Breaking Barriers to Women’s Success & Leadership in the Auto Industry

Posted on Posted in Women in Automotive

When you look around the auto industry, there’s a shortage. No not a shortage of equipment, there are certainly plenty of cars and trucks on the roads. There’s a shortage of women, in the dealerships, in auto shops, in the industry and in leadership.

The auto industry is a male dominated industry. Plan and simple. So let’s talk about that.

LeanInIn her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg discusses the external and internal barriers facing women overall in the workplace, poignantly addressing the topic of inequality as it relates to leadership. Sandberg takes us through personal experiences and hard data giving a fairly comprehensive overview of the challenges women face moving up the ranks in any industry.

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I found Sanberg’s book to be personally inspiring and I took it almost as a charge, particularly in the work that I’m doing with Car-Buy-Her, along with our vision and goals for bridging the gap as it relates to women and the automotive industry. I understand and believe that this is a conversation that has to be had, not exclusively to women and not exclusively to the automotive industry. The data and statistics show us there’s a large gap between women and leadership so it’s also a conversation that must continue.

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In Chapter 1 of her book, Sandberg explores the leadership ambition gap. When I think of leadership in the automotive industry, I have to go back to basics. Example 1 comes from a female sales consultant at a dealership who hasn’t been well received at her job. She is passionate about her new-found career and questions why her gender matters in her workplace. Example 2 is a similar scenario of an enthusiastic, smart, beyond competent woman working in auto repair whose accomplishments and leadership skills have been completely overlooked.

So I ask:

How do we explore leadership when there’s resistance on the ground floor? How do these women move forward in environments where they’re less than welcome and deemed less than capable? Shouldn’t they be supported, nurtured and mentored in the same way that a man might? What happens to these women?

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What happens, I imagine, is that at some point, if things don’t change, they become frustrated, potentially defeated and driven (pun intended) to leave. Part of the issue plaguing women and leadership in the automotive industry is breaking down the external barriers that exist for them in the workplace. In her book, Sandberg describes the chicken and the egg syndrome. In other words what comes first, women becoming leaders, thus closing these gaps or institutional barriers being removed so that women can become leaders. Hmmm . . .

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But Sandberg doesn’t leave it at that. She goes on to address the internal barriers that also plague women. The negative conversations, environments, and thoughts that women seemingly play over and over in their heads that can serve as road blocks for moving forward. Applause, applause, Ms. Sandberg, for addressing that one because that’s a difficult one to overcome.

Excerpt from Lean In “We hold ourselves back both big and small by lacking self confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives. The messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.”

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That’s a great paragraph and I’m sure it holds true. I want to say that our two examples can and will stick it out, that regardless of the pressure and lack of support that they don’t give up or give in, but there are no guarantees.

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At the same time that it seems we’ve stalled, we’re also making progress. Thus, I’ll stop here to congratulate (again) Mary Barra for becoming the first woman to lead a major automaker and GM for moving beyond gender. So we’re getting there. But the conversation of diversity still stands. It will be very challenging for women to rise into leadership positions if they’re not able to successfully facilitate going into the industry in the first place and maneuvering through all the resistance they often see when they get there. This is the place I believe we must start. Sandberg speaks of women sitting at the table, both figuratively and literally. So in my opinion women have to (1) aspire to work in the automotive industry and sit at those tables and (2) have opportunities to excel and shine within the industry.

How does that happen?

In order to break barriers to women’s success and leadership in the automotive industry we have to start from ground one, begin and continue these types of conversations, listen as women speak their truths and make room for them at the table.

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One of the ways we help women in the industry shine is by highlighting HER in our Women in Automotive Network.