International Women's Day: we celebrate women in the automotive industry

Today is International Women's Day and an opportunity to turn the spotlight on a number of the fabulous females that help keep the wheels turning in the automotive industry.

It’s no exaggeration to say women are markedly underrepresented in the motoring world. I’m one of a handful of female motoring journalists in Australia and I find the lack of ladies bewildering. Not only is the scale unevenly balanced in the journalism world, it’s the same story at the senior executive level and in motorsport.

It’s a vibrant, fast-paced and challenging industry, but it can be intimidating at times due to the dominance of testosterone everywhere you turn. However, there are a number of high-profile roles held by powerful women, determined to make their mark and change the game.


Above: Mary Barra

Arguably the most powerful and influential woman in the industry at the moment, Mary Barra is the Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of General Motors Company.

Fortune magazine named Barra among the ’50 Most Powerful Women in Business’ last year, while in 2014 she was included in the Time 100 and also made the cut for Forbes magazine’s ‘World’s 100 Most Powerful Women’.

Engineering, human resources, global development – there doesn’t seem to be many roles Barra hasn’t had with GM since her career began with them in 1980.

As for Barra's official title, I did email her office to find out why she is the ‘Chairman’ rather than the ‘Chairwoman’. The response? ‘Chairwoman’ had been considered, but the standard practice - as evidenced by the numerous women on the Fortune magazine ‘most powerful list’ - indicates the official title of ‘Chairman’ is the accepted practice.


Diane Tarr is the Managing Director of MB Vans for Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific and has been with the company since 1998, starting her career with the German marque in South Africa.

Her progression through the ranks included stints in after-sales marketing and pricing, national sales management, and a turn as the General Manager of MB Vans prior to being named Managing Director two years ago.

She says there are many opportunities for women in automotive. "However, I do believe women are underrepresented in leadership roles within our industry," Tarr said.

Above: Diane Tarr

She says the biggest challenge for women are the pre-conceptions. "Losing the stigma that this is ‘a man’s industry’ or a ‘male-dominated industry’, it comes down to a belief that women can be successful no matter what the industry is."

Holden Australia has an impressive number of women at the senior level, including Executive Director of Marketing, Geraldine Davys; Director of Quality, Joanne Markham; Holden Operational Excellence Master, Melanie Pollock; Director Future Dealership Experience AU & NZ, Narelle Stack; and General Counsel, Fiona Harden.

Fiona Harden spoke with me about the significant role of women in the automotive industry. Though she agreed that women are underrepresented, Harden believes that more positive planning and encouragement can help attract more females into not only the automotive industry, but other traditionally male-dominated areas as well.

“It’s like any industry, you need to shake it up from time to time, ask ourselves the tough questions and create a welcome environment for those that are interested and encourage that interest,” she said.

For Harden, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect.

“I reflect on how fortunate I am to be a woman, working in Australia in my era. It’s so different compared to the challenges faced by my mother in her generation, or those who work in a third-world country.”

“In the time that I’ve been working I’ve seen a lot of changes but not enough. We’re not at the end of the road yet.”

It is good to see that a number of other manufacturers have appointed women to jobs in the upper echelons, and there is scope to move on to international roles after starting in Australia.

Above: Kate Lonsdale

Kate Lonsdale recently moved from the Corporate Affairs department at Holden into the Singapore-based position of Senior Manager for Brand and Product Communications for GM International and South East Asia.

Lonsdale says she's found the industry dynamic and challenging and has been surrounded by positive role models. As for her advice for women today, "Be confident in what you have to offer any role. Get out of your comfort zone and be sure you keep challenging yourself."

Sinead Phipps started her career in cars with Ford in Australia in 1999. Phipps is now based in Shanghai, China and heads up Product Communications for the Asia Pacific region. She loves her job in the industry, despite not originally feeling that it would be a long-term plan.

"I think the auto industry is one where women can thrive if they love what they’re doing. Two of the best parts about it is how much everything changes in relatively short periods of time; and seeing first-hand the incredible technological and engineering feats that our engineering and design teams create," Phipps said.


Perhaps the most female-concentrated departments would be marketing and public relations. There are a number of incredibly strong women that I deal with on a day-to-day basis who are on the frontline when it comes to influencing the public and creating brand awareness.

One of those is Anna Burgdorf, General Manager Corporate Communications for Audi Australia. Burgdorf has been with Audi since 1997 and is passionate about the industry. Based on her experience, she says women are under-represented in the industry. "I can draw on my almost 20 years in the industry and say that yes, women are under-represented, especially in senior roles, but this is slowly and surely changing. Diversity of all kinds is improving, and benefiting automotive companies and brands," she said.

"In terms of female motoring writers, there’s a major shortfall in this area. Women account for around 50 per cent of our owners, and have a strong say in around 90 per cent of car-buying decisions within the premium automotive brands - and yet so few women are actually reviewing cars and writing about them for other women. I can think of about five or six people.

Above: Anna Burgdorf

"What’s most critical though, is that women want to be treated intelligently with their purchasing decisions – we are every bit as capable in understanding technical details as the next person, and our female owners appreciate performance from their vehicle and want to enjoy their driving experience every bit as much as their male counterparts. And sometimes that’s not recognised. We do need to address this lack of awareness in our industry."

Burgdorf says managing family and career is the biggest challenge and that employers who are understanding and flexible will be rewarded with a loyal employee.

"Ensuring that great employees, who happen to be women, want to return to work after having a family is critical and this is all about the leadership of the company which makes all the difference – paid maternity leave, access to keep a company car, phone and laptop for example, childcare, part-time roles, job-sharing – it all helps to retain great women and will pay off in the future as loyal employees give back so much when they know they are supported and appreciated."

"International Women's Day serves as a reminder that we are very fortunate in this country – which is not the case for many women from other cultures where gender equity simply does not exist. There’s such a long way to go for these women but you have to start somewhere and International Women's Day is important to table the topic on the agenda of all women and men.

"We should all be playing our part to encourage equality and support the advancement of women."


Above: Sabine Schmitz

Sabine Schmitz is known as the 'Queen of the Nurburgring' and she's a professional racing driver for Porsche and BMW. She's driven the track more than 30,000 times and says her favourite parts are Schwedenkreuz and Fuchsrohre.

As well as being an accomplished race car driver, Schmitz is also a successful TV presenter and businesswoman.

Another one to watch is rally car driver Molly Taylor - she's going from strength to strength in the Australian Rally Championship and the World Rally Championship.

Simona De Silvestro and Renee Gracie teamed up to tackle the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 in 2015. De Silvestro is an IndyCar and Formula E driver from Switzerland while Gracie is an Australian driver who has competed in the Porsche Carrera Cup and the V8 Supercars Dunlop Series.

After hitting the wall early at Bathurst, the girls managed to fix their Ford Falcon FGX and get back out on the tricky track. I'm excited to see what both of these talented drivers do next!

Above: Simona De Silvestro and Renee Gracie

Betty Klimenko is a colourful character, owner of Erebus Motorsport and the adopted daughter of the late John Saunders, who founded Westfield.

In 2011 Erebus Racing as it was then known, entered the Australian GT Championship racing with a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, a second car joined the team the following year.

Then, in 2013, Klimenko brought out Stone Brothers Racing, ditched the Fords and entered three Mercedes-Benz E63 AMGs under the V8 Supercars new regulations.

Klimenko has recently announced the team will switch to Holden for the 2016 Championship.

Cheers to not only these women, but to all of them in the industry who have worked tirelessly to make the automotive world a better place.

Don’t worry guys, it’s your turn later in the year. International Men's Day is on November 19.

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