Woman in Automotive

Women at the Wheel: Advancing Female Opportunities in Motive Careers

The automotive industry was once—and in some places, struggles to remain–a distinctly old-boys club. But women are outside rapping on the door and the knocks are growing louder. 

By Carter Hammett
Automotive Careers for Women

If you’re to ask automotive industry pundit Jody DeVere what she thinks the biggest problem with advancing women in the field is, expect a blunt answer.

“One of my theories is that automotive is one of the last places where a man can be a man,” she says. “He’s holding on for dear life to that one,” she chuckles, matter-of-factly.

DeVere, is CEO of AskPatty.com, which offers a “Certified Female-Friendly” program that includes marketing and advertising programs that resonate with women. She’s a speaker, trainer, automotive writer and marketing expert. 

“Many men tend to define themselves by their profession,” she observes. “Automotive is a very manly atmosphere.” 

Indeed, research by Catalyst.org indicated that on a global level and as recently as 2018, only 8% of women were executives in the top 20 motor vehicles and parts companies in the Fortune Global 500. One half of the top 20 companies in the automotive industry had a grand total of zero women on their executive teams.  Across Europe, female representation in the automotive industry averages out to 16.4% of the total workforce.

Our neighbours to the south in the United States report stats not much better. Women make up half the labour force, but only represent about 25% of the automotive workforce. In 2017, women held 26% of jobs in the motor vehicles and vehicle equipment manufacturing industries. 

When broken down by cultural representation, the figures are even more alarming. In 2017, women of colour composed of blacks (6.4%), Latinas (2.7%) and Asians (1.8%) constituted only a fraction of the labour force. 

Women in Canada don’t fare much better, with our stats, comparable to those of the US. In 2016, women accounted for 19.9% of the workforce in motor vehicle manufacturing and about 13.7% in automotive repair and maintenance. 

In the trucking industry, stats are similarly grim says Ellen Voie of Women In Trucking (WIT). 

“In the United States, according to our most recent WIT Index female drivers comprise 7.89 percent and female executives make up 23.75 percent.  However, our 2019 figures should be out soon, and they’ re trending up.  In Canada, you are still under three percent for drivers according to Trucking HR Canada,” she says

Jo-Anne Phillips, COO of several New Brunswick-based ventures, including  Jeramand Trucking Ltd.,  Never Enuf Chrome & Detailing Ltd, Jeramand Barns & Garages and Tozai Synergy offers similar figures. 

She reports that women are only represented in about 11% of all management positions. Other figures are even less encouraging: 25% in safety, 18% in dispatch and 13% as parts technicians. When it comes to mechanics, technicians and cargo handlers, the figure drops to a dismal three per cent.

And yet, and yet. Women have never been more educated, had better incomes and influence across a number of industries. In North America alone Catalyst.org notes the shifting demographics that people need to brace for. Between now and 2060, the number of people over 65 is expected to double. About 44% of all Millennials—born between 1981 and 1997—are people of colour. 

Women earn more degrees than men. For the class of 2016-2017, women earned more than half of all baccalaureate degrees at 57.3%, master’s degrees (59.4%) and doctorates (53.3%).

Furthermore, women make up half the labour force although their participation continues to decline. Some estimate that women are more likely than men to lose their jobs due to automation (although it’s also worth noting that automation may create new complex tasks which may in fact open doors for more women, especially as more women continue to advance in Artificial Intelligence and STEM careers.

The need for women in the automotive and trucking industries is real. The need is clear. So why are these two industries lagging behind others when it comes to increasing representation by women? What can be done to attract more women to the field, across multiple occupational platforms and promote their advancement within the sector? 

Key Issues

While some companies are recognizing the need to hire, train and advance women in the trucking and automotive industries, and others have implemented programs aimed at achieving those goals, change is slow. Furthermore, women have identified several issues, around pay equity, gender parity, health and safety and other areas of concern as being barriers to achieving success in the industry.

“Women still only make 78 cents on the dollar of what men are paid,” says DeVere. “Some women may think, why should I go for a career in automotive if I feel I can’t advance? This applies especially to the younger generation. If there’s no career path and leadership roles, that’s not attractive to an ambitious person that we hope to attract to our industry.” 

The trucking industry faces similar issues, says Jo-Anne Phillips. 

“There are barriers in any industry – attitude and a solution minded approach can usually overcome most of these issues.  We do need to address the washroom/shower facility concern at some truck stops and of course more female mentors (as most fleets will not send an un related – male/female in the same unit for training/mentoring on overnight trips) are needed.  “

It’s a sentiment echoed by Ellen Voie: “The biggest barrier is the trucking industry’s image.  Women don’t picture themselves in a truck or in the industry because they aren’t exposed to successful women who enjoy a great career in trucking,” she says. 

That image is reflected in the fact that women report higher rates of sexism and sexual harassment in the automotive field. Catalyst.org reported that of all women surveyed, a whopping 65% had to fend off sexual advances. The same number reported being tasked with lower-level assignments compared to their male counterparts. Another 25% reported constantly feeling unsafe at work. 

“All people can make an impact,” says DeVere. “When you’re told ‘you gotta have a tough skin’ or ‘be a special kind of person’ to succeed in the automotive business, you’re sending the wrong kind of message. That’s going to cut out a lot of women. All work should be based on skill and performance.” 

The Auto Aftermarket Speaks

Women at The Wheel

The Canadian auto aftermarket is a $19 billion a year business employing over 400,000 people. However, in 2016 only 6.4% of all people employed in the trades were women. 

