It’s International Women’s Day, but there’s still significant work to be done when it comes to attracting and retaining women in the automotive industry.
According to a 2020 North American report conducted by Deloitte and Automotive News, just 39 per cent of women surveyed felt that they saw positive change in the automotive industry’s attitude toward females over the past five years, compared to 64 per cent who said so in 2015. In fact, 35 per cent felt things had worsened or not changed, and the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in automotive companies was the No. 1 reason why women were not considering an automotive career. Nearly half said they would move to a different industry if they were to start their career today.
Which begs the question: Who are these women? What are their stories? This year, we asked seven women in the Canadian automotive space about their experiences in the industry and how they got to where they are.
Helen Ching-Kircher, dealer principal, president & CEO, DFC Auto Group
“I don’t know that there is a secret to my success. I have always approached opportunities and challenges with confidence and without concern about whether there will be obstacles to my success because I’m one of a few females. I do not dwell on the gender issue.
“[As a company,] we made improvements, but more work needs to be done. We need to challenge the system. I found for myself it was partially up to me to be recognized. I took the time to attend, on two occasions, a Harvard Executive Management course. Being amongst mostly males from so many different industries, and being appointed as a group leader after my first week with all males, I had to gain not only their respect but my leadership qualifications.
“I think that my success as dealer principal is based on my past experiences and performance in other businesses. I was also fortunate the two manufacturers that I represent appointed me strictly on my ability, and I have never felt compromised because I am female. They have been extremely supportive.
“Women need to take some responsibility for their advancement and not rely on others to elevate their status. This takes a lot of hard work and a desire not to accept the status quo.”
Jessica Hammett, apprentice technician, Maple Mazda
“A lot of people ask me, why are you in a trade – why would you even do something like that? There are so many other industries that you don’t have to get covered in grease and oil. But it’s just a small price to pay for doing something that I love.
“The guys were a little shocked to see me in the apprentice-program class at first. It was a little weird, but everyone got along really well – all the guys were so welcoming, and if I had any troubles, they were there to immediately help.”
“[After that,] I was at a performance shop; that was my first job in the trade. I actually had one customer tell my manager he specifically did not want a woman working on his car. I was very lucky to have a manager that was very encouraging and very happy to see me in a trade. He told him if you don’t want her working on your car then you shouldn’t have anybody here working on your car. He really had my back.
“You brush it off and keep going because for every bad person, hundreds more are so excited to see me doing what I’m doing. You have to have a tough skin and not let things get to you.”
Jodi Lai, editor-in-chief, TRADER
“It’s no secret automotive is a very heavily white-male dominated industry. When I first started working as an automotive journalist, I didn’t even know I was a rarity in the industry until other people started pointing it out to me. People started saying stuff like, how did someone like you get into this business? Do you even know how to drive stick?
“Part of why I climbed so high in such a short amount of time is that I started very early. I started in the industry while I was still in school. I was 18 or 19 years old when I first got an unpaid internship at the [National] Post. And I honestly just worked my butt off. It’s a cliché thing to say, but I really just worked hard and kept my head down. And some of the best advice I ever got about the industry was from Brian Harper – we worked together at the Post – and he told me ‘don’t be lazy.’ That was his only advice. I’ve been using that advice ever since. That helped propel me and not take things for granted.
“Many people in upper management say ‘I would love to hire a woman for this position, but there simply are no qualified women applying.’ That rubs me the wrong way. That tells me they’re not looking hard enough. Recently, I put out a call on Twitter asking, ‘If you are a woman, a person of colour, or queer and you want to write things with an automotive spin, get in touch with me.’ Automotive experience is not necessary. I’m just looking for talented, diverse writers. And I got dozens and dozens of people sending me clips and resumes.
“A lot of people in our industry who might have been doing this for a long time take for granted that things just come naturally to them whereas someone like me would have to work so much harder to get a fraction of what’s been handed to them.”
