Automotive manufacturers are staffing up for a new wave of technological innovation, and many realize they need a more diverse pool of talent—especially women—to get the job done.
The question now looming? How to recruit young women to a field long perceived as male turf, and how to keep them engaged and challenged.
Women in management at Continental's North American headquarters outside Detroit this month entertained a group of local junior high and high school girls, with the hope of encouraging them to consider careers in automotive technology.
Beyza Sarioglu, head of Continental's hybrid electric vehicle business unit for North America, told the students there is something unnatural about the absence of women in the auto industry.
"It's not weird after a while, because you get used to it," she told the young women. "But then when you stop and think, you're like, 'This is not normal,'" she said, referring to the lack of female colleagues throughout her career.
"It shouldn't be this way. We need to change this, and that's why I'm trying to educate young ladies like yourselves to actually go into STEM fields—because it's really fulfilling, it's really interesting, and it's really fun once you're in."
The purpose of the luncheon was to show the students women in top-level positions at Continental, to inspire girls to pursue careers in technology. Afterward, the students were invited to tour Continental's engineering garage to learn more about the technologies in development at the supplier.
Recruiting starts early, said Mary Reardon, the company's senior manager of talent acquisition. She emphasized the importance of getting a positive message to students as early as the eighth grade.
"As much as I love the seniors that are here," Reardon told the group, "sometimes I feel like we've already lost you, because maybe you've already decided you're going to go into a different career."
But it will take more than allowing employees to wear jeans to work and putting cool pool tables in offices to attract and keep the diverse talent pool auto companies now want, Mary Gustanski, chief technology officer at Delphi Technologies, told Automotive News. Gustanski and other female executives explored the challenges in a panel at this month's SAE International WCX World Congress Experience in Detroit, titled, "Women Leading Disruptive Innovation." Their consensus: The industry must provide women with a path to participate and innovate.
"I've been with the same company for 36 years," Gustanski said. "People ask me, why didn't you leave? And I say, because I kept getting new opportunities that made it fun to go to work. They were allowing me to take on more responsibility to create, to make change happen, and that's what I wanted. That's what I've tried to sell as I go recruiting."
Recruiting women is perceived as a critical issue for the industry as it evolves in an era of autonomous driving and new consumer attitudes about transportation. Companies want to diversify their management ranks and broaden their creative problem-solving. A common challenge is that decision-making corporate board members are often all, or mostly, men.
CEOs have to make an intentional commitment to create diversified boards and bring women onto those boards, said Christine Sitek, General Motors' chief operating officer for global connected customer experience. Sitek told the SAE audience that companies should question their recruitment and selection processes.
"Clearly we are fortunate," Sitek said of GM. "We have Mary Barra and we couldn't have a better leader. Our board is 50 percent women. So that, for me, is required but not sufficient."
During the panel discussion, a woman in the audience asked: How does a female executive balance the demands of being in management with her home life if she has kids?
Rashmi Rao, Harman International's head of advanced engineering and user experience, said it requires changing the perception that women are primarily responsible for the kids. It's a partnership, she said.
"If you want to have 50 percent representation or more of women on boards, then you have to have 50 percent or more representation of men in the house," said Rao, drawing applause. "That's the only way this will work."