Fleming: Women Breaking Through Auto Industry’s Glass Ceiling


What automotive career opportunities are ahead for women? How have dealerships and automakers fared when it comes to female representation in the workface?

Auto Remarketing guest contributor and 2013 Women in Remarketing honoree Anne Fleming tackles these issues and more in this column below.

The Glass Ceiling – A Historical Context

No industry personifies the glass ceiling better than the automotive industry. When experts talk about the glass ceiling, they are referring to the unseen, un-breakable barrier that keeps women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements. 

It is often used to describe invisible barriers ("glass") through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them ("ceiling").  These barriers prevent women from getting the more influential, prestigious, and higher-grossing jobs in the workforce.  

Automakers and auto dealerships are among the slowest of U.S. businesses to appreciate the value of women as employees, managers and executive decision makers.  

This is an industry predominantly owned and operated by men.  Dealerships are family businesses passed down from father to son. Today, it is estimated that 96 percent of all dealerships are male-owned.

Although car dealers now are trying to minimize the gender gap, many are at a loss as to how to attract more female employees. Many women have never considered working at an auto dealership because they assume that dealerships don't hire women.

Even if they did, their fear of working there would be prohibitive.

The Four Employment Fears Women Have of Working At A Dealership:

1.    I’m afraid of being harassed in a male-dominated environment.
2.    I’m afraid of being ridiculed for my assumed inadequacy.
3.    I’m fearful of my work life/family life balance and how that will impact the perceptions of my male counterparts.
4.    I am alone here.  I have no role models and no one to mentor me.

Fortunately, these fears and others are diminishing as the industry, forward-thinking dealership groups, and economic and market dynamics are impacting the number of opportunities now available to women.

Slowly Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling (Manufacturing)

In 2010, Automotive News published its list and took an in-depth look at the industry’s most powerful and accomplished women.  For comparison purposes, we looked at their listing from 2005 and made these observations:

Top Leading Women:

  • Of the top 100 women in 2005, nine were owners, presidents or CEOs.  In 2010, that number increased to 13.
  • In 2005, a total of 29 women held executive positions (chief financial officer, chief operating officer, executive vice president, vice president, executive director) with top companies supporting the automobile industry.  That number increased to 33 in 2010.
  • Only four women owned one of the top dealerships in the country in 2005.  In 2010, there were 15 of them.

Automakers are increasing the number of female executives because it's good social policy and good business to do it.

And, more importantly, the women are deserving of these posts. They are also experimenting with policies that will help employees (male and female) to balance the demands of work and family.  

The percentage of women currently holding jobs in the “Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicles Equipment Manufacturing Industry” is now 24.2 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of female engineers has doubled in the past 20 years.  That same kind of growth is being seen in design.  In a recent article published by research company Catalyst, it was reported:

  • Women make up 20 percent of GM’s design staff.
  • Women are approximately 30 percent of the global design staff at BMW.

Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling (Dealerships)

In 2012, CNW Research reported that women held 19.7 percent of all jobs at the dealership and that the percentage of women-owned dealerships was only 2.8 percent.  Though the number of dealerships owned by women is small, it’s on the increase, but at a very slow pace.  

Women who own dealerships tend to do well, and several manufacturers report that franchises owned by women are at or near the top in overall sales volume.

Forward-thinking dealers came to realize that women employees were detail-oriented and often took the extra step for the customer. They saw certain management qualities in their women employees and it was just good business to start promoting them through the ranks.  Dealers also came to realize that a lot of their women customers were much more comfortable doing business with a women.  

According to a 2010 study by CNW, 47.3 percent of women would rather deal with women in the car showroom than men.  Many dealers also cited a correlation between higher sales and the high number of female managers at their dealerships and have found that the closing ratio for female sales reps is higher, as are their customer satisfaction scores.  

After all, customers want to “see themselves” represented in the sales and service personnel.

But the showroom is only one of many places for women to work at the dealership.  Though more women are selling cars on the floor and issuing car loan quotes in the finance department, opportunities in the service and parts departments abound as well.  

Parts and service jobs require a great personality – and, great listeners. The ability to generate repeat business depends on how the employee gets along with the customer.

The technical part of the job can be taught, but good customer service is a real art. Women with strong people skills have a lot of opportunities in these areas, earning the same wages as their male counterparts.  These areas are great places to train for future advancement.

Jobs for Women at The Dealership – the New Frontier

Below is a list of relatively “new” job titles and positions women now hold at dealerships across the country.  Dealers looking to recruit and hire more women can use this list if positions like these don’t currently exist at your dealership.

•    Business development manager
•    Social media strategist
•    Public relations director
•    Internet/e-commerce manager
•    Digital marketing manager

With superior product knowledge and a strong work ethic, these women are fast becoming a dealer asset in content engagement, setting appointments, qualifying customers and closing deals.  

Emerging Automotive Careers for Women

Automotive manufacturers and auto dealerships know the importance and value women sales reps and sales managers bring to the car buying experience.  In the last several years, women have excelled in the field of automotive sales and have become high level executives in the manufacturing sector and at the dealership.  

Interestingly enough, a number of these women executives began their careers in the auto industry by working as technicians in the service department.  Many of these women are making known the struggles they faced and are helping to pave the way for other women to excel.

Smart automakers and dealers are making sure women are well-represented in their marketing departments.  Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., gives four reasons why this is a good idea:

1.    Marketing is more people-oriented and less quantitative than other segments of the industry.
2.    Women, generally, are better than men at “fostering teamwork and forming good personal relationships”.
3.    Women possess an innate ability to deal with relationships and people.
4.    Women have the capability to empower people and promote collaboration.

Editor’s Note: Anne Fleming is president and car-buying advocate at Women-Drivers.com, and a guest contributor for Auto Remarketing. She is also among the 13 industry leaders we recognized the April 15-30 print and digital issues as the 2013 Women in Remarketing. Congratulations to Fleming and all our honorees!

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