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Sexism Still Persists In Automotive Industry, New Survey Finds

November 6, 2017 2 Comments

Reality check: Sexism is still alive and thriving in the automotive sector.

Automotive News partnered up last month with Elephant in the Valley, a “group of Silicon Valley executives and researchers from Stanford University who took a look at sexism in the tech world in 2016,” and adapted its survey to the automotive industry. The results will shock you.

Nearly 900 women working in automotive responded to the survey, dubbed Project XX, with most participants reporting that they still face both subtle and overt biases in the workplace – some incidents so bad they actually leave the industry. The survey, conducted this past spring, focused on four main areas of questioning: feedback and promotion; harassment and safety; inclusion; and unconscious bias.

The responses indicated that sexism is still rampant in the industry, with respondents reporting inappropriate questions asked during hiring process, expectations to perform lower-level tasks despite executive titles, exclusion from after-work social events, and many, many unwanted sexual advances from bosses, colleagues, and customers alike.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal on October 5, which saw the Hollywood producer reaching at least eight settlements over allegations of sexual harassment and multiple additional accounts of harassment, women in various industries have come forth with their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Unfortunately, and shamefully, our industry is one of the biggest culprits.

Thanks to the anonymity provided by the Project XX survey, women opened up about their experiences. Obtaining those stories are harder to do when it’s on-the-record, with many companies turning down Automotive News’s requests for interviews with female executives and other companies requesting anonymity.

“It has been stimulus for conversation,” said Michele Madansky, co-author of the Elephant in the Valley survey. “There are so many men in Silicon Valley who are such great guys, and they had no idea this was going on. The survey has been opening up eyes and making everyone more aware of what’s going on.”

“The wider industry still has a ways to go when it comes to listening to us when we speak up about the difficulties we still face in the working world,” said a respondent. “Many people who have worked in the industry for a long time perpetuate the ‘this is how things are’ mindset, which makes it hard to be taken seriously when you complain about sexist treatment by a client or colleague.”

The survey used in Project XX was also used to poll women in three other industries besides automotive: Silicon Valley, advertising, and marketing research.

Of the four surveyed industries, the auto industry had the highest reported rates of unwanted sexual advances (65 percent), assignment of lower-level tasks than males (65 percent), and feeling unsafe on the job (25 percent).

While sexism is a different beast than it was in the past, when women say they faced more open harassment on the job, it’s still prevalent in the industry today. Mary Barra’s rise to CEO of General Motors (making her the first chief executive of an auto manufacturer) is viewed as an important moment for women in the auto industry, yet sexism lingers on.

“Automotive is, by far, the most sexist industry I have worked in,” said one survey respondent. “The issues facing women working in automotive are far more severe and the sexism far deeper than in other industries. It’s a complete shame and an embarrassment.”

“Most people are good and want to do the right thing,” Madansky said. “They aren’t aware of these nuances or how tough it is for women over time when they consistently have to deal with these behaviors.”

While addressing the “elephant in the room”, the purpose of the survey was to “provide hard data about where the pain points are happening for women” and to prompt honest conversations about sexism.

Feedback and Promotion

There’s a fine line between being viewed as “pushy” or “too weak.” According to the survey, 68 percent of respondents said they were told they’re “too aggressive”, 50 percent were told they were “too quiet”, 62 percent were told they were were “too bossy,” and 61 percent were told they were “too emotional”.

55 percent of respondents said they’ve gotten comments on their appearance, such as being advised by a boss to wear skirts, or even encouragement to show off more of their breasts.

“I was once told I should change my clothes (I was in a dress my mother bought me) before I made a presentation because the participants would be too busy thinking about what was under the dress than what I have to say,” said one woman.

While 47 percent of the U.S. labor force is made up of women, only 24 percent of the auto industry consists of women, according to a 2015 study by Deloitte and Automotive News.

43 percent of survey respondents said they believed that they had been passed over for promotions due to their gender. Others were told they were not considered for promotions because of children (i.e., not enough perceived time to commit to the job). Respondents reported being passed over for international assignments because bosses thought the job would be “too disruptive to their families.”

One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told Automotive News about her experience at an automotive company. The company paid for her Master of Science in manufacturing management, and upon obtaining the degree she asked her boss if she could move into an engineering group within the company. Her boss, a chief engineer, denied her request because he was “measured by the amount of diversity on his team.”

“He was hanging onto me because he had to have a check mark in the diversity box in his organization. He found me fair and square, and he wouldn’t let me go,” she said.

Harassment and Safety

Of the women surveyed, 25 percent said they have felt unsafe at work or in a work environment at some point. One woman reported hearing her male co-workers making aggressive statements like, “No one will be able to hear you scream back here” on the manufacturing plant floor, and others reported unwanted or worrisome situations after an evening of drinks at a work event, or even being followed back to their cars or hotel rooms.

