Women rise in car industry

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Women rise in car industry


Cynthia Brinkley, vice president of General Motors’ global human resources team, left, advises high school students on how to become leaders of industry yesterday at the Hyatt Regency in Incheon. GM Korea, the local unit of U.S.-based GM, held a women’s conference for the first time. Provided by the company

INCHEON - Nobody thought Monaco pink cars would sell here until GM Korea proved them wrong.

And now women executives and designers are increasingly infiltrating the machismo-laden and male-dominated Korean auto industry in response to a market in which the fairer of the species often call the shots.

“It’s not just men buying cars,” said Cynthia Brinkley, vice president of General Motors’ global human resources team, who is visiting Korea this week to attend a two-day conference.

“[Purchasing cars] is a decision that is, frankly, largely driven by females. And having a female voice in the process, from leadership, product development and manufacturing to human resources and design will eventually bring better products,” she added.

GM Korea has also found this to be the case.

When the company launched its Monaco-pink-colored Chevrolet Spark in July of last year, its rivals predicted the color would prove a giant turkey. But in one given month of sales in Korea, the pink cars actually accounted for 35 percent of Sparks sold. No other single color in the Chevy lineup has eaten up more of the pie for a model in one month.

“The car has been very successful in the Korean market,” said Mike Arcamone, president and chief executive of GM Korea, adding that the carmaker came up with the idea by responding to feedback from female consumers and having women employees participate in research and development.

This puts GM Korea in the role of “barrier breaker” as a company that creates a “workplace that supports women and, above all, their success” amid a male-dominated manufacturing industry in the country, he added.

The automaker, the local unit of U.S.-based General Motors, believes that times are changing, with more women executives, designers and engineers entering the industry to fine-tune cars to the needs - and whims - of a market that is no longer just for men.

As such, it organized a conference yesterday dedicated to strengthening their talents and competitiveness at the Hyatt Regency Incheon - a rare networking opportunity in the industry. The turnout was better than expected, with at least 150 female managers, executives and students exuding energy and passion in the hotel’s ballroom.

According to the automaker, GM Korea has around 900 female employees, which is triple the number it had when it launched nine years ago. It also created a special women’s committee in 2005 to maximize the development potential of its staff and help scout out top talent.

One in five senior-level positions at GM are occupied by women, and Mary Barra, the company’s senior vice president in charge of global product development, serves as the highest-ranking female employee in the industry.

And whereas women sometimes rule in other sectors like retail, for example at Pepsi and Kraft, the global auto industry has not yet seen a female CEO.

Other local automakers have fewer female executives than GM’s local unit. Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors, the nation’s two-largest automakers, have a sum total of two out of 500 female executive-level officials.

“The automobile industry has traditionally been male oriented, as it involves working in factories and research centers where male employees tend to exert control over their female colleagues,” a staffer at Hyundai Motor said.

This level of inequality was partly reflected in a report by the World Economic Forum released Tuesday that ranked Korea 107 out of 135 countries, three places lower than where it sat on the list last year.

But there may be signs of an upswing in women’s fortunes, at least in the more creative side of the auto industry.

“There is much potential for growth of the female workforce, especially in the areas of marketing, promotion, design, which are all growing,” the Hyundai employee added.

Ssangyong Motor, the nation’s smallest automaker, has no high-level female officials.

“We all know that females don’t go into areas like engineering, math, science, so we don’t have enough engineers in the first place,” Brinkley said. “So it’s very challenging to find engineers.”

By Lee Eun-joo [angie@joongang.co.kr]

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