Despite challenges, women are taking control in the auto industry

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Silvana Gulla works six days a week at Alfa Romeo Fiat of Larchmont in Westchester County, where she is a managing partner. “It takes a lot out of you, but we keep doing it,” she says.

Determination is in Gulla’s blood. Her parents emigrated from southern Italy to New York, where her mother took a job as a seamstress in the Garment District and her father, after starting out as a mechanic, later founded the auto dealership where his daughter now works.

“My first job was when I was 5, mopping the showroom floor for 25 cents,” Gulla says.

Today, she runs that dealership, which under her tutelage has garnered a number of accolades and customer-satisfaction awards.

She’s not alone in crashing the glass ceiling.

When Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors in 2014, many heralded it as a breakthrough for women in the automotive industry. Never before had a major car company been led by a female executive, and Barra went on to become one of the world’s top-paid auto chiefs.

Since then, more women have appeared in high-profile automotive jobs, including Laura Schwab, president of Aston Martin of the Americas, and Joy Falotico, head of Lincoln Motor Company. Falotico says that focusing on the tasks at hand — and not gender —has been one of her keys to success.

“As long as I paid attention to moving the business forward and didn’t pay attention to the dynamics in the room, I always felt like I was going to be more successful,” she says.

But in this business, women are still the minority.

“When I go to a dealer meeting, I am usually the only female owner-partner,” Gulla says. “It’s still a boys’ club.”

While it’s difficult to find data on how many women work in the automotive industry as a whole, most car manufacturers publish an annual “Diversity and Inclusion” report, which includes the percentage of women employed by that company. Typically, women still comprise only about a quarter of automakers’ workforces.

But potential job seekers shouldn’t let the numbers get them down, as many companies are looking to add more women to their rosters. At Gulla’s dealership, women make up about 40 percent of the staff.

“I’d love to find more women,” she says. “They’re relatable, and when customers come in, their trust is earned faster.”

In the world of car design, women are particularly scarce. Traditionally, they were limited to positions in “color and trim,” the automotive equivalent of picking out curtains and wallpaper.

But many are breaking out of those roles and moving on to interior and exterior design.

Tisha Johnson, the senior director of design at Volvo Cars, has contributed to the brand’s elegant new design language and has helped change the way vehicles are envisioned.

“Women tend to reject designs that were made by men ‘for women,’ ” Johnson says. “Our job is to care for the space inside the car; it’s where you’re focused on caring for the family.”

Helen Emsley is the executive design director for General Motors’ Buick and GMC brands. She has several women on her team, including in interior- and exterior-design projects.

“Sometimes women think differently from what the guys think, and when you put them together, it’s a win-win for everyone,” Emsley says.

That’s not to say serious challenges still don’t exist for women in the workplace. In 2017, Automotive News launched “Project XX,” a survey of women from across the industry. An overwhelming number of female respondents said they still faced sexual harassment and unequal treatment in their jobs.

One year later, a follow-up survey found that 73 percent of respondents said sexism in the workplace was being discussed more often, but only 50 percent said people seemed more willing to work on those issues.

Automotive News managing editor Mary Beth Vander Schaaf, who helped conduct the survey, has been following the progress of women in the industry for more than 20 years. And although she describes her findings as “frustrating and even sad,” she believes that more female leaders will help cultivate change.

“Companies seem to have caught on that they should put deserving women in key operating roles to prepare them for the top jobs. Someday I won’t be doing that [women in automotive] project anymore because powerful female executives in this industry will be the norm.”

Coincidentally, another woman who helped spearhead that study, Sharon Silke Carty, just departed Automotive News to become editor-in-chief of Car and Driver, whose pages have oozed masculinity since the magazine’s inception in 1955. As younger generations are eschewing cars for ridesharing, Carty is looking for ways to engage new audiences to stay relevant.

“By making sure you explain things clearly and not using insider tones, I’m hoping that will open up a wider group of readers,” Carty says. “Not just women, but other demographics, too.”

Meanwhile, female executives agree that being tenacious and gleaning as much as you can about the business will carve a path to success.

“Learn as much as you can about each department,” Gulla says. “Surround yourself — or hire people — who are energetic, positive, ethical and hard-working. Value your reputation.”

And most importantly: “Ignore the naysayers.”

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