When it was announced at the end of 2013 that Mary Barra would be the next CEO of General Motors, it was big news. Not only would she be the first female CEO of GM, she would also be the first female CEO of any major global automaker. It is commendable that Barra has worked her way to the top, but it’s also surprising that it’s taken so long for a woman to do so in the auto industry. While women have made major strides in the workplace over the past several years, the entire automotive industry appears to still be changing far more slowly than many other industries.
As of 2013, barely one quarter of all jobs in the United States’ auto industry were held by women. If you don’t count office and clerical work, the only part of the auto industry that mostly employs women, the percentage drops even lower. At all levels of management, women make up less than 20% of the workforce.
Those numbers are exceptionally low when you consider that women buy more than half of all cars and have a significant influence on 85% of car-buying decisions. You would think that automakers would be more interested in recruiting women to work for their companies and help them build cars that truly appeal to women.
Volvo at least tried to do something like that in 2002 when it launched a program that put a team of women in charge of designing a concept car that was finally shown in 2004 as the YCC concept. The goal of the program was not necessarily to build a pink Barbie-mobile that would stereotypically be what women were expected to want but was instead a study of what it was that women truly wanted in a vehicle so the company could apply that those lessons to production cars.
While the number of women employed in the auto industry may only be improving slowly, it’s not all bad news. In 2010, when Automotive News last compiled its list of the 100 most influential women in the North American auto industry, it found that most women felt welcome in the workplace and not discriminated against.
“When I talk to younger women today, the response I usually get is ‘No way,'” said Mary Sipes, then a GM product executive, in reference to workplace discrimination. “It makes me so happy. How glad I am they can’t relate because the world has changed so much.”
Even car dealerships have become more friendly towards women. Speaking of her experience managing a dealership, Mindy Holman said, “I had an irate customer that called and would not believe me when I told him that I was the general manager of Holman Hyundai. He insisted I must be the secretary and finally hung up. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often anymore.”
Perhaps the biggest sign that the situation is improving for women in the auto industry is that exterior design project leader for the upcoming Acura NSX is a woman named Michelle Christensen. A graduate of the prestigious Art Center College of Design, Christensen is the first woman to lead a design team for a production supercar. If women can design Ferrari-fighting supercars now, is there anything they can’t do?
If internal attitudes toward women are changing for the better, and women who work in the industry generally feel accepted, then what’s keeping more women from taking car jobs? Part of the issue appears to be that there’s an image problem.
When Deloitte surveyed the 100 women on Automotive News’ list, 56% of them said their companies don’t have an active recruitment program that targets women. While two organizations, the Automotive Women’s Alliance Foundation and the Women’s Automotive Association International, are working to encourage women to join the industry, one woman Deloitte interviewed said that engineering itself needs its image improved.
Sarah Sillars, chief executive of the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies in the U.K. agreed. “We have got an image problem, and I don’t think the industry has done enough to educate teachers, parents and careers advisers about opportunities and what it’s like to work in the motor trade. There are lots of companies that go into schools in their localities, but we need to do that on a broader scale.”
If anything is going to choke out the growing number of women working in the auto industry, it’s going to be the recent alliance between it and the tech industry. The future of the vast majority of features on cars relies on improving software, not hardware, and that means automakers are looking to Silicon Valley for help.
Unfortunately, the tech industry is notoriously unwelcoming to women. In fact, since 1985, the percentage of undergraduate women receiving computer science degrees has dropped from 37% to only 18%. Increasing the number of women who decide to major in computer science won’t be easy, either.
One of the biggest challenges is that unless they seek out programming lessons on their own, most students aren’t exposed to coding before they get to college, which means the vast majority of women never even consider computer science as a possibility in the first place. Once students reach the university level, introductory classes are often not very accessible, and there isn’t much of a support network in place to encourage women to pursue computer science past the introductory level.
The tech industry isn’t completely devoid of women, though. A number of them have worked their way into quite influential positions. Both Hewlett-Packard and IBM have female CEOs (Meg Whitman and Ginni Rometty, respectfully), and Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. Other notable women in tech include CEO of YouTube Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer, and CFO of Oracle Safra Catz. Succeeding in tech is clearly not impossible for women, but it’s not without its challenges even for the most determined women.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with women and even men pursuing careers outside of engineering and computer science, but if the way these subjects are taught and who is encouraged to pursue them doesn’t change, we’re going to see the gains women have made in the auto industry start to slip away. It might take 25 years to see significant the impact is, but marrying two largely male-dominated industries has the potential to turn back the clock and create an environment where the women who currently feel welcome and part of the team quickly begin feeling like outsiders.