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Female execs bail out of Detroit 3

Don’t look now; the old-boy culture may be coming back

Anne Doyle, Automotive News, October 23, 2006

I have been biting my tongue about something for several years. But that changed with Anne Stevens’ retirement Oct. 1 as Ford Motor Co.’s COO for the Americas. When the highest-ranked woman in the automotive industry walks out, it’s time to say out loud what so many have been whispering.

The Detroit 3 are losing women’s leadership talent almost as fast as they are losing market share.

The 1990s were heady days for ambitious, talented women at what used to be the Big 3. So many highly skilled female engineers, designers, lawyers, plant managers and other professionals broke through into leadership positions that Automotive News in 2000 published its first list of “100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry.” The land of greatest opportunities seemed to be the Big 3; the imports were well behind.

That was only six years ago, but today it seems like a very long time ago.

Away they go

As the storm clouds gathered over the Motor City, a silent but significant shift began. The strategic business case for a diverse leadership that reflects today’s automotive consumers seemed to be drying up as fast as profit margins.
For a long time, we’ve heard the statistics: Women today account for about half of new-vehicle purchases and influence up to 80 percent of them.

Yet talented women have been leaving Ford, General Motors and the Chrysler group in numbers too large to ignore. Most have left for better opportunities outside the industry after years of frustration in rigid, old-school work cultures and lack of advancement.

The whispers and private conversations have grown.

“Did you hear who just left?”

“Opportunities for women are drying up.”

“We’re going backward.”

“The good-old-boy structure is gaining momentum.”

Many women have complained to their confidants about their careers stalling after they reached a certain level.

I could fill the bed of a Ford F-350 pickup with the briefcases of highly skilled female leaders at all levels who have left the Detroit 3 in the past five years. (See box for a partial list.)

Yes, all three automakers have lost plenty of talented men. But the men’s bench is much deeper. Female executives in the auto industry are still few and far between. Yet they are more desperately needed than ever, for three reasons:

1. To provide fresh insight into a dramatically different marketplace.
2. To serve as visible trailblazers and mentors to the next generation of diverse, emerging talent.
3. To help lead the transition to a business environment that can attract and retain the new breed of professionals who, regardless of gender, won’t settle for work cultures and career tracks designed for the 1950s and 1960s.

A time of reckoning

When experienced, skilled female leaders leave Ford, GM and Chrysler, there are few to take their place.
Yes, we’re in a time of reckoning. Global pressures have forced everyone in the North American auto industry to rethink all aspects of the business. But regrouping to traditional leadership templates and old comfort zones will never lead to the innovation and product breakthroughs that will separate the winners from the losers.

The most alarming indicator of the state of the domestic auto industry is not vehicle inventories, stock prices or health care costs. It’s the talent drain.

Anne Stevens has just been named CEO of Carpenter Technology Corp., a maker of specialty metals in Wyomissing, Pa. Because she had reached a more powerful post than any other woman in the auto industry, her departure from Detroit is highly visible.

But, more important, it is the tip of an iceberg of departures and untapped talent that threatens what’s left of the once-mighty Big 3.

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