EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part one of three in a series examining why more women aren't involved in Canada's auto industry.
TORONTO — Maria Soklis didn’t have a typical automotive background when she was hired by General Motors in Switzerland, but she managed to work her way up in an industry dominated by men.
“I remember a guy saying: ‘I looked you up, and you don’t have an automotive background. ... You’re going to fail.’ I said, ‘You’re going to work for me in a year.’
“And he worked for me in a year. I was that driven.”
Now president of Toronto-based Cox Automotive Canada, Soklis was among 15 executives and government officials who gathered in November at the inaugural Automotive News Canada Leading Women Panel. The two-hour discussion focused on challenges women face in an industry dominated by men and what can be done to make it more diverse.
HIRE OUTSIDE INDUSTRY
To attract more women to the industry, panelists said, companies should hire more people with nontraditional backgrounds, especially as the sector becomes more complex and high-tech.
“It’s moving from a traditional automotive and manufacturing and supplying kind of business, to integration with technology, and we’re thinking about the future of electric vehicles and connected vehicles,” said Mona Eghanian, automotive and mobility senior manager at the Ontario Centres of Excellence.
“When you’re bringing that kind of expertise with people in STEM and people in technology, then you’re kind of bringing more women to the table as a result.”
Some panelists said companies need to deliberately seek out women for certain roles. Soklis said that when she recently had to hire a new CFO, the initial group of resumes she received was all from men. While there were great candidates, Soklis said, she requested resumes from female applicants.
“It just happened to be that I hired a female this time around because she was the strongest candidate,” she said. “But it’s interesting that she wouldn’t even have been an option if I had not made a deliberate effort to get a number of resumes.”
While many panelists said it would be up to parents and educators to steer girls in school onto auto-related career paths in engineering and technology, companies can also play a direct role. By mentoring students, particularly young women in middle school, high school and beyond, auto companies can demonstrate to young people both the lucrative opportunities that the industry has to offer and that the sector is serious about diversity.
Successful female role models are crucial for young people, said Shelley Fellows, vice-president of communications at AIS Technologies Group in Windsor, Ont.
“If you’re applying for a program or thinking of becoming a skilledtrades electrician, and you go to the school and you’re walking around seeing all men, as someone who’s maybe not confident in their choices, are you going to choose to be in that environment?” Fellows said.
“You’re not. If you don’t see women in there who you can feel that affiliation with, you’re just not going to go forward in it.”
‘INDUSTRY HAS CHANGED’
The industry must also do more to remake its image, as common perceptions do not reflect the reality, said Sherryl Petricevic, marketing manager at ESCRYPT in Waterloo, Ont.
“When people look at, do I want my kids to go into automotive; you see strikes, you see downturn in the economy, closures, all that kind of stuff,” Petricevic said.
“The industry has changed. It isn’t just about the [automakers] looking to put a car out on the road. It’s your computer on wheels that’s taking you from point A to point B, and at some point you won’t even need to drive it.”
Men in the industry also have a role to play, said Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug ’N Drive.
“Men can be mentors to women as well, and I find that sometimes for women at the just below executive level, almost the best thing is to ask a senior male that you really like or trust to be your mentor. I don’t think anyone says no if you ask somebody to be your mentor, and often they can help you with how to get to that next step.”
Petricevic urged large organizations and companies in the industry to make diversity a priority.
“I think that there are associations that have a certain weight in the marketplace that can start to show some leadership in diversity, and we can start to take it from there to start to change the language of the industry,” she said.
“Organizations can make that change. That should be easy. It isn’t. Why?”