Dealers are failing to meet the needs of half the car-buying population, their workforce is unrepresentative of their customer base and, as a result, they are failing to meet their full financial potential.
So believes Julia Muir, who has spent her working life in the automotive industry and is working to redress the gender balance in automotive retail.
Muir, who started out at Perrys Motor Sales and spent 11 years at Ford, is the founder of The UK Automotive 30% Club. She describes the club as a “group of progressive, forward-thinking” dealer group and manufacturer bosses, who aspire to filling 30% of key leadership positions with talented women by 2030 – or ‘30 by 30’.
The goal is to create a pipeline of female talent, providing skills relevant to the digitised automotive industry, from entry level to potential chief executives.
The club held its first meeting on March 14 and founder members include dealer groups Vertu Motors, Lookers, Group 1 Automotive, TrustFord, Vantage Motor Group and manufacturers Toyota, Mazda, Kia and Bentley. The Institute of the Motor Industry is also a member.
The club is open to all automotive companies that commit to achieving ’30 by 30’.
Muir said she began to understand the problems created by gender imbalance while working at Ford as a brand manager in the early 2000s. While Ford itself worked hard to ensure diversity, there was a lack of understanding in the market about the female customer – or how to attract women to work in the sector.
“I feel strongly that there isn’t such a thing as the female market. Women are half the population, differentiated only by one pair of chromosomes,” Muir said.
“But it has become very easy – and common – to say ‘we don’t employ many women’ therefore we don’t understand the female market.”
She also believes women are under-represented in the automotive workforce because of tired clichés: “The industry doesn’t attract women to see the reality. It isn’t people covered in oil with spanners or in a sheepskin coat on a used car lot.”
Muir’s teaching at Loughborough University’s Centre for Automotive Management, on providing great customer experience, highlighted the role authentic leadership and employee engagement plays in creating a comfortable working environment, which in turn means customers feel comfortable visiting the business.
“When customers go to a dealership, they enter an inherently different environment. It’s a combination of different businesses in one place, different practices and cultures pulled together, most markedly the showroom and workshop,” Muir said.
Gender imbalance can add to this, she said. “Research shows people are happier in a working environment where there is a gender balance. It reflects life outside – the world in general.”
Entering an environment, such as a dealership, where this is obviously not the case can lead to negative reactions from female customers in particular, who find it intimidating.
“If we can improve the gender balance, we will not only achieve a happier, more productive working environment, the industry can present a better face to customers,” said Muir.
The impact of the digital revolution
Another factor makes the issue more crucial – the digital revolution.
“Women buyers are finding the digitisation of the search and selection process in buying a car very appealing. They can do huge amounts of research before they enter a dealership. We’ve known for a long time, since my days at Ford, that women will do the research in the car buying process. And doing it online means it can be done more easily to suit their lifestyle.”
The negative aspect of this though, is that it means women can avoid intimidating, male-dominated, dealerships.
“So a woman, armed with the previously impossible level of knowledge and buying power, still at the point of visiting a dealership, takes along a man, a brother, a friend, a partner,” Muir said.
“The user friendly and informative focus manufacturers and dealers have imbued in their online offering, has to flow through to the physical experience of the dealership.”
Four stepping stones to ’30 by 30’
Muir said a company’s culture is established from the top, so senior managers have to lead any change. She is establishing a HR directors’ forum that will become the driving force for the 30 by 30 initiative. Business heads will re-group once a year at a dinner and conference.
The 30% Club members identified the general manager as the ‘key leadership’ position that would give female employees the operational experience required to progress further up the career ladder. However, to achieve a 30% mix in this position, there have to be enough female managers to recruit from.
Muir identified four stages to achieving this.
Stage one: ‘Reach out’
To generate awareness of women’s role in the automotive industry, the 30% Club will reach out to schools, colleges, universities and other networks of young people. It will also be part of the Education and Employers Task Force’s ‘Inspiring Women’ programme, led by lawyer Miriam González-Durántez. This sees businesswomen offering an hour of their time to talk in schools and demonstrate the role women have in industry.
Muir’s club will run a programme of events called ‘Inspiring Women in Automotive’. This will encourage women in the automotive industry to give up one hour to talk in schools in the locality of their dealerships to “erode the stereotypes around the lack of females in the sector”, such as that the only route into it is via an apprenticeship.
The 30% Club is also in partnership with the charity Speakers for Schools, established by ITV Political Editor Robert Peston, to get high-profile people to share their experiences with children. Automotive 30% Club founder members have also agreed to take part. Work experience opportunities at their businesses will then be posted on the site getmyfirstjob.co.uk.
“Simply wanting to reach out to kids who already are interested in cars or want to be a mechanic is not the answer,” Muir said. “You’ve got them hooked already. We need to talk to kids who are thinking about being doctors or accountants to convince them of the opportunities in automotive and, by doing so, draw from a much deeper pool of talent.”
Stage two: ‘Welcome in’
This looks at whether the recruitment process itself may be excluding women and examines how thinking about the wording of job ads could have an impact.
Muir explained that men would apply for a job if they could meet only 60% of the requirements.
However, she said: “Research shows women will only apply if they meet all of them.”
There is also the issue of unconscious bias, such as where a male general manager may look at a CV from a woman and judge her as less suitable than a man with identical achievements. Muir said one, unnamed, dealer group had started ‘blind’ recruitment – where applicants’ names are removed – and far more women than previously are being selected for interview.
