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Jacqueline Thompson, right, an area manager at the GM Canada Oshawa Assembly Plant in Oshawa, Ont., says the company is working to dispel the idea that manufacturing isn’t a good career fit for women.Cooper Films Inc.

Since the start of the pandemic, Canadian women have left the work force in droves, largely due to being the primary caregivers at home. The numbers are stark: According to an RBC report, as of January, 2021, roughly half a million women who left the work force during the pandemic have not gone back.

So how do we recover and make space for women? A push for pay transparency has been one tactic, as well as new policies that enable greater work-life balance. It’s an unlikely industry, however, that has been one of the first to make a bigger, louder change.

In January, General Motors Co. announced that its Oshawa, Ont., assembly plant would be reopening after closing in 2019 due to restructuring. The move created jobs for 1,800 people and the company announced it would make half of its new production hires women, with the intent to build a work force that more accurately reflects the world we live in.

This comes after GM announced plans to invest up to $1.3-billion into the plant in November, 2020, and bring manufacturing back to Oshawa.

It’s a significant change in a male-dominated industry. A 2020 analysis by the Future of Canadian Automotive Labourforce (FOCAL) Initiative revealed that women make up only 23 per cent of the auto assembly work force. Also, a 2020 Deloitte survey found that 45 per cent of the women in the industry said they would move to a different industry if they were to start their careers today, largely due to a lack of diversity.

“This shouldn’t be the case,” says Scott Bell, GM Canada president and managing director. “We’re challenging auto industry norms and setting the example for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. We do hope this is influential because General Motors wants to make our world a better place for everyone.”

A new approach to hiring

According to Mr. Bell, the process was simple: The GM team took diversity and inclusion into account during every step of the hiring process. They used images of their diverse employees on social media to attract new hires and updated skills assessment tests to remove unconscious gender bias. This revitalized approach spoke directly to women who had left the work force entirely or were not feeling motivated to stay, noting advantages such as job security, consistent work schedules and a focus on workplace safety.

The result was an influx of applicants who had never worked in manufacturing before, who had lost work due to the pandemic or who were struggling to juggle family responsibilities.

Mr. Bell says the impact on the work force has been considerable. Because GM has been open about their equity goals, employees are seeing the way their company values diversity, leading to an uptick in morale and motivation.

“With a new, diverse work force that includes more women in production roles, the impact of an inclusive culture is noticeable as soon as you step inside the plant,” he says. “When we create a culture where we value each other’s differences, we see great results, not only in motivating and retaining talent, but also in business performance and becoming more innovative.”

Jacqueline Thompson leads more than 800 employees in the largest department at GM’s Oshawa plant.Cooper Films Inc.

While women may not have seen many leaders who looked like them in the past, that is changing. Take Jacqueline Thompson, who began working for GM 21 years ago during a leave of absence as a high school English teacher. Today, she is the first female general assembly area manager at the Oshawa plant, leading more than 800 employees on two shifts in the largest department at the plant.

“If you’re willing to work hard, there are a lot of opportunities in this industry,” she says. “I’ve worked in HR, labour relations, communications. I’ve had a chance to travel to other plants in North America. It’s been an extremely rewarding career for me personally. I never looked back.”

The question remains whether this shift in the identity and culture at GM will trickle down through the automotive industry as a whole.

“Traditionally, some women may not feel that a career within manufacturing would be a good fit,” Ms. Thompson says. “But I think we’ve done a lot to dispel that, and you can see the success in our new work force being almost 50 per cent female. We’re building something new.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I have a question that I suspect many women have. How should we be negotiating the terms of our work when returning from a leave (such as maternity leave)? I am returning to work in a few months and there was a reorganization while I was away. My job title and role have changed and I’ll be reporting to a new manager. I have outlined areas of my contract I’d like to review (like hours of work, location, pay) but how do I actually negotiate? I don’t think I’m alone in struggling to apply what I’ve heard or read about negotiations.

We asked Kathryn Meisner, Toronto-based career and salary negotiation coach, to field this one:

Sometimes people feel like they’ve done something wrong by being on maternity leave. I think women get that message from society and it’s often reinforced by employers.

One of the first questions I would ask you is: ‘Have you been disadvantaged or negatively impacted by these changes in the organization?’ While it is legal for employers to make changes while someone is on parental leave, they need to ensure that there are no negative consequences for the employee. For example, demotions while on mat leave, an unwanted transfer or not being considered for promotions while on leave is discrimination and may warrant a consultation with an employment lawyer. I like to draw people’s attention to that right away, because it shifts the tone from a mother begging for scraps to advocating for your rights.

Before proceeding with a negotiation with your employer, get more information to really understand the role. Ask for a job description. Ask how your performance will be measured. What team, or teams, will you be working with? Also, look at how the role fits within the context of the organization. Is it more revenue-generating than your previous role? Is it more public-facing? Look for data points that can give you an advantage or rationale when asking for more compensation.

You will also need to ask yourself, ‘What is most important to me?’ Get really clear on your priorities and list your top 10 criteria. There may be multiple rounds of negotiations, and so being clear about your priorities can help you prepare for potential counter-offers.

If you can, find out who else has worked with this manager and who has negotiated successfully with them. What have they said yes to before? What’s the manager’s presentation style: do they prefer a slide deck for a proposal or just a casual conversation?

When you are in that meeting, you may want to subtly indicate that you know your rights. You can reference your province or territory’s human rights law by saying something like: ‘My understanding of my rights is that if a role changes while someone is on maternity leave, the employer needs to get input from that person.’ Remember, this conversation is not just a little, annoying conversation – it is legally required.

When negotiating, start with your ideal ask. There’s a real opportunity to help shape your new role. Typically, employers are going to negotiate you down, so you want to see what is possible for increases in salary but also for non-financial aspects such as work location and flexible hours.

Lastly, remember that finding another job is an option. If negotiating is too challenging or your employers are not giving you what you need, take that as a hint that this workplace is not a supportive work environment for you at this time.

The Globe and Mail

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.