By Jamie L. LaReau Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Women represent about 27 percent of people working in automotive professions despite the fact that women make or influence 85 percent of all car purchases. That sobering statistic is just one aspect of questionable behavior and attitudes that persist toward women in the car industry.
Despite the female rallying cries of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the male-dominated auto business remains plagued by inappropriate to illegal behavior against women in the workplace, experts said.
In fact, women compose barely more than a quarter of all auto industry employees, and data show that's not growing.
Those in the industry tell of being ogled, business outings by male colleagues to strip joints or more subtle issues, such as desk locations at dealerships that make sales less likely.
The lingering troubles were highlighted this month when an arbitrator ruled that auto supplier Visteon had reason to fire its former CEO Timothy Leuliette for downloading pornography and soliciting prostitutes on his work computer.
While behavior such as Leuliette's is "not really sexual harassment," said Jody DeVere, CEO of Askpatty.com, it begs the question, "Can you imagine what his leadership is doing to the company culture?" Askpatty.com offers women car-buying advice and trains and certifies dealers on effective communication with women.
The bad behavior in the industry happens from the factory floor to the executive suites at auto manufacturing companies, suppliers and dealerships, experts said. It often is more subtle than it was two decades ago because of increased training meant to ward off sexual harassment and discrimination.
Still, it happens, and in many cases men and women are complicit in "a wink-wink, nod-nod" culture that endures, said DeVere.
"It can start off with him calling you honey or baby and sending you unwanted emails," said DeVere. "The real troublesome ones I hear about is when it is the boss doing it. When I get the call, it's usually escalated to something terrible."
Uneven progress The advancement of female employees has not improved much either in the automotive industry over the past decade, said Scotty Reiss, founder of agirlsguidetocars.com, a website that coaches women on car ownership issues.
"The biggest changes are at the top level of bigger companies," Reiss said. "But in the smaller companies, change has been very slow" to open jobs to women as well as promote a professional and inclusive culture.
On the flip side, General Motors and Toyota are examples of companies that have made strides in hiring women in nontraditional female jobs such as engineering, Reiss said.
Most notably, in 2014 General Motors tapped Mary Barra as its chairman and CEO, making her the first, and so far only, woman to run an automaker. Then, earlier this month, GM named Dhivya Suryadevara, 39, to succeed retiring CFO Chuck Stevens, 58. She will become CFO effective Sept. 1.
In its sustainability report, GM said: "General Motors invests in leader skills development through its Women in Action Initiative, which attracted more than 6,700 employee participants. And 32 percent of top leadership positions at General Motors are held by women."
But women still struggle to break into other traditional male jobs.
"For years, you wouldn't consider having a female service technician (at a dealership), but many women are going to school to learn it, yet can't get a job," said DeVere. "They're told they wouldn't fit in. That's a cultural problem."
Some instances are more overt.
Last December, Ford apologized to its employees for sexual harassment at two Chicago plants. Ford's apology came after a New York Times article cited interviews with more than 70 current and former workers who detailed sexual harassment incidents and retaliation at Chicago Assembly and Chicago Stamping.
27 percent of workers Women represent about 27 percent of people working in automotive professions despite the fact that women make or influence 85 percent of all car purchases, Reiss said. And the number of women joining the auto industry workforce rose just 1 percent from five years ago, added DeVere.
"Women don't feel comfortable on the (employment) side of the business," said Reiss. "It's not always a great culture for women."
At car dealerships, there tends to be "a fraternity house environment or a locker room environment," Reiss said. That sports team mentality is "not how women operate."
"I hear horror stories," Reiss said. "The most common thing I hear is that a boss will have an expectation for sales or work performance from a woman and then it's made very hard for them to achieve it."
For example, at a dealership a woman might be required to hit a sales target each month. But she is given a desk near the back of the showroom where she cannot see arriving customers, Reiss said. "But the No. 1 sales guy has a desk right near the front door," Reiss said. "Often, women feel the game is set against them."
Inclusive conversations Another disadvantage women face is exclusion from business conversations men have at events to which women are not typically invited, such as golfing _ or going to a strip club. To level the playing field, women must push for those meetings to be in a location where everyone can participate.
"It's up to us as women to have that conversation so that we're included in everything," said Reiss. The car industry also seems to permit behavior that is not seen in other industries, said DeVere.
Case in point, this past March DeVere said she attended the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Las Vegas. She was dressed professionally, yet she said as she walked through the convention show floor, "Men were checking me out from head to toe. I don't have that experience any place else. It was quite disturbing, yet we are part of the culture where that's OK."
It's OK because people in the industry allow it, she said, including executives.
"There are two equally responsible parties: The head leads the body," said DeVere. "The heads of organizations must take very seriously the type of culture they permit. With ongoing training and good discourse on how to behave and what they expect, each individual employee is responsible then."
The onus is on men and women to call out bad behavior, said Susan Scarola, retired CEO of car dealership group DCH Auto Group.
Years ago, Scarola had to do just that after meeting with the CFO of a Chicago dealership she was looking to acquire for DCH. The CFO, who was a man, behaved extremely "inappropriately" with her, she said. When she returned to her office, she told her bosses, "Someone else will have to deal with him, I will never go back there again," Scarola said.
Scarola said she was fortunate that this CFO was the only "idiot" she had to deal with in her career. She credits DCH leadership for that saying they were highly respectful of both women _ and the law, therefore the company enforced zero tolerance of sexual harassment or discrimination.
"They were concerned about risk management," said Scarola. "We were protecting our bottom line too, because we were protecting what we worked hard to earn."
Not at work Which makes Leuliette's behavior so troubling and shocking in today's world, said Andrea Karsian, CEO of Wholesale Auto Supply Co., in South Hackensack, N.J.
"In the automotive industry, I thought that was cleaned up a long time ago from those sordid stories we'd hear in the past," said Karsian. "If you have a great job, at a well-respected company, why would you do something so stupid?"
Leuliette didn't exactly suffer terribly. He was seeking more than $61 million in severance, but his payout was set at $16.7 million after arbitration.
Behavior similar to that of Leuliette does not surprise some women.