“The gender difference is not as evident as it used to be; nowadays, anybody might know about cars, and anybody might not be interested in them”.
The automotive industry in Europe has traditionally been male-dominated. According to data from the European Commission, in 2019, women made up 16% of the automotive workforce. In 2021 the percentage increased up to 20%, and nowadays, it continues to grow.
All this demonstrates that women are now actively encouraged to pursue careers in the automotive sector. Even if there is still a long way to go, they are now taking on roles in all areas of the industry, including design, engineering, marketing, and management.
At Imaweb, we are fortunate to have and work with a remarkable example of success, a woman with more than 20 years of experience in the automotive industry and a deep understanding of the challenges of the business: Hélène Lanssens.
From a very young age, Hélène inherited her passion for motor racing from her father, a great lover of vehicles. They used to watch Formula 1 together on Sundays and visit car dealerships to see the latest models. After graduating from a Business School in Paris, she started her professional career by making a six-month scholarship at the Volkswagen Group in France.
Hélène joined us as our CPO – Chief Product Officer in 2022, and today is telling us about her experience and what it means to be a woman in this business.
There’s the belief that the automotive sector is an industry only for men. Given your professional career and personal experience, would you agree with this statement?
I think it is partially accurate and less and less true. In the previous generation, the automotive sector was very closed and male-dominated, just like other industries (this sector is not the only one in which few women are represented).
However, this is changing; women now work, they need to move around, and they like cars; it is not like before when they were only in the passenger seat, and the husband was always the driver.
So, the answer will depend on which part of the sector you look at; you can find different departments inside the business: new cars, used cars, after-sales, or software service companies like Imaweb, but if you look for an example of women in every department in the sector, at least in Europe, you will find one.
What are the barriers that keep women out of the automotive sector?
Many women interested in the business might not realise they can work with cars, motorbikes, or trucks because they think they will be ignored.
When I was studying, I got the opportunity to do an internship in the Volkswagen Group because a friend of mine, who was offered it first, was not interested in the sector. She had to help find someone else to fill the position, and I, who loved cars, hadn’t even considered looking for an internship in this industry.
I really liked cars, but I didn’t think I could make a career out of this, so once I started the internship, I never left the automotive business.
We must put aside the thought that women cannot make a career and work in this industry. More and more women are seeking leadership roles or automotive manufacturing positions, so the number of women working in the automotive sector is increasing.
What are the biggest challenges a woman faces in the automotive industry?
We work in a sector where there is the feeling that men know more about cars, they know more about vehicle products, and women don’t.
Even if a woman may know the same as a man, or even more, she will have to overcome the existing prejudices that women don’t know about this industry, that they only look at the colours of a car instead of the engine or the technical parts.
This prejudice is often a lie. I have women friends who are Rally drivers and know a lot about cars, or on the other hand, some guys don’t even have a driving licence anymore because they use other transportation or have no interest in cars at all. So, the gender difference is not as evident as it used to be; nowadays, anybody might know about cars, and anybody might not be interested in them.
Can you please give us a personal example?
When I started at Volkswagen, I was in the training department; I had to train dealers about the new models and technologies the brand was bringing out. In my first training sessions, I was a very young intern (20 years old), so you can imagine me in a training room with 50 people, almost all men, much older than me, while I was explaining how Audi’s quattro technology worked. There were many reactions, and some were even looking to ask me complicated questions to see where I would fail.
I met many colleagues in the process who knew more than I did, and as I had just started in the industry, I learned a lot from them. I became more and more well-informed and then went back to the dealers who were asking me complicated questions to give them answers.
I always knew I liked the sector, but did I know everything? No, but I was interested in knowing, learning and sharing information. Then, when I met these dealers again in different trainings, the communication was different; they already saw me as a colleague.
What actions could companies implement to get women more interested in the automotive?
I started working in the sector because of a six-month internship. So, I would encourage companies to start giving internships to women, go to student fairs and make themselves known, look for young talent, and offer opportunities in different positions, such as mechanics, sales, post-sales, etc.
When you do an internship, you realise if you really like and are excited about a sector, especially one full of passion like this one. When you are happy with what you do, Mondays are full of little jumps of happiness, and you get to share this feeling with colleagues who are also passionate about what they do. An internship is the best way to verify that passion.
Another thing that companies can do is to mix men and women within the different areas of the sector. It can be difficult for a woman to enter a department where all her colleagues and managers are men. Depending on each person’s personality, it can be uncomfortable but also on the part of men; if you enter a department where you are only with girls, you might panic.
What advice would you give to a young woman interested in the industry?
My advice is to always be authentic and approach any challenge naturally. If you are asked a question, and you know, then you know, and you answer; if you don’t know, you say so, and then you train yourself to have the response; this way, you learn, and at the same time, you share the same knowledge with others.
In any sector, you will always succeed based on professionalism and authenticity. You don’t have to be who you are not, so if you remain authentic and do something you are passionate about, everything will be fine.
With continued efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, the number of women working in the industry will likely continue to increase in the coming years. Now more educational and training opportunities are available to women interested in pursuing a career in the automotive industry. Now we count on universities and technical colleges offering courses in automotive engineering and design, as well as apprenticeships and internships with automotive companies.
The increasing number of women in the industry and the initiatives in place to support them are positive signs for the future.
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