In March 2020, COVID-19 upended the automotive industry in ways no one could have imagined. Even so, the industry adapted quickly, finding ways to safely reopen manufacturing plants and create systems for everyone else to collaborate and remain productive.
But the industry has been less successful at mitigating the stress as the pandemic dragged on, especially for women. It has not been for want of trying — as documented in our book, The Road Forward, women leaders and their companies sprang quickly into action in March 2020 with plans to quickly transition to at-home work.
But not everything can be changed quickly or without unintended consequences. As we've talked with women throughout the industry, we're hearing from more women on the brink. Even very senior women who can afford help describe the stress as "unbearable." Many are considering job changes and have followed through.
The trends since the pandemic hit are well documented: Women — especially Black and Hispanic women — have lost their jobs or left the work force in numbers that far exceed men. This exodus has extra implications for automotive because of the underrepresentation of women in the industry.
As the Brookings Institution put it last fall: "COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up."
In automotive, tensions include those that affect women everywhere — having to assume the majority of household and child care duties and virtual school responsibilities, for example — but also dissatisfaction with the industry's diversity efforts and uncertainty on whether some of the flexibility that working from home provides will be retained when "working from work" resumes. Single parents are especially at risk without a support net in society or business. This was a problem before and ramped up amid the pandemic.
According to the 2020 Women at the Wheel survey conducted by Automotive News and Deloitte, over the past five years, there has been a steep decline in the number of women who say they have seen positive changes in the automotive industry's attitude toward female professionals — 39 percent in 2020 compared with 64 percent in 2015. Thirty-five percent thought attitudes have worsened compared with 15 percent in 2015. This is a shocking statistic given the perception that automotive companies have become more diverse and supportive.
This mismatch is real and needs attention. Nine out of 10 women believed an industry bias toward men contributes to a lack of diversity, and this is happening at a time when we have a huge talent gap and need to attract diverse mindsets amid the mobility disruption.
Were these responses amplified by the pandemic? Perhaps, but the trend has been constant since 2015. In 2019, women continued to make up only about a quarter of total automotive employment and less than 1 in 5 executive/senior level and manager positions.
Given all of this, what is the imperative for leadership? Here are some suggestions.
- Lead diversity from the top. Be the example you want all staff members to emulate. Be inclusive and watch for your exclusive biases.
- Communicate with and listen to team members. Many companies are surveying employees to learn their work flexibility preferences. If your company isn't doing this — or soliciting broad input in other ways — please consider it.
- Learn how to create, foster and lead a diverse workplace. Increasing diversity does not, by itself, increase effectiveness, but harnessing diversity and reshaping the power structure does. That means involving women and other diverse groups in crafting solutions.
- Take a hard look at your flexibility policies and challenge conventional assumptions about what's essential. In addition to planning hybrid work-from-home/in-office as-needed work arrangements, some manufacturers have created innovative short-term leave programs that go beyond what's required under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Ultimately, business priorities must be met, but accommodating flexibility when feasible builds loyalty with women and men, who both value work-life balance.
- Be vigilant. It's easy to backslide on workplace culture and devalue those who aren't in the office. It's our job as leaders to notice when this happens and stop it.
The balance won't always be perfect. The industry's demands are real, and sometimes "less awful" will be enough for the short term. But if automotive leaders are serious about leveraging the entire talent pool, they need to pay attention to women and other diverse groups because they're not hearing enough of those voices now.