UK Markets closed

Auto industry's powerful female bosses tell women how get ahead in work

Jill Petzinger
Jill Petzinger, Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
From left: Helen Emsley, General Motors executive director of global design, Sabine Scheunert, VP digital sales and marketing Mercedes-Benz, Angelika Sodian, UK managing director NIO, Roger Atkins, founder Electric Vehicles Outlook.

A number of high-profile female car industry leaders took the stage in Stuttgart, Germany at the Women Automotive Summit with one clear message for women looking to succeed in the car world: help each other out.

“We need to be better advocates to help ourselves, we need to take the competition out, I think we are our own worst enemy,” said Helen Emsley, executive director of design at General Motors (GM). “I know in my career I’ve only every been helped by men.”

The auto-industry bosses said that collaborating rather than competing with each other was the way for women to get ahead in the male-dominated motor industry.

That collaboration can also be in the form of mentorship too. Linda Jackson, the CEO of French car company Citroen, said having mentor, or a series of mentors, is essential for women in the car industry — she herself had a one who pushed her.

Mentors offer a positive way to talk about your ideas, concerns, and to learn. Their influence allows you “to outdo yourself... challenge yourself, and dare to do things that are not in your comfort zone, Jackson said.

READ MORE: Citroen CEO tells women in the car industry 'be daring and take risks'

While being credible and authentic are essential assets, it is being unafraid to take a leap and seize an opportunity that has marked their careers. Emsley said she would never have made the progress she has made if she had stayed in Germany, where she worked at Opel, which was one of the reasons she moved to GM in the US.

“You have to push yourself forward, go to meetings, go on the media,” Emsley said, adding that she thinks the old days of advancing in the car industry based on who you know are over.

The massive shift happening in mobility will also be good news for women as it opens up new potential roles. “In my opinion, digitalisation and autonomous vehicles is balancing the industry, or turning it from a hardware industry to a software industry,” said conference organiser Stephanie May from Worldwide Partnerships. “The roles of CIO and CTO are one of the most important jobs in a company right now.”

That is why, May said, she created a summit agenda that is just as focused on talks about what new technologies will mean for women as it is on gender equality.

Advice for future leaders

These sweeping changes make it essential to go out and talk to young people, especially young women, the speakers said, so they know that they can have interesting careers in what has historically been a closed off, male-dominated industry.

“We should make sure that businesses give youngsters the opportunity to see what our industry is about,” said Citroen CEO Linda Jackson.

The age of electric, connected, and autonomous cars is creating huge demand for graduates with new sets of skills. Car firms like General Motors are increasingly going into schools to speak to pupils, especially girls, about careers in the car industry as, Emsley says, “by the time they’ve got to college they’ve already made a decision.”

When we talk about diversity it can not only be about gender, said Sabine Scheunert, the vice president of online sales and marketing at Mercedes-Benz. Changing consumer behaviour is forcing companies to rethink their traditional ways, and women in leadership roles need to embrace diversity of mindset and thought to be effective bosses.

When asked what makes them happy at work, all the women spoke of how fulfilled it makes them to lead their teams and do what they do. Scheunert said she’s focused on empowering her people. Emsley too: “It’s all about my team. If they are happy, I’m happy, I’m nothing without them.