Women auto execs talk about hiring, mentoring, and helping women succeed

October 26, 2022
Editor, Canadian auto dealer magazine

One of the main events in the ACE conference’s Women Driven segment was a lively panel discussion about dismantling barriers for women in the auto industry, which was hosted by award-winning automotive journalist Petrina Gentile, and featured Maureen A. Harquail, CEO of OMVIC; Yolanda Biswah, Senior VP and GM of Canadian Black Book; Natalie Varey, HR advisor at DealerPILOT, and Edith Pencil, Director of Employee Services at Performance Auto Group. 

The discussion touched on how the industry can create spaces where women feel empowered and comfortable bringing their talents to various roles within dealerships and OEMs. 

First off, Gentile asked the panel about some simple steps dealerships can take to bring in more diversity. “I think we really need to be a little bit more intentional about unlearning and revisiting preconceived notions on who would be the best fit for a role,” said Pencil. “Sometimes when we’re thinking about the fitness of a candidate for a role, biases sometimes come into play. So I think the topic of unconscious bias is really important, as it pertains to recruitment, and promotions, and who we are assessing for talent.”

“If I have a staff member, someone who I feel has great potential, who’s expressed to me that they want to move to that next role or take on that next challenge, I want to challenge them,” said Harquail. “I want to say, ‘How are you going to get there? What can I do to help you? Do you want to go and take a degree, a certificate, a diploma, a special training, get a designation? What is it that we can do as a company to help you move your way up?’ So to me it’s being that education champion and I think that’s something I’ve really tried to do in my career, certainly in the last four, five years with OMVIC.”

Natalie Varey brought up the importance of mentoring in this discussion. “The HR profession is built really strongly on networking and creating relationships through mentoring,” she said. “Do you have a mentorship process or policy for your employees, and are you able to stick to those processes, so that they know that they’re being heard and they can continuously and consistently go to somebody for support? That is paramount for sure.”

“They want to know where opportunities lie,” said Pencil, “and so need to be intentional about talking about those career opportunities, if there’s opportunities for shadowing, mentoring and just being able to share that I think can go a long way in helping to shape someone’s career.”

The group talked about less structured actions that can make a difference. “At OMVIC, I’ll have small meetings with certain groups,” said Harquail. “So for example, the women lawyers, I’ll take them to lunch, listen to them, what’s going on in their everyday life, what are their career paths, what are the pressure points? I found that that has worked very well to get that pulse of how some of our younger employees, and certainly younger women, are doing.” 

So what can we do to encourage women to do more, and apply to those jobs? Varey spoke about the HR perspective. “I encourage us to look at what our postings are like. What is included in those postings? Are those accommodating, welcoming job postings that we are putting up on our job boards?” 

“I think the ‘war for talent’ that everyone here can relate to as leaders, we’re wanting to be an employer of choice,” said Pencil. “This requires us to make changes to the culture for more flexibility with work-life balance. Those are things that are really important to job seekers. And I think as a woman, being a mother of two children, two very busy children, I can relate that to how important work life balance is.”

Gentile then asked the group an age-old question, “As a woman, do you have to work harder than your male counterparts in this industry?”

“Many women can relate to the experience of having a vision or an idea that did not receive acceptance, but then a male counterpart has the exact same idea months later, and all of a sudden it’s being an accepted vision or idea,” said Pencil. “But myself, I felt that I had to work hard. I think that was just a work ethic that was developed as a child. So I was always continually working hard. But I don’t think it was specifically because I thought that I needed to work harder than my male counterpart.”

Biswah said, “I think in order to get our voices heard, in order to be recognized, we have to work a lot harder. I come from an immigrant family, and my parents used to say, ‘Put your head down and work hard.’ From my experience in working with women in this industry, we work a lot harder than our counterparts, to prove ourselves over and over again, to get to that next level. And I think when you’re a woman leader, that’s one of the barriers that we need to break down.”

For the women in the audience, next came a crucial question that had everyone’s ears perking up. How do you ask for more money? Biswah said, “Have a plan, write it down, be intentional. Just like when you’re selling, ask for more and see where you land. Don’t take the first offer that comes back to you. Also, think about the other things that are going to help you grow as part of the company. Maybe you’d like the company to pay half of your diploma at Ryerson, or whatever it is that will move you ahead. You can get the buy-in of the company and at the same time they’re investing in you.”

Pencil said, “From the employer perspective, I feel like the world in general is getting more and more closer to pay transparency. I’m sure everyone is seeing a lot of job ads, where they have the ranges posted. I think knowing the valuation of roles, I think it’s very easy to get that information now online. So as an employer, we need to be making sure that we’re instilling compensation practices that are obviously equitable and fair.”

Some panellists also talked about the challenges they faced in the industry as Black women. “Part of my journey is being part of Accelerate Auto. Accelerate Auto is working with organizations on internships in getting young, Black individuals into the automotive industry,” said Biswah. 

“We have to find other ways to connect with them because they graduate from their programs and they end up going into other fields, not the ones that they actually study for. And as we know, there is a war for talent, so we have to do everything we can to get them into our industry, especially if they’re enrolled in schools,” she said.

Edith Pencil made a great point about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs needing to be more than just a check the box approach. “Diversity means receiving the invitation to the party, but inclusion is actually being invited to the dance floor,” said Pencil. “We don’t want to take the approach of checking the box, have a diverse workforce. Let’s take that extra step by making sure that the people that we have in the workforce are a direct reflection of our communities, that we’re including them in the discussions that were considering various diverse people in decisions for promotions, for different types of employment decisions,” she said.

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