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Survey shows sexism, harassment persist throughout auto industry

UN Women

Robert Lutz began his automotive career in 1963. He rose to the ranks of top-tier executives at GM, Ford, Chrysler, BMW and Opel.

He's someone who's seen a lot of change in the auto industry through the decades.

During a recent interview, Stateside host Cynthia Canty asked Lutz for his thoughts on the recent floodgate of stories of powerful men being held accountable for actions and behaviors committed against women in the workplace — sexual assault, harassment, and bullying. Is American business truly having a watershed moment?

"We used to have that back in the '50s and '60s in corporate America, and it was almost like in the '50s and '60s, attractive secretaries were almost considered a fringe benefit for executives. So, it was very much the male-dominated culture, and I would say sexual harassment was probably prevalent in all large American corporations,” Lutz said. “But corporate America started cleaning up its act in the '70s and '80s and '90s, and now you see almost no behavior like that in corporate America.”

While the entertainment industry still needs cleaning up, Lutz said, corporate industries in the U.S. aren’t included in that.

“Corporate America is clean as a whistle on all of this. It’s the entertainment industry, politics, publishing, and all these people who thought they could live by different rules,” Lutz said.

But a recent survey done by Automotive News indicates that women in automotive aren't feeling as sanguine about sexism in the car business as Lutz.

Sharon Silke Carty, a news editor at Automotive News, which conducted a survey called Project XX, exploring the role of gender in the automotive business, joined Stateside to talk about what they found.

After aiming for 300 respondents, the group received more than 1,000 survey responses. It was an amount that Carty called “overwhelming.” She said that while women want to talk about these issues, many don’t feel that they can.

“They don’t want to talk about it in public. They don’t want to associate their name with it. We had a very hard time getting people to talk on the record because they do feel like it will hurt their careers to talk about this stuff in the open…. You don’t want to be labeled as the person who’s the complainer, the person who is a troublemaker, so this is why it doesn’t get talked about,” Carty said.

Carty said the survey results show just how prevalent harassment is even outside of the entertainment industry, saying, “It’s not famous men — it’s guys who work in a dealership or middle managers somewhere.”

“Part of the reason I decided to do this study was a conversation I had with a male colleague,” Carty said, “He said, ‘We always end up having these conversations where I think somebody’s a nice guy and then you’ve got this like upside-down different story — bizarre-o world,’ he said. ‘We’ve had the same careers, except you have this totally different perspective of what the world is.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s just being a woman in this industry, that when you get one-on-one with people on in small groups with people, that’s when you start to see the things that they don’t do in public anymore.’”

“We did this survey not necessarily just to sort of call out bad behavior, but to get people thinking about it, and realizing it’s still happening,” Carty said.

The discrimination creates a variety of challenges for women at work, including difficulties in receiving promotions. Carty wants those in charge to be conscious of it.

“Obviously some people are too meek, and some people are too bossy, and people do need coaching,” Carty said. “But you also, if you’re a manager, male or female, think to yourself, ‘Am I giving this woman this feedback, would I be giving it to her if she were a man? Do I treat the men in my office differently than I treat this woman?’”

At the same time, there are women making it to the top now, as evidenced by Mary Barra, GM’s Chairman and CEO.

“Women say that she is a huge role model,” Carty said, “and, until now, there wasn’t a path to the top, and now they see there is a path to the top.”

Ultimately, Carty hopes that executives will sit up and take notice of results like theirs, because they matter.

“I hope that they start listening and believe the women who work for them when they talk about this stuff,” Carty said. “I hope that they start taking it more seriously and realize this can actually really hurt their business. Letting this behavior go, we see women leave the industry. And this is an industry that is very male-dominated, but we have seen that women’s impact makes it better. And if you’re striving for a diverse workplace, you’re striving to actually reflect the customers coming into your place of business, then you need to have women there, and you need to not be driving them away.”

Carty is hopeful about the future, and is optimistic about the industry’s ability to improve.

“Things change,” Carty said. “Things changed, and they can continue to change. It’s going to make people uncomfortable — change always makes people uncomfortable — but it can change. And, ultimately, I think it would be for the best.”

Listen above for the full conversation.

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