The turnover rate for female salespeople in 2016 was 96 percent, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association’s 2017 Dealership Workforce Study. This turnover may be due to many reasons, said Hireology CEO Adam Robinson, safety on the job shouldn’t be one of them.

“Dealers should be concerned with the safety of all employees,” said Robinson. “So if a female employee expresses that she doesn’t feel safe at work, a dealer has an obligation to do something about it.”

Robinson noted that it’s important to be proactive, not waiting for complaints about unsafe workspaces. Women are often reluctant to report issues or file complaints, worried that their fears might be marginalized in a male-dominated environment.


63 percent of survey respondents reported being excluded from key business events due to their gender, and 57 percent said they missed social and networking outings due to their gender.

A large number women reported being excluded from work or after-work events such as “driving cars at the track, football games, drinks out after a meeting because the guys want to ‘just relax,’ group trips to strip clubs, hunting trips, golf games, meetings with key staff, and visits to cigar lounges.”

Conversely, other women reported being encouraged to attend networking events, some to the point of having their calendars overloaded with events because the company wanted a woman representing them.

Other still dealt with “awkward” situations at work events taking place in less-than-comfortable locations, such as Hooters, Tilted Kilt, or even strip clubs.

“As long as you’re willing to participate in a typically male event, you can ‘tag along,’” said one respondent. “It’s not the preferred approach, but no one would actively stop you.”

“The boys enjoy certain team-building events which they do not consider appropriate for women,” said another. “I very much agree that some events are uncomfortable for women, but a team should consider events that are appropriate in a business environment.”

Unconscious Bias

Women can tell when the subtle biases come out to play, and they can tell when they’re passed over or ignored because of their gender. 83 percent of respondents said that clients and colleagues address questions to male counterparts when they should be addressed to the woman, and 71 percent said that male colleagues and clients don’t make eye contact with them during meetings.

84 percent have heard demeaning comments from men, and 64 percent have been asked to perform lower-level tasks that their male peers are not asked to perform.

“Regardless of my position in my company, which is now sales manager, I am asked to do menial tasks such as buying gifts, coordinating food for meetings, making dinner reservations,” said one respondent. “When I push back, I’m accused of pulling the women’s lib card.”

Other women surveyed said they were asked to host bake sales, order flowers, make posters, clean the office, take notes, make travel arrangement, etc., while their male counterparts were not asked to do the same, often time-consuming things.

“I had to establish boundaries early on because I was asked to do secretary-type work, which has nothing to do with my actual job,” said another respondent.

Changing Times?

Many of the comments from the survey acknowledge that things have improved, or at least seem to have improved, over the past 30 years in the automotive industry.

“There is a general consensus that treatment of women in the workplace is better now than when I started in the 80s, but do we know that?” one respondent asked.

There are women’s networks at automotive companies, ranging from formal to informal, effective to not-so-effective. Overall, however, the respondents said that the groups are not helping address the “elephant-size issues” they deal with everyday.

“The majority of men are acting with their best intentions without realizing the negative effects, or the differences they are practicing between genders,” said one respondent. “This makes it extremely difficult to alter behavior. How could you be upset with a decision that gives you ‘more time with your family’ or ‘less travel’?”

Women hope that the release of the survey results will help spark dialogues between men and women alike in the auto industry to shift things toward improvement.

“Something has got to change,” one woman said. “I’m tired of fighting every day.”

About the Author:

The DrivingSales News team is dedicated to breaking the relevant and the tough stories affecting car dealers. Have questions for DrivingSales News? Reach the team at

  • Sandy Tierney says:

    20-years as a successful automotive WOMAN executive, I thought I’d seen it all – boy was I wrong! From bullying to slut shaming to sexual harassment and then FIRED from one of today’s largest automotive 3rd party vendors, yes THAT one! No one would listen, no one would help, I was on my own. Fortunately my case was taken on by the best lawyer in town and although we “won’ in court, does anyone really win in a situation such as this? I put my family through absolute hell, my children, my husband, my extended family… I lost friends, long time work acquaintances and couldn’t land a new job for anything. It’s time for it to stop!

  • Kandice Hansen says:

    As a woman in management, I can attest, this is a problem. I could even swear that it’s getting worse instead of better, am I right? In just the last year I have…
    -been excluded from the ‘boys’ sporting event nights
    -been excluded from outings at the directors house (cigar night, tv sports…)
    -asked to take notes more times than I can care to recall
    -asked to order the lunches for meetings / bring waters to the exec team
    -make travel arrangements (for my employees!)

    One small piece of advice to woman in the business, don’t take any of this, don’t think that just because you have thick skin and feel like you can handle it that you should – don’t take it, not for one second. Support the women in your life, rise above!