Car retail businesses looking to set up a women’s network to improve gender equality must ensure men are involved too, Cox Automotive’s chief people officer Alison Fisher has said.
Fisher founded the Women with Drive network, which celebrates the work of women in the automotive industry in the UK, four years ago and is now involved in developing an inclusive workplace across all of Cox Automotive’s international markets.
She also sits on the judging panel of the Barbara Cox Award, which recognises an inspirational female leader in the automotive industry.
Fisher spoke to AM about her experience of setting up Women with Drive and what it takes to win the Barbara Cox Award.
AM: As chief people officer for Europe at Cox Automotive, you've reached a senior position within the automotive industry but what do you think holds other women back from getting into those senior leadership positions?
Alison Fisher: For me it's about having that belief and confidence in yourself.
I always had a dream to be chief people officer or HR director but I actually never thought I would get there.
But I had an amazing boss at a previous organisation who actually challenged my beliefs about myself, around ‘well, I'm working mum’ or ‘I'm a single parent’ and all the reasons why I didn't think I could be a chief people officer or HR director - those delimiting beliefs that unless you have a great manager or mentor to challenge those, it does hold us back.
I think also we don't have enough role models within the industry itself, particularly of women at the most senior levels. We have some, which is great, but I'd like to see more at more levels across the whole industry.
AM: Do you think the change in working practices that companies have had to adopt with Covid-19 is going to have an impact on women's careers for the better?
AF: I think there's a huge opportunity for women in terms of that whole flexible working piece.
Like a lot of people, I've been working remotely since March, and I thought I'd really struggle with that but I've actually really enjoyed it.
I think it has given women the opportunity to think about ‘if I'm not required to be on the road five days a week, maybe I could do this’.
I think we've got to make sure that the appropriate support is there so they're not taking on the burden of home schooling or the childcare.
But I hope it's given senior leaders across organisations that view that we can trust people to do the right thing, we can trust people to work remotely because we've proved that that's possible, and I think for women, that's a huge benefit.
AM: You set up the Women with Drive Network in the UK, any lessons learned from that?
AF: The number one lesson I learned was to make the change you want to see you need to have the male voices.
You need to have men listening to women sharing their experiences, and you need to have the male sponsors in the room.
Make sure that it isn't seen as an initiative that's just for girls, it's for anybody who has a real passion or desire to want to bring change from a gender equality perspective. So be inclusive, not exclusive.
Secondly, building on that, is that sponsorship piece, which is why we've now handed over the sponsorship of Women with Drive to Liam Quegan, my colleague, who is managing director of Manheim and NextGear Capital.
That's important for a number of reasons, particularly because Liam was a huge advocate and supporter of Women with Drive but more so than that was around him being able to be another voice round that board table, another influential person to drive the changes rather than it just being ‘Alison, chief people officer, you're a woman, you lead this’. It's brought a different dynamic and a different view or perspective and I'm really excited to see what Liam is doing with Women with Drive.
AM: What initiatives have Cox Automotive introduced to improve diversity and inclusion internationally?
AF: Last year we signed up to Inclusive Employers which is about how you create a much more inclusive workplace, not just about gender, it's around all the protected characteristics.
Beyond that, it's about how do you enable people to be their true self? Because if you are your true self at work, you're likely to enjoy being at work, you're going to give the best of you.
And unfortunately so many people adapt or modify their behaviour just to fit in.
So as part of that we celebrated National Inclusion Week across Europe.
We encouraged our team to talk about what makes them ‘them,’ what makes them special and share some of those things.
We encouraged our team members to talk about how they feel included and we asked our leaders to really think about how are you including your team members and bringing out the best in them?
So we had a whole week of activities, people sharing their stories and that's just really the start of the conversation for us around how we build a truly inclusive workplace.
We've done that across Europe and we will take that across the whole of our international business in 2021.
I'm also doing work with our colleagues in Canada where we are promoting our Black Employee Network on the back of Black Lives Matter and some of that high profile action that we've seen.
We started to talk about ‘let's get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’. So some of the conversations that previously people have just shied away from for fear of saying the wrong thing, we don't.
We want everybody be respectful as part of those conversations but we need to have those conversations. We need to be open. We all need to learn.
I've been on a real journey myself with this, really learning about inclusion.
And it’s my ambition, and desire, to want to make an inclusive workplace across the whole of our international markets, which is really exciting.
AF: First and foremost, it was around leadership, in terms of taking their team with them. Inspiring, motivating their team to be the very best, that real human connection with their team so when we read their submissions you really got a great flavour for them as individuals.
And it was the warmth that was written about them as leaders. It wasn't the textbook answers.
Both of them had tried new things out and been prepared to take some risks along the way, and, largely, those risks have paid off. But, again, being really innovative within their space.
And then something that's particularly close to my heart, and why the Barbara Cox Award is so special, is about giving something back. So whilst being extremely busy ladies within their professional lives, not losing sight of the importance of giving something back to wider society.
AM: What would you say to encourage people to nominate women for the Barbara Cox Award for 2021?
AF: If you think there's a woman out there who deserves to have the light shone on her, deserves that recognition, then please, please nominate. It has such a huge impact.
I know when I've talked to previous ladies who've been nominated, or indeed shortlisted, the positive impact it's had on them.
It has really given them that confidence and that belief that we all need at times.