"If it was a more diverse workplace, you'd be able to attract more women," said Celeste Briggs, director of General Motors' Women's Retail Network in Detroit. "It's male-dominated. That's the perception and that's the reality. You have to get critical mass. You can't just hire one at a time. That's not a plan to diversify your work force."
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.