Auto Industry’s “Bro Culture” Was Able to Change

How the auto industry used to think of women.Diversity lessons for Silicon Valley and beyond from the Big Three.

By Betsy Atkins

They were the hot technology companies that helped shape America (and indeed, the world) by reinventing how we live and do business.  However, these corporations grew to dominate their sectors with a powerful fuel -- testosterone, building a powerful, clubby “bro culture” that shut women and minorities out of their executive and leadership ranks.

Silicon Valley?  No, this rough-and-tumble culture was America’s auto industry for most of its first century. 

With the U.S. tech industry under fire for its poor diversity, sexist climate and leadership insularity, we should realize that, long before there was an Uber or a Google, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were far more restrictive clubs, steeped in engineering and powerful economic engines. 

Mary Barra, GM's CEOYet the Big Three broke up what once was the biggest good ol’ boys’ club. And how they did this can offer the “tech bros” and other bro-focused industries a lesson.

Automakers turned around their cultures through smart, strong leadership and tech diversity programs to become leaders in supporting and developing corporate women and minorities, in the corner offices and the board rooms.

GM today boasts a 18.1% black workforce, and its leadership ranks are 30% women and minorities. Global engineering-focused industrials are, while still imperfect, are vastly more diverse than their “progressive” technology counterparts.  Somehow the auto companies are seeking out and retaining the qualified STEM candidates who elude the Silicon Valley tech giants with their “who knows who” recruiting.

Significantly, automakers have made strides in diversifying their leadership base.

Mary Barra’s appointment as CEO and chairman of GM may be the most visible example of progress, but she is a natural evolution from the progress the automakers have made in developing their leadership pipeline. 

GM corporate officers include several accounting for key operational and leadership positions as women currently manage six of GM’s 17 North American car plants under the stewardship of Alicia Boler Davis who heads GM’s global manufacturing. The automaker is also listed a Diversity Inc. Top 50 Company for 2016 and 2017, something no tech company achieved in 2017.

“There’s no doubt GM is the leader” for women in executive roles, says Mary Beth Vander Schaaf of Automotive News.

These values are seen in boardrooms as well. GM currently is approaching parity with 5 of 11 women board members.  At Volvo Cars, 3 out of 13  board members are women, as are heads of software development, HR, and the legal department.

Ford has tapped Ken Washington, an African-American rocket scientist recruited from Lockheed Martin, as its chief technology officer and head of advanced engineering, and Ford Motor Credit Company is led by Joy Falotico. 

Tellingly, Ford Motor Company recently named Marcy Klevorn, a veteran of the company’s IT programs, to head its Smart Mobility Program, overseeing new ventures in ride-sharing, autonomous cars and connected-car services. Klevorn reports directly to Ford CEO Jim Hackett.

Meanwhile, the tech industry, for all its flash and freshness, looks more like the pale, male Detroit of the ‘50’s when it comes to diversity.  Tech industry titans such as Google struggle to improve their employee diversity beyond a largely white/Asian, male base (92% and 80% respectively at Google), with a shockingly poor representation among other racial minorities (only 1% of Google tech employees are African-American). 

No doubt the automakers have a century-long head start when it comes to improving their diversity. 

  • They have more evolved depth in their HR roles, which helps their organizational development, and lets them look at the topic of diversity in a more thoughtful way.
  • Plus, they gain the “compounding interest” benefit of women in their boardrooms and management chains.  Women board members in my experience tend to be more active in mentoring and leaning in.  With women in the boardroom reaching down, and women in the talent pipeline reaching up, Motown has shaped a winning formula.

How can this evolution away from bro culture in one industry have an impact on a much younger, still raucous one?  The shared bridge is a coming, huge shift in personal mobility, and the technology needed to achieve it. 

Electric cars, autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, and “mobility as a service” are trends that both the old-line carmakers and new tech companies are struggling to master.  The auto industry knows that it needs massive infusions of tech, coding talent, fresh thinking (and cash) to lead in the evolution away from people driving their own cars.

While tech companies may view the impending disruptions in the personal transportation industry as an opportunity to be exploited, the automakers know adapting to that change is essential to their survival.  And they know that ultimately the customers making the use decisions that will shape that industry will be much more diverse than the demographics of today’s upper-echelon of Silicon Valley’s wealth generation machine.  

Silicon Valley, meanwhile, is shaping the digital tools needed, but is uncertain about how to move into the nuts-and-bolts of autos.  Elon Musk’s Tesla is currently struggling to turn itself into a profitable auto builder, GM invested $500 million in Lyft and acquired Cruise Automation, Ford invested in self-driving tech startup Argo, BWM is partnering with Intel, and dozens of other acquisitions, licensing plans and joint ventures are in the works.

And who will be at the flash point when car builders and the techies join?  Some of the strongest inroads by women in the auto industry have been at their digital functions.  Among recent GM moves has been to encourage training and promotion of women in tech.  It’s made grants to groups like Code.org and Digital Promise for women coding education.

At all of the automakers, women have advanced most strongly in technical areas like automated manufacturing, ecommerce, logistics and software design.  It’s no accident that GM, Ford and Volvo have tapped women to lead their mobility efforts.  Historically, marginalized groups have gained a head start in new technologies overlooked by the establishment.  Women are finding that digital smarts are their fast track in an auto industry facing massive change.  Could it be a myth that women and minorities don’t have an interest in technology careers? Rather, they’ve “voted with their feet” to explore more friendly employment options.

The tech companies can look to some of the automakers’ efforts investing in pipelines and recruiting at a wide and diverse landscape of educational institutions, mentoring, rotational and training programs. These expand the experience and world-view of its employees. Perhaps the tech industry should push their definition of “employee-friendly retention policies” beyond fro-yo machines and ping pong tables in bolstering their own diversity efforts.

This also means that the frat house culture of some hot tech firms faces a rude wakeup call when they make the linkages with automakers they’ll need in future.  Instead of metal-bending guys in suits, the techies may encounter smart, executive women who know as much as they do about crunching code. 

Better still, the dudes will discover a diverse role model for their industrial future.

Betsy Atkins is a three-time CEO and founder of Baja Corporation. She currently serves on the boards of public companies Cognizant, Home Depot Supply and Schneider Electric.  She is also a member on the board of Volvo Cars (private) and the SAP Advisory Board.

 

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