For women of color in the auto industry, race adds another element to the challenges they face.
But it’s often unclear to them how directly their experiences are linked to their gender, race or ethnicity.
“I am also African-American,” one respondent to the Automotive News Project XX Survey wrote. “So I am unsure if it is gender or race that contributes to the male perceptions of me.”
Something that is clear: Women of color are both under-represented and underpaid.
The pay gap that hits women generally is even more pronounced for women of color, according to the American Association of University Women. In 2016, white women made 79 percent of white men’s earnings, while Hispanic women made just 54 percent. Black women made 64 percent, and Asian women earned 87 percent.
And there are fewer women of color in leadership roles in manufacturing: Women of color held 2.7 percent of executive/senior level official and manager roles in car manufacturing in 2014, compared with 16.9 percent for women overall, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data analyzed by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that aims to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion.
But that progress isn’t happening for minority women.
“The experiences of women of color and their ability to succeed and advance at work has stalled,” said Dnika Travis, vice president and center leader in Catalyst’s research center for corporate practice.
And the challenges some-times drive women of color out of the auto business.
“Being a minority female in the auto industry represents a concrete ceiling impossible to break through,” another survey respondent said. “As a result, I will leave this industry.”
Subi Ghosh, an executive with an ad agency specializing in dealership marketing, told Automotive News she didn’t see her full potential when she joined the industry 10 years ago as an assistant Internet director at a dealership.
“I never saw someone at the top who looked like me, so I didn’t feel there was an opportunity for me to get to these high levels,” said Ghosh, who is of Sri Lankan descent. “I just felt like it was impossible.”
Her perspective changed with the encouragement of a co-worker, Debra Fox-Schurkus, who was the business development center director at a sister store in her dealership group and soon became a friend Ghosh nicknamed “Mama.” And after connecting with other women at conferences and networking events, she felt empowered seeing their accomplishments.
One of those inspirational women? Kathy Gilbert, director of sales and business development at CDK Global. Ghosh and Gilbert are two of six founding board members of Women in Automotive, an organization that aims to improve women’s reach in the industry in part through women-focused conferences.
Gilbert “stumbled into” the industry 23 years ago but hasn’t looked back. She recalls often being the only black woman or even the only woman in a meeting.
“Women of color, more so than women in general, put a lot of weight on themselves because they know coming in you have one strike against you,” Gilbert said. “So you’re working harder because you know you have to overcome that.”
Indeed, minorities pay an “emotional tax” at work, Catalyst found in a 2016 study of 649 black women and men across industries and job positions.
“The heightened feeling of having to protect yourself from potential prejudice, discrimination, off-the-cuff remarks that happen, all those facets can be really taxing on an individual and draining both psychologically and physically,” Catalyst’s Travis said. Study participants said they had problems sleeping and felt on guard at work.
Feeling different was linked to being less likely to speak up on important issues and feeling less creative and innovative on the job, the study found.
Krystal Roberts, director of variable operations at Advantage Chevrolet of Hodgkins, in Illinois, felt firsthand the need to overcome that initial strike. Despite being the dealer’s daughter, Roberts said, she felt she had to outwork her colleagues to prove herself.
“I’ve experienced some of the racist comments or certain looks,” said Roberts, who is black. “But I’ve said, ‘That’s life,’ and I’m going to get through this, and we’re going to take care of business.”
Gilbert preaches the importance of finding mentors, coaches and advocates. Without supporters — and many in the industry lack them — women are more prone to leaving. She advises company leaders to pay attention to the words and behavior they model for their staff.
Some survey respondents said the industry doesn’t discuss race enough and seems more comfortable with gender issues. In the interest of cohesiveness, so that our results were comparable to the Elephant in the Valley survey we adapted for Project XX, the Automotive News study didn’t specifically address questions surrounding race.
Respondents and the women interviewed did note improvements. Their consensus: The environment is changing but not fast enough.
“Many employees in the industry are sexist and racist,” one commenter wrote. “However, it’s better than years past.”