities to build alliances with other women. At an event this year in Jacksonville, Fla., for example, more than 400 women from the area met to review Ally's product development and strategy. The event concluded with a question-and-answer session offering career advice.
The Women's Leadership Network also encourages Ally's female managers to actively search for talent.
"We have really tapped our high-potential females and leveraged them to be our recruiters," said Kathleen Patterson, senior vice president of human resources. "They support us to identify talent in the marketplace. And women hear that Ally's a great place to work with flexible working schedules and women friendly, mother friendly."
"This industry can pay a very decent wage. If my perception was that the industry was welcoming, why would I not look at that?" Scarola says. "It's not about the hours. There are many other industries with odd hours. We tell ourselves there are barriers, but that's just excuses for not acting."
In some dealerships, Scarola says, managers still permit hostile work environments.
"As a woman I wouldn't want to put myself in an environment where the boys being boys is tolerated," she says. "At least if I'm going to work odd hours, I'll do it at Neiman Marcus, where I know it's a well-run, ethical and professional environment."
At the Faulkner Organization, a large dealership group in central and southeast Pennsylvania, 24 percent of the 1,450 full- and part-time employees are women. But only 4 percent of them are managers, says Dina Perreault, head of human resources.
Perreault says the company, which owns 23 dealerships with 16 brands, is working to change that. She says two full-time recruiters are focused intently on hiring female managers.
Four years ago, the company began promoting women from accounting jobs to finance and insurance and Internet sales positions. Two years ago, Faulkner started paying for female body shop receptionists to complete training to become licensed estimators.
"We're trying to figure out if we have good and talented people, where can we deploy them to work someplace else [in the company] that helps them grow," Perreault says. "We're starting to look at our entire work force differently."
Such efforts are essential.
"We're growing at such a rapid pace," she says, "we'd be losing an enormous talent pool if we don't start to move people into creative roles."
Nick Bunkley contributed to this report.