Stage three: ‘Pull through’
This focuses on the need to help women along the ‘talent pipeline’, convincing them of their potential to progress.
“The problem is linked to cultural norms that women shouldn’t be go-getting and ambitious, but caring and nurturing,” said Muir.
“To overcome this, senior management have to reach down and pull women up – ‘You should apply for this job. I think you are capable’. It also means not letting the talent leave the business through neglect.”
Stage four: ‘Hold on’
“In the automotive industry, people seem to be expected to work 18 hours a day and to be visible – at your desk, in the workplace – the whole time. If you can’t do that, because you have children, you’re given a non-operational role, in a career slow lane,” said Muir.
“But in other industries you can be trusted to work all hours, but not always at your desk.”
She said Apple employs part-time workers because it reflects society more: “They have a more rounded life, they have other interests and in doing so meet a wider range of people – just like their customer base.”
She counters the suggestion that staff costs go up when employing more people part-time.
“You pay each individual less, so the overall wage won’t go up. In fact, it can be lower than employing full-time workers, but you’re still covering all the hours needed.”
Muir said the rise of digital technology companies has created a new challenge for the automotive industry.
“Younger people are gravitating towards digital companies where there is a better understanding of work-life balance. It’s one of the reasons our sector is struggling to find people.”
What’s next for the 30% Club?
Muir acknowledged that not all businesses will survive – they will change or die, she said.
“Technology is allowing our work tools to change, which is changing customer behaviour and expectations. Our shopping experience is much more carefully designed to be from a customer’s point of view, not the retailer’s. Those that can best fit the new environment will survive.”
The founding members of The UK Automotive 30% Club realise this, Muir emphasised.
“Everyone in the club knows the importance of achieving a more realistic gender mix. It leads to better decisions, more profitability, better customer experience and employee engagement.”
Why 30%? A number of studies have shown this level of diversity of any kind in a workplace can make a positive difference to a business’s performance. However, Muir said it is just a starting point.
“The founding members are fully aware of the problem. They have all agreed the target and the timeframe and the feeling is, let’s stop moaning and do something about it.”
‘Women are disenfranchised by the automotive industry’
Women are “unequivocally disenfranchised from the automotive industry”, according to a recent study by an automotive research and innovation company.
Different Spin researched 48,345 UK women – aged 18-64 and with average earnings of at least £32,001 – with a mixture of one-to-one and “deep dive” interviews and research panels. It published its findings in February in a report called ‘Mad Maxine: does automotive fail women?’ Key points included:
■ 90% of female consumers surveyed would not visit a car dealership without a male partner, male family member or male friend.
■ 56% said they felt patronised by car advertising.
■ 34% believe no car brand understands women.
Kate Cooper, global strategy partner at Different Spin, said: “In today’s connected world, consumer experience is your brand. Your brand is defined, not by a marketing team or agency, but by how people experience it.
“Our study shows unequivocally what we think the industry has known instinctively for some time – women are disenfranchised by the automotive industry.
“The picture is a nuanced one. There are elements of the experience that delight and dismay the female consumer in equal measure.
“Marketing, dealership and service experiences are disproportionately exasperating and are driving a wedge between women and automotive as a whole.”
Cooper said the industry is ripe for disruption and suggested it may take a “bold new entrant from Silicon Valley” to create a delightful experience for every female car buyer.
“It is time to stop iterating and start innovating. It is time for a consumer experience revolution in automotive,” Cooper said.
Download the report at different-spin.com/women.
Vertu: ‘It’s not about quotas’
Ensuring a gender balance means doing as much as possible to guarantee the business is as “efficient and effective as possible” believes Robert Forrester, the chief executive of AM100 group Vertu Motors.
An analysis of the number of women in certain roles at Vertu revealed a striking disparity compared with the numbers of men (50% of his accounts team are female, but only 13%
of sales executives), Forrester acknowledged. Six months ago, just 10% of its sales executives were women, so the trend is in the right direction.
However, Forrester said he is not interested in “social engineering or quotas” as much as he believes that a better balance of talented women to men is going to be beneficial as the business begins to more accurately reflect its customer base, and society. In December, Forrester told AM that 85% of car sales were influenced by female customers.
Vertu has been actively trying to tackle its gender balance for two years and is now working with Loughborough University to bring women into aftersales positions immediately after graduating. One has already been appointed as service manager.
Working patterns are being examined to ensure an appropriate work-life balance and Vertu formed a working party last year to identify blockages to career advancement.
Why a representative workforce is good for business
Employing a workforce representative of your customers delivers a variety of viewpoints and greater levels of experience, which improves decision-making and problem-solving.
This is the conclusion of a Financial Times report in May 2014 on various studies into workplace diversity.
Quoting research by the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation, the article said when teams had one or more members who represented a target end-user, “the entire team was as much as 158% more likely to understand that end-user and innovate accordingly”.
The FT cites an 80% improvement in business performance among companies with high diversity levels.
The FT also mentioned a 2012 report from Deloitte based on the experiences of 1,550 employees in three Australian businesses. It found an “80% improvement in business performance when levels of diversity and inclusion were high”.
According to consultancy McKinsey, companies with the most women on their boards of directors significantly and consistently outperform those with no female representation – by 41% in terms of return on equity and by 56% in terms of operating results.
However, last year McKinsey found that women were unrepresented in the corporate ‘pipeline’: 45% in entry-level professional positions, but 17% in the most senior roles.