Ranks of women in the European auto sector are growing, but top female execs say the industry must do more
"It is still a male-dominated industry," said Ford of Europe COO Barb Samard-zich. "That being said, we've seen some areas where women are making good headway, such as at PSA Peugeot Citroen, GM and here at Ford."
Mary Barra's rise to CEO at General Motors, Linda Jackson's promotion to CEO of France's Citroen brand and Ford's decision to make Samardzich its No. 2 executive in Europe are considered big steps in the right direction for women in the automotive industry.
So was Daimler's decision in 2010 to make Annette Winkler the head of its Smart small-car unit and its selection one year later of Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt as the first female board of management member, heading integrity and legal affairs. She will move to Volks-wagen Group as board member for integrity and legal affairs on Jan. 1.
Sue Slaughter, a longtime Ford executive who this year became COO at the Getrag Ford Transmissions joint venture in Cologne, Germany, summed up the positive changes for female auto executives: "There are no barriers now."
She added that when she started her career, the ratio of men to women in her first posting was 60-to-1. "That would be unheard of now," Slaughter said.
|> Maria Helena AntolinAGE: 48
COMPANY: Grupo Antolin
TITLE: Vice Chairman
BASED: Burgos, Spain
STARTED JOB: Feb. 12, 2015
> Linda CashAGE: 53
COMPANY: Ford of Europe
TITLE: Vice President of Manufacturing
BASED: Cologne, Germany
STARTS JOB: Jan. 1, 2016
|> Linda JacksonAGE: 56
STARTED JOB: June 1, 2014
One surprise to her has been the widely different ratio of women working in the car business in markets outside Europe. For example, Russia is "the most male-dominated market I've been to," Jackson said, while China is the opposite.
She estimates that half of all sales managers in the 12 or so dealerships she's visited in China, Citroen's biggest single market, have been women, a larger share than she sees in Europe.
She thinks that one possible reason why China's car business is far less male-driven is because its history isn't rooted in the male-driven world of racing as is the case in Europe and the U.S. "There's none of that baggage for it to be created as something that is purely macho," she said.
The struggle continues, however.
Inci said that in Turkey women still have difficultly reaching the top levels in business, but she sees positive signs. For example, she noted that Mercedes-Benz this year named Britta Seeger to lead its truck and bus business in Turkey. Another example is the changing face of Turkey's automotive suppliers association, where Inci is a board member. Among the organization's 343 members are 36 women, including 16 who are CEO, general manager or a board member of the company she represents. Inci said that number was much lower a decade ago.
Women from her generation, those born in the 1960s, were not encouraged to become engineers, Antolin said.
"Today I am the only woman on the company's steering committee. That, however, will change when it comes time to promote people to board positions in the future because today more than 30 percent of the directors in the company are women," Antolin said. Those women are in executive positions where they manage and lead others, she said. "There will be a lot more women to choose from for top-level positions in the future," Antolin predicted.
Smart's Winkler agrees. "The number of women in the automotive industry is increasing steadily, and it is already very visible at the junior management level," Winkler wrote in an email. "It just takes some time for these women to move up to executive positions, but the development is on its way and you can already observe a significant change. Seeing female leaders succeed will make even more girls and women interested in this industry."
She is personally involved in getting more young women interested in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. Take Ford's involvement in the U.K. government's Your Life initiative, which aims to expose young people, especially young women, to science and technology subjects in a fun way.
In June Samardzich hosted a so-called open-door day for local schoolgirls at Ford's Dunton Technical Centre in Essex, England. Ford gave them a behind-the-scenes look at the top-secret work being done at the center and followed that with networking sessions to inform them about career opportunities.
In 2014 Ford held a "bring your daughter to work" event to showcase female engineers within its product development and manufacturing divisions. A key part of the program was letting the young participants run experiments at the company for the day. Ford is the only automaker in the program; among other corporations that participate are Nestle, Shell and Johnson & Johnson.
Slaughter of Getrag Ford sees another way to lure young people. "The industry as a whole needs to do a better job advertising the breadth of the jobs and opportunities that are available," Slaughter said. "There is still the stereotype that this industry is dirty and greasy, and we don't play up the diversity and the fact that you get to touch and feel the product."
Smart's Winkler added that, like other global businesses, automakers and suppliers need to offer more flexible working models and then encourage both men and women to make use of them.
Added Inci: "I believe in a balance, one that encourages men and women to work together."
Nick Gibbs contributed to this report.