Features & Interviews

Improving gender balance in automotive

07 December 2023 #Features & Interviews

Businesses in any walk of life that develop strong collaboration between male and female staff perform better, and benefit from diversity of ideas, attitudes, and approaches.

However, while women make up 47% of the general UK workforce, the figure is only 20% in the transport sector.

As part of industry’s ongoing response, SMMT’s 106th Annual Dinner last week marked a pledge by the Automotive Council that women will represent 30% of its members’ workforce within the next six years – a significant step given those members employ some 99% of the UK’s vehicle manufacturing workforce.

The ‘30 by 30’ commitment – by 27 companies including Stellantis, Renault Group, Scania, Ford and carmakers such as BMW and Kia – is a significant short-term challenge given that just under 20% of the sector’s workforce is today female. It will build on progress already being made in the industry, however, with plans to continually improve diversity and inclusion practices, introduce board-level champions and ensure that recruitment practices eliminate bias – with the ultimate aim to encourage diversity at every career level.

‘30 by 30’ comes as the Council launched a new best practice guide, Shifting Gears: How to better recruit and retain women in the UK automotive sector, providing forward-thinking businesses with the tools needed to improve gender diversity across all levels.

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive and Chair of the Automotive Council UK Competitiveness and Business Environment Group, said: “With so much change taking place across the automotive sector, recruiting the brightest and the best is essential to the future success of the industry.

“The industry has often been perceived – and the facts back it up – as male dominated. We need to change this quickly; gender balance is not just about ‘doing the right thing’, it’s demonstrably good for business.”

Companies in the commercial vehicle industry have been making use of other organisations that promote the industry to women and girls, as well as coming up with their own programmes to make use of women’s skills.

Transport for London (TfL) recently held the inaugural summit of its Women in Bus and Coach (WiBC) network at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole, which saw a diverse range of industry leaders discuss the challenges and opportunities for women and share their expertise on the work to support and encourage existing and future women in the sector.

According to TfL, half of bus customers are women, however, only around 10% of the people who work in the bus industry in London are female.

The diversity initiative also saw the signing of a WiBC National Charter to challenge industry practices that do not support women.

These include obstacles around shift work and a lack of flexible working; women’s health and menopause, periods, pregnancy, inadequate toilet facilities; a perceived macho culture that can result in a negative atmosphere for women as well as a “default male design” relating to vehicles and uniform options.

Louise Cheeseman, Director of Bus at TfL said: “The bus and coach industries provide incredible opportunities for a varied, challenging and ultimately rewarding career.

“It is only right that women, whatever their background, have equal access to these opportunities and a workplace designed around their needs.”

Meanwhile, Winsford, Cheshire-based Tiger Trailers, the HGV trailer and rigid bodywork manufacturer, has joined Women in Transport as a corporate member.

Women in Transport is a not-for-profit organisation that empowers women in the industry to maximise their potential in predominantly male careers, and which offers a free mentoring programme which matches people all over the country.

Tiger Trailers currently has an employee base of about 280 people – around 8% of whom are women – across both its office functions and in factory roles.

Various members of Tiger Trailers’ team have already attended Women in Transport events and taken away insightful experiences, such as a roundtable hosted by Kier Construction discussing the barriers mothers face in the workplace and how employers can make meaningful change to remove them.

Claire Shenton, Tiger Trailers’ HR Manager, said: “Organisations such as Women in Transport are crucial in shaping the future for women working in traditionally male dominated industries.

“I am so proud of the four men in our business who have joined us in membership so far, as they all recognise the importance of having women in the workplace, and I am looking forward to us all collaborating in both the development and the retention of women within our manufacturing roles.”

Research conducted on 1,000 girls and young women aged 14 to 24, by Plan International UK, found that women and girls are still experiencing barriers to pursuing leadership roles in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Almost half (49%) of girls and young women do not feel a senior leadership position in STEM is within their reach in the future, and 39% feel they would not be taken seriously if they were to pursue a career in this sector.

As part of its effort to address the situation, Ford has joined Plan International UK’s Girls Takeover initiative to help promote the STEM subjects often required for careers in the automotive industry.

Half a dozen outreach programmes promote Ford to all young people, and especially females, helping the vehicle manufacturer foster an inclusive and balanced workplace.

In addition, Ford recently welcomed two young women to take over CEO roles at its Essex Headquarters and London Human Centred Design Lab.

Nataly, aged 19, and Nicole, 18, were selected to take over the real-life roles and responsibilities of Lisa Brankin, Ford of Britain & Ireland chair and MD, and Usha Raghavachari, European Human Centred Design Director.

Nataly was briefed on the launch of the next-generation plug-in Transit Custom Nugget campervan, before developing an Instagram post to be published.

She led other sessions progressing online sales and social media projects, before joining Nicole at Ford’s Human Centred Design Lab.

At the lab, Nicole brainstormed speaking points for an upcoming innovation conference with Usha Raghavachari, provided input for a customer research synthesis and led a marketing discussion for a new commercial vehicle project, before Nataly joined to jointly develop and build a prototype concept destined for a future electric vehicle.

Brankin said Nataly “brought a fresh young person’s perspective to our increasingly important digital offering and communications channels”, while Raghavachari said of Nicole that she “was an inspiration, and took to the role so naturally.”

With women making up around 20% of the transport sector and only three percent of HGV drivers in the UK, Streamline Shipping Group is encouraging more women to consider roles across a range of departments, including careers behind the wheel.

Currently, 33% of the company’s managerial staff is female, with representation across various departments, including the board of directors.

Gillian MacDonald, General Manager at Streamline Shipping Group’s Shetland depot, said: “It seems strange that in 2023 the logistics industry is still a heavily male-dominated sector with only 10% of managerial roles taken on by women.

“To this day, I still experience confusion from customers who expect to be assisted by a male manager.

“I believe this sort of misunderstanding is down to a failure to promote the logistics sector as an inclusive career choice for women.”

Gender balance is improving across the industry but not quickly enough, and further work is needed to ensure companies be reflective of the communities they serve.

However, it is encouraging to see the commitment firms are making to attracting more women into roles where they are currently underrepresented.

Automotive businesses that are interested in becoming Automotive Council signatories can find out more or contact the secretariat here.

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