Getting to greater equality in the automotive industry


Julia Muir got into the automotive industry in part because she didn’t have any negative stereotypes about it being a male-dominated industry. It was only as she rose higher and higher up the ranks that she encountered a lack of women. Ever since she has put all her energy into trying to change that.

Julia started her career as a graduate trainee in a car dealership group. She says: “They came to my university looking for graduates and because my dad had tinkered with cars and I liked cars I did not see any reason not to apply. A company car came with the traineeship and a good salary. There were paid internships. Then my friends said ‘what have you done?’ I did not have any preconceived negative stereotypes about the industry. I loved the job and worked in every department and got a full time job as a manager.”

She says the workforce at lower levels was not too male dominated, but at management level that all changed. It was the same in many businesses in the early 1990s, though, and she relished the chance to make a difference. “We were a different generation who had grown up with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. We thought we were pioneering,” she says. She stayed in the industry, working in several companies before moving to Spain and Germany. She took a career break and started teaching at Loughborough University on an automotive programme she set up when she was at Ford.

When she finally went back into the industry she noticed that not much had changed at board level in the 20 years since she had started her career. “Things had not changed – or had got worse,” she says. She thinks this is partly due to changes in the career pathway to senior management roles. These mean people spend more time in head office at the start of their career and work in car dealerships later on. The dealership stage involves moving around and it tends to coincide with the point at which people start to settle down and have families. “Men are more likely to uproot their families to do these roles, but women do not,” says Julia. “It’s an interesting unintended consequence of policy change. It means women find it difficult to get the experience they need to progress through the company.”

She thinks managers need to get better at spotting potential early on and to change what they see ass the skills needed for particular roles such as service adviser posts, an important rung up the career ladder. She adds that women are put off applying for service adviser posts due to the fact that they often lack technical experience when this is not necessary.

Another reason to reconsider the career pathway is that young people are thinking differently about their careers now, she says. They are not thinking about progression in the same way. They may have a portfolio career or set up their own company. “If companies have talented young people they need to fast track them, take a risk and see if they fail,” she says.

Taking risks

Julia herself moved around 10 times in her first 11 years in the industry. “What I learnt equipped me with the skills to be a leader – the authority to assess situations and take action quickly. I learned that skill through being constantly thrown in at the deep end,” she says. She adds that women are sometimes afraid to be take risks because of the way they are brought up. Yet, she says, they step up and take action quickly all the time at home. “We do not equip girls with the skills to take risks, but we expect it of boys,” she says. She adds that part of the reason women may not take risks may also be because if they fail there are more consequences for their career. “There are still so few women that it draws the attention if they fail,” she says.

Julia adds that there are other skills which could benefit women, such as voice coaching so they can be heard better and come across as more confident public speakers.

Public speaking

Julia has done a lot of public speaking in her role with the UK automotive 30%  club and through speaking at schools. When she returned to the UK she got involved with Robert Peston’s Speakers for Schools programme which arranges for industry experts to go and talk about their careers to school students. Often Julia is sent to talk to girls. At the start of her talks no-one generally puts their hand up when she asks if they would like a career in the automotive industry, but once she has told her story that all changes. “It’s not even on their radar normally,” she says. “The industry is too insular. It’s not talking to enough people outside the industry and celebrating what it does.”

In her role as founder of the UK automotive 30% Club she has developed a four-phase strategy to get more women in the industry and moving up to senior management. The first addresses outreach to young people.  The 30: 30: 30 campaign, for instance, involves 30 senior leaders going into state schools, an offer of 30 executive shadowing roles for 15-18 year old girls to spend a week with a senior team in the industry and those girls in turn giving presentations on what the industry can do to attract more women.

The second phase involves recruitment and how the industry can make itself more attractive to women. That includes considering where it advertises, what words it uses in adverts, blind application forms where names and photos are taken off and other ways of tackling unconscious bias. Julia says she has seen the impact of a blind application process and how it shocked senior leaders who thought they were not at all biased.

The third phase is about promotion. That means having sponsors. “Women always ask to be mentored,” says Julia, “but what they need is sponsors who see their talent and advocate for them.” She is encouraging senior women to be sponsors of those coming up as she says senior men might feel uncomfortable mentoring or sponsoring a younger female. “It can tap into lots of issues with regard to male female interactions,” she says. “Senior men may feel they can’t just go down the pub to talk things through so it might end up as being 10 minutes in the canteen in full view of everyone.”


She is lobbying CEOs to emphasise the importance of their involvement in sponsorship so they know who the talent is in their organisation and not just the next level down from them. She adds that women also need to make sure they are visible when it counts. “It is amazing how many women do not make themselves be seen and assume they will be noticed if they do a good job,” she says.

Another factor is the seven-day work patterns that operate in many dealerships which involve regular weekends. “It puts many people off,” says Julia. She cites one dealership which changed to a four-day week and rolling shift patterns. The dealership initially met with hostility as the change was viewed as being solely for women, but once it was trialled employees realised that there were advantages for everyone, says Julia.

The last phase is about holding on to talented women. Julia believes many people make assumptions that women leave because of lack of work life balance, adding that many exit interviews seem to back this up. However, she thinks it is much more to do with the culture of an organisation. “It is usually that they don’t get on with their line manager or they have been sidelined. They don’t tell the truth at their exit interview,” she says. She adds that women judge themselves harshly at home and at work so if they encounter barriers at work it makes them question the time and energy they are not putting into their family. “The answer is to make the job stimulating and exciting. I do not believe women who love their job leave to look after their family,” says Julia.

Part of the sidelining is due, she adds, to managers making assumptions that they don’t want to be pushed at work, that they don’t want to progress. “They make assumptions without asking the women,” she says.

And she adds that more senior women might be better off working full time but in an agile way, taking more control over when and where they work, given that those working reduced hours often don’t progress. She says senior men do it all the time. “It’s about trusting people to get the work done and being productive, not when you work,” she says.

Julia adds that social attitudes towards men’s careers also need to change – attitudes that women’s role is to support men’s careers at the expense of their own.

She sees agile working as the future, but says flexibility has been sold as being about women. “It is about being dynamic and modern. If the automotive industry wants to become modern like Google and Apple it needs to start behaving more like them,” says Julia. “Otherwise it will lose the creative, intellectual people who cannot function in a machine, who want more freedom and to have more control.”

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