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driving it home

Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press

I spoke to a large group of Canadian car dealers just before this year's 2013 Canadian International Autoshow in Toronto opened to the public. One question they asked me: How can dealers be better at serving their customers?

I looked out from the stage at a couple of hundred dealers and asked my own question: How many women do we have here today? All the women in the room, please raise your hands. About half a dozen went up.

"There you have it," I then said. "This is a room of middle age men. You want to change your stores for the better, hire more women for your sales forces and find a way to keep them. That one act will change the culture of your stores, and for the better."

The truth is, from the showroom floor to the executive suites at all the car companies, men dominate. And not just in a small way. Not one single car company in the entire world is run by a woman. Not one. The highest-ranking woman in the auto industry is Mary Barra, who heads global product development at General Motors. Ford Motor has a pretty strong senior leadership team – and Elena Ford of the Ford family has just been elevated to vice-president – but the group vice-presidents and higher at Ford are men.

Chrysler has a few women at the vice-president level, but they are in the legal department, human resources and business development, rather than the product, sales and marketing side of the business.

There are no women at the very top of any Japanese car company. No women hold really senior positions at any German car company, or French car company, either. Men, men, men. That filters right down to the showroom floor of dealerships around the world.

So perhaps this is something that needs to bubble up from the showroom floor. Perhaps the place to start changing the culture of the car business, changing it to make it more responsive to a far more diverse society than anything us aging baby boomers imagined when we were starting our careers, is for dealers to make a concerted effort to find ways to hire and keep women in their sales forces.

I would argue that dealerships that find a way to ensure that at least a third of their sales force is comprised of women will be hugely successful. Women, as a mountain of business and leadership literature attests, have very different ways of leading and working than men. That reality should be reflected on the showroom floor. All the women I know say over and over they'd much prefer to buy a car from a woman than a man.

Dealerships will need to change how they do their business to make this happen. When I sold cars in a dealership (for a business story that appeared in The Globe), the normal schedule was a week of day shifts, followed by a week of evenings. Women with children won't work that schedule unless they must. Car dealers will need to find other ways to make the dealership a female-friendly place for salespeople, too.

The point is, societies and cultures throughout history that have excluded women from positions of power, influence and authority have suffered and eventually have found themselves in crisis and decline. Societies and cultures that have evolved to be open, progressive and inclusive have thrived and prospered.

As I walked around the Toronto auto show floor, I didn't see a lot of women among the sales people on hand. Time to change that.

For more Toronto AutoShow coverage, please click here.