An excellent 2016 report, Advancing Women in Automotive Knowledge Exchange (AWAKE) Needs Assessment, produced by the Automotive Industries Association of Canada, (https://www.aiacanada.com/files/2015/04/AWAKE_2016Report.pdf ) states that The Conference Board of Canada predicts that one million skilled workers will be needed by 2020. 

The report states in part: “Although many jobs will go unfilled due to the lack of skilled workers, women remain significantly underrepresented in multiple sectors, including the automotive aftermarket. The sector’s economic prosperity depends on increasing the number of female employees. Diversity in the workforce has a demonstrated impact on a company’s bottom line. Numerous studies show that employing women increases productivity and other performance measures and promoting inclusive working environments increases industry profits.

“Workplace culture has a significant impact on women’s employment experiences and their willingness to seek opportunities in the industry. Companies must be engaged in the discussion of the roles women can and should play in the automotive aftermarket. Raising awareness and beginning the conversation are the first steps to challenging perceptions, changing the image and addressing the sector’s labour needs,“ the report states.

The AWAKE report identified, a significant proportion (43%) of respondents to the industry survey indicated that their companies had trouble recruiting employees, with 25% reporting specific challenges attracting women. Respondents who did report challenges listed the following reasons:

  • New generation work ethic
  • Difficult career move for women
  • Type of business
  • Lack of available/qualified candidates/applicants
  • Lack of awareness of job opportunities

“You need a plan. It can’t be two months, it has to be long-term,” says DeVere. “You need action items that can be carried out. It just doesn’t happen because you have the desire. 

DeVere points out that some employers do hire women but complain when they don’t stay. “Do they (employers) ever ask women why they left? That way employers can get their feedback. It’s not easy what we’re proposing here,” she acknowledges. “Companies are sharing information so others can duplicate success.”

Facing The Future

Women in Automotive

For the industry to thrive at all levels, it’s clearly become a matter of “when” not “if” women come on board. Industry and technological advances are making inroads that are having a positive impact on women drivers. Voie notes that “the use of technology is making the job of a professional driver much safer.  From anti-collision to lane departure to cameras, and technology to make it less physically demanding, it gives women the opportunity to enter an industry that was traditionally male dominated.  We also work with truck manufacturers on truck cab design and ergonomics so women can feel as comfortable in the cab of a truck as their male counterparts.”

Furthermore, some companies are taking the leap forward and choosing to diversify their boards and incorporate women into their strategic and succession planning models. And little by little, women are making solid contributions.  The CBT Automotive Network earlier this year noted that the BMW Z4, Volvo YYC, Renault Scenic, Ford Probe, and Nissan 350Z were all designed either by a female-led team, a female team or by a woman.

In terms of leadership roles, Fiat is currently leading the pack with 27% of their directors and 38% of their executives being women. General Motors ranks second in terms of progressive hiring with 50% female directors and 11% female executives. Other automakers, such as Toyota and Nissan fair among the poorest for incorporating female leadership with Toyota having no female directors or executives and Nissan having no female directors and 2% female executives.

So what can employers do to bring more women on board? 

In the trucking domain, Ellen Voie suggests, “First, have women visible in leadership roles, then, set targets for hiring and track how many women apply and how many are hired.  Look at the words and images used in the recruiting ads and determine the best places to recruit potential drivers and leaders.” 

Jo-Anne Phillips builds on that: “Present ourselves in forums where females might be inquiring, public recognition of successes of females within the organization, advertising using photos of both males and females, generating mentor programs for both sexes, providing uniform choices that are comfortable and feminine, considering the ergonomic differences; size, weight, shape when setting up seats, bunks, and tools to do the job – I.e small/medium work gloves.., offer and support participation in Women In Trucking, and Salutes to Women Behind the Wheel.  Support and endorse participation in the Women in Trucking Facebook page and other social media forums.” 

But recruitment isn’t just a corporate issue. Encouraging girls to consider automotive and trucking careers begins with the parents, and they need to be alerted to the fact that the motive sector can be highly profitable, says DeVere. 

“We’re working with junior high school students…that’s the age where they’re starting to think about their careers,” she says. “Hyundai does a great job at reaching out and inviting junior high students to an annual career event where they get to spend the day designing a car and learning about the industry. They’re doing lots of work to reach out to that demographic.”

Indeed, DeVere’s organizations do much to promote women in automotive careers, including widely distributed advertising promoting motive as a career option while depicting women in ways they want to be portrayed. Scholarships and internships are other methods of banking on the future. 

“’If you bought it a trucker brought it.  We will not likely see a plane, train, or boat pull up to our local Walmart or grocery store any time soon – trucking is an incredible industry that we rely on as consumers, more than most realize; in less than 24 hours water and fuel will run out for most communities if transport trucks stopped running in North America.  The industry is in constant growth and flux and I am incredibly excited for the great impact of the increasing female influence, “ enthuses Phillips.

It all sounds exciting but the recruitment road remains long and the horizon distant.

“I think that some companies are very committed to diversity but as a whole I don’t think we’re doing a great job,” says DeVere. “We’ve got a long way to go towards having an inclusive industry. Some companies are working very hard but nobody will say we’re there yet,” she says. “So where do you start? Find one woman in the industry. Coach her. Motivate her. Mentor her. Connect her. One woman at a time.” 


Additional resources for women in Automotive:

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