Kay Layne, automotive journalist until 2014
“I don’t really have a negative feeling toward the automotive industry. It was a mixture of two things. It was hard getting a job even within TV – that’s what my degree is in. It was just really hard to be taken seriously. I’ve seen so many people of colour just give up. It was like fighting against a wall.
“I’m the only chip in the cookie. I’m the only black woman. I can’t think of another [black and female] auto journalist in Canada, especially after all of these years. It vexes me that, after a decade, it’s still the same group of women writing about cars.
“As a black woman, I face racism all of the time. I did the Detroit auto show, and I took the shuttle from the hotel to the show. I came out, I’m ready to get on the bus, and I’m stopped. They were like, ‘I’m sorry. This is for automotive journalists. I was like, ‘Yes, I’m well aware.’
“I do want to get back into the automotive industry; that’s always been my love. It’s not dead and gone to me. I still love cars. I’d love to see more females and more people of different races that buy cars be able to talk about them.”
Asal Nahidi, lead vehicle-dynamics-controls engineer, GM Canadian Technical Centre – Markham Campus
“I’ve always been under this pressure. I must prove myself, my capabilities, my smartness – sometimes it can become exhausting and frustrating, like a competition where there’s no end line to it.”
“After so many battles I created for myself to prove myself, I was talking to my mentor who is a director in the global battery-pack-engineering department at GM – she’s also a woman. She asked me, ‘Why do I need to prove my competence to other people to be admired, to advance in my career, to gain a bit of money … what’s the reason?’ I realized all I’m doing is shadow-following. I don’t need to focus on proving myself to my peers. I need to be focused on myself, and the outcome itself tells the story of me and my capabilities.
“Girls are going to have that struggle always, but we cannot let a male-dominated industry make us question our capabilities and confidence. From my experience, the only one you need to compete with is you. That’s it. You don’t need anyone else.”
Maria Soklis, president, Cox Automotive Canada
“I stumbled into the automotive industry by accident and decided to stay a very long time ago; I think it’ll be 25 years next year. I just decided come hell or high water, I was going to survive. There were a few things that helped me.
“First of all, it was state of mind. Second of all, I worked hard because we all know there’s no substitute for hard work. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. If you want to do well and move ahead, you need to work hard. Thirdly, I built a strong network that I can consult with and one that I can turn to and rely on for guidance and support. And finally, I stayed true to who I was – always trying to be considerate and kind of others and humble in my little successes along the way.
“We as leaders of organizations – whether we’re female or male – have a role to play to improve diversity. Companies need to make a deliberate effort to target women and educate them on the opportunities in the industry.
“It’s harder to make the decisions and lead, but somebody needs to do it. At some point, I’m going to leave the industry, and I’d like to leave it in better shape than I found it. I don’t want other women to have to go through this. In order for other women not to go through this, there has to be change that is made broadly.”
Laura Zanchin, senior executive vice-president, Zanchin Automotive Group
“Because we’re an Italian family and it’s a family business, you have to be all in. [I’m] my dad’s oldest daughter. As much as there is a lot of give to this position, I had to do a lot to prove I was worthy. Everybody looks at you and says, ‘Wow, you’re so lucky, you’re the dealer’s kid.’ No, it’s not really that case at all. Not only do you work harder, but you give everything. All I do is worry about everybody under my employment, especially during COVID-19. In the end, I have to balance a business, and I have to make sure it’s sustainable enough for a majority of people. It’s a big burden.
“Between me and my sister, we’re probably going to be the only dealer group that’s going to be eventually in the hands of women ownership. We don’t have a brother; eventually my dad will step down.
“Unfortunately, the stereotypes still exist. We have to break down the stereotypes, and I can’t wait for the day that women understand that the car business is a business we need to be in. For the women who try, they will kill it. You have to have the right mindset. The opportunities are there for people who want to work hard. you just need a bit of patience and give it a good try.”
These interviews have been summarized and condensed.
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