Thoughts from the Podium: Women in Automotive Conference
Ever heard this one before? A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies immediately, and the child is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon takes one look at the patient and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” How is this possible?
I’m sure many of our readers already know the answer. The surgeon is—say it with me—the boy’s mother.
This familiar (and macabre) riddle was brought up during the 2018 Women in Automotive Conference, and it’s been on my mind since, because of what it says about our implicit biases. When imagining a surgeon, few people picture a woman in the role. Of course, this also assumes the boy has a father and a mother—what if the parents were a same-sex couple, or the doctor is a step-parent or adoptive parent?
The point is that we hold deep-seated beliefs about who belongs in which job, even if we don’t always realize it. And our internalized associations about gender, sexual orientation, race, and other characteristics don’t only influence how we view the world, but how we shape it. Think about it: if we didn’t regard a female surgeon as a bewildering idea, maybe we’d see more of them.
The same is true for women in the automotive industry. If we all stopped thinking of gender-based harassment, bias, and discrimination as inherent elements of dealership culture—of “business as usual”—we might feel more empowered to take action against them.
This was a major theme of the Women in Automotive Conference, all riddles aside. Held last month in Orlando, the fifth annual conference was an exciting and illuminating experience, full of workshops, presentations, interviews, and networking opportunities with auto industry leaders and luminaries.
In addition to attending the conference, I had the honor of speaking on an expert panel entitled “Hot Topics: How We Fit in and Where We Go from Here.” The panel was moderated Jody DeVere, CEO of AskPatty.com, and featured Julie Robertson (Chief Operating Officer of Hireology), Mary Beth Vander Schaaf (Managing Editor of Automotive News), Candice Crane (Chief Talent Officer of Walser Automotive), and myself. We discussed Automotive News’ Project XX report, and what our industry can do to better include and support female employees, customers, and future leaders.
Given our diverse backgrounds, it was an incredibly wide-ranging and thorough panel. We talked about the impact of discrimination from virtually every angle: from HR and legal considerations to negative publicity and dealership branding. Here are a few of the highlights:
Mary Beth Vander Schaaf walked us through the findings of Project XX, which surveyed nearly 900 women about their experiences in the auto business. We learned that the majority of women who have worked in the industry have been subjected to unwanted advances, excluded from important events, and asked to do lower-level tasks than their male co-workers. Many have also felt ignored or passed over by colleagues, supervisors, and customers, and have received criticism for being too “emotional,” “aggressive,” or “bossy.”
Julie Robertson spoke about discrimination as a hiring disadvantage. She told us to look at the talent pool right now: unemployment is down, and competition for skilled workers is tight. In order to attract and retain qualified employees—women and men—dealerships need to have effective onboarding programs, foster inclusive organizational cultures, and keep their Glassdoor ratings high. Patterns of harassment and other discriminatory behaviors hurt a dealer’s employment brand.
Candice Crane offered her perspective as a seasoned dealership HR professional. She shared a story about experiencing harassment firsthand—in fact, all of us on the panel have been affected by it at some point in our lives—emphasizing that discrimination is not something theoretical, but a series of ongoing, everyday problems for hundreds of thousands of dealership employees. Candace described how these issues can cause a person to shut down or stop being present at work, ultimately stymying careers and causing women to drop out of the workforce early.
Moderator Jody DeVere was candid and upfront. Acknowledging that the status quo needs to change, she made it clear that the goal of our panel was to provide actionable business tactics—not to drive attendees to grab our pitchforks and storm the streets. Indeed, given their people-centric nature, dealerships are in a unique position to turn their anti-harassment initiatives into business differentiators. Consider what your organization can gain by taking a stand against discrimination. In the auto industry, original equipment manufacturers control dealers’ products, branding, regional messaging—everything from floor tiles to stationary design. As a dealer, the only aspects of your business you can control are your employees and your customer base. By fighting discrimination, raising awareness of bias, and making it easy for employees to report harassment, you can enhance the experiences of your employees and customers and benefit from the innovative ideas new people bring in when they feel happy, safe, and included.
As the attorney on the panel, I talked about what discrimination and harassment mean from a legal perspective. This was another opportunity to provide actionable business advice. I’ve worked with plenty of people who—how should I put this?—get weird when the topic of harassment comes up. But regardless of whether you want to talk about it, it’s happening, and a dealer facing a legal claim can expect to spend between $75,000 and $250,000 on defense costs. Keep in mind that we’re assuming you win the case; that’s what you can expect to pay just in terms of litigation costs and legal expenses, whether you win or lose. Financial damages in the event the plaintiff succeeds can climb much higher. So, if you can think of a better way to spend a couple hundred grand, we need to talk—because that certainly doesn’t feel like winning.
I’ve also heard from numerous dealers and vendors who tell me they don’t want harassment at their workplaces, so they just try not to hire women. This approach not only hurts organizations in terms of diversity—it communicates to employees that leadership doesn’t want to (or know how to) actually address discrimination. Moreover, these dealers are sending the same message to their customer bases. Keep in mind that women comprise at least 50% of auto purchasers—and are involved in 85% of purchasing decisions. No dealer can afford to ignore these consumers, minimize their concerns, or fail to reflect them in the workforce.
All of which is to say the topic of women in automotive can’t be an afterthought. Rather than addressing the issue only when a claim arises, dealerships should be thinking about our current moment as an opportunity to implement zero-tolerance policies around harassment and other forms of discrimination. That doesn’t mean “one infraction and you’re fired.” It means…
- taking action any time misconduct occurs—whether experienced, reported, or witnessed;
- sticking to fair anti-retaliation policies (i.e. making sure victims aren’t punished);
- properly training all employees—not only managers, as there may be times when the manager is the one reported;
- providing safe avenues and alternative intake mechanisms for reporting misconduct;
- affirmatively implementing programs that mitigate discrimination risk and change the tone at the top, middle, and bottom.
Finally, to address these issues, dealerships need to be aware of and bring attention to negative behaviors. Acknowledging bias is the first step—and an immensely important step—of enhancing all employees’ and customers’ experiences at your dealership.
Now, I’m not saying these issues are equally present or prevalent at all dealerships. Most of us have realized that harassment, and discrimination in general, is a serious problem. What matters is how dealerships act on the problem. It’s more than simply not encouraging harassment. As a dealer, you need to take a position against it and show your employees you’re on their side. Otherwise, you stand to lose your workforce—particularly those inclusion-driven, tech-savvy millennials—to a competitor down the road.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. I’ve heard dealers justify their lack of an anti-discrimination initiative by saying, “I don’t want to give my people a reason to complain.” Here’s the thing: just as owners, executives, and managers are growing more aware of discrimination, so are the rest of your employees. Your workers have the power to assert their rights, regardless of when or how they learn of those rights. They’re entitled to protection, whether they know it from your handbook, the news, or a plaintiff’s attorney’s billboard. Are you setting yourself up as your employees’ advocate or opponent?
Remember: when it comes to discrimination, if you refuse to take a position, you’ll end up in the position of defendant.