Leadership opportunities returning for women in the auto industry
The progress of women in the auto industry in the last five years is undeniable. After the Great Recession and massive cost-cutting reduced leadership roles for women in the industry in 2010, those opportunities have rebounded in 2015.
A comparison of the 2015 and 2010 Automotive News lists of 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry confirms that the status of women in the industry has improved since 2010. There are six CEOs among automakers and suppliers on the list this year, up from two in 2010 -- the last time the list was compiled. Another three on the current list are CEOs of automaker or supplier units. None fit that description in 2010.
Among the 2015 honorees, 73 have executive officer titles or are owners of their companies. That's up from 63.
One company with an executive on the list -- rental car giant Enterprise Holdings -- is largely run by women. It has a female CEO, Pam Nicholson. Next in line is also a woman, Nicholson said. Six of the 13 directors on Enterprise's board are women.
"As the industry has been coming out of the crisis, there have been many more opportunities available, and many of them have been filled by women," said Chris Barman, vice president of engineering at FCA US. "There are more roles of responsibility, at higher levels, for women, and I think it will continue to improve even more in the coming years."
And the knockout punch: Mary Barra is now CEO of General Motors.
Some companies are putting more female-friendly policies into place. Such policies had fallen by the wayside during the recession at many companies just trying to survive.
The working environment has become much more professional since many of the Leading Women started in the industry. They don't see pinup pictures attached to toolboxes or along the assembly line anymore. They see more women in core leadership and ancillary roles, ranging from engineers to designers to lawyers.
But while the executives on the list largely said the status of women in the industry has improved, the degree of improvement differs depending on whom you ask.
Women have more opportunities, said Kim Brink, COO of Team Detroit/Blue Hive. "But I still think the auto industry is woefully behind other industries."
In other words, there's more work to do. The move by women up the corporate ladder to leadership roles still happens slowly, many women said.
And the pace is tough.
"It's a very unforgiving industry," said Karen Folger, vice president of original equipment services sales for North America at Bosch Automotive Service Solutions. "The hours are long, the pressure is high, the competition is fierce, and usually, you're still worried about: Are the kids going to get picked up from soccer practice? Who's going to make dinner? And what do I do about my mom who needs her therapy?"
Consequently, said Grace Lieblein, vice president of global quality at GM, sometimes women "de-select themselves, and that's an issue." It means that companies have to do a better job of developing women in the pipeline by putting them in key "stretch" assignments, she said.
Companies can also stem those "de-selections" by establishing deliberate career development strategies for women, said Leah Curry, vice president of manufacturing for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana.
"A lot of times, women don't see themselves as capable of moving to the next level," Curry said. "It sometimes only takes one person to say, 'I see you as a leader at the next level.' It brings more confidence."
But the auto industry still must change more to battle the call of other industries.
"How do we make ourselves attractive so women want to work here, and how do we get them to stay?" asked Sandra Bouckley, vice president of manufacturing engineering at GKN Driveline Americas.
"Is the pipeline enough to maintain the small progress that has been made?" said Alavanou, executive vice president for General Motors and Fiat Chrysler business units at Yazaki North America. "To me, that is the biggest concern. You see the survivors who have gotten through, and now finally they're being recognized and appointed to key jobs, and it's a good thing to see. But I'm not sure we have enough in the pipeline to maintain that growth or take it to the next level."
"We have a gap not just with women, but we also have an age gap. We don't have a lot of people who started their career in the '08-'09 time frame and have continued their development," Fream said. "If you look at the talent, we have shortfalls across the board. Call it the five-to-seven-year experience level or a 30-something year old -- that's a tough hire right now."
There is still that "little bit of a gap" in talent the industry needs to work on, said Kim Brycz, executive director of global product purchasing at GM. "But I see huge improvements since I first joined General Motors 30 years ago," she said. "It's crazy different."
Another woman at GM, Sheri Hickok, chief engineer on GM's next-generation full-size truck program, said she found it disturbing to read that the representation of women in technology fields has decreased.
"We need to take a much more active role," Hickok said. "We need to be in the press, making commitments, like some other industries have done. We need to look at wage discrimination, too. It should be active recruiting."
"They're in serious consideration for every role," Barnard said. "My sense is there is certainly a lot more effort [in the industry] around it. I just don't know how it's driven statistics. If we don't have really good measurement, we don't know if we're making progress."
But Wendi Gentry-Stuenkel, director of supply chain management commercial operations for FCA US, said some basic observations can be made.
"It still comes down to the math, and it's still not anywhere close to 50/50," Gentry-Stuenkel said. "But that's going to take some time, and it's going to take attracting and retaining a lot more women in this industry to really see dramatic statistical differences."
Less than 4 years 4-12 years 13-20 years 21-25 years More than 25 yearsSource: 100 Leading Women survey
Despite concerns, many women didn't want to lose sight of the progress.
Kristen Tabar, vice president of the technical administration planning office at Toyota Technical Center Inc., noted that five years ago, the discussion around women in the auto industry was centered on work-life balance. But the industry is recognizing that matters for all employees, not just women.
With nontraditional companies such as Google and Apple getting involved, the blurring of the auto industry with telecommunications and electronics also holds potential, said Kathy Winter, vice president of software and services and automated driving for Delphi Automotive.
"That brings access to more and more women from other industries, who are moving into the auto industry and finding it a nice fit or an expansion on their current roles," Winter said.
The pace of technology change and the growth that will come from it is powerful. "There haven't been opportunities like this ever," said MaryAnn Wright, group vice president of engineering and product development, power solutions for Johnson Controls.
One major change from 2010 illustrates that optimism. Back then, 25 percent of the 100 Leading Women answering a survey by professional services firm Deloitte said they would not recommend, or would even discourage, their daughters from pursuing a career in the industry. Another 55 percent said they would encourage it only with caveats. In that same survey this year, which included the Leading Women and nominees who didn't make the list, 16 percent said they would discourage daughters from the industry, while 40 percent said they would endorse it with caveats.
"I probably said no" in 2010, said Kimberly Pittel, vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering at Ford Motor Co. She was on the list in 2010 and is back again this year.
But her answer has changed; she'd now give the industry a resounding recommendation.
"I feel completely differently about it today," Pittel said. "These are incredibly exciting times in terms of autonomy and technology. We're a different industry today than we were five years ago."