From ‘Me Too’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’, How the car industry could do better

As Ford design manager, in the 1970s and 80s Mimi Vandermolen helped pioneer an ergonomic approach to interior car design such as in the
As Ford design manager and one of the only women in a senior position, in the 1970s and 80s Mimi Vandermolen helped pioneer the current ergonomic approach to interior design © Ford

I entered journalism through the automotive world. Fresh from university, with an art and design history degree and virtually no real-life working skills, I took the first job that presented itself at a dry technology magazine. The publisher was part of a thoroughly traditional institution – the kind of slightly comical establishment where the management is almost all white middle-aged portly men in ill-fitted suits who take long lunches topped with bottles of wine on expenses and flirt openly with their secretaries, and where archaic sexist banter – and the occasional racially inappropriate remark – is commonplace.

On occasion, I found myself defending colleagues whose gender, race, or sexuality offended the institution’s ‘norm’ – never with much success since the bullyboys made sure the victims were quickly silenced. Having done my time for possibly longer than intended, I left to begin life as a free independent design writer. I kept a foot in the auto world, though.

Just as the powerful ‘Me Too’ movement a few years ago highlighted gender inequality, the killing of the George Floyd on 25 May and the civil unrest that has followed boldly shines the spotlight on the racism, the lack of true equality, that still very much exists in our societies – in some more pronounced than others. Which brings me to the contemporary car scene.

Gender-wise, the last decade or so has seen a noticeable shift in how women are encouraged across engineering, design, marketing, and public relations. Saying that there are still so few female automotive chief executives. Even within car design where you would expect more diversity, there is a noticeable lack of women in leadership positions other than in interior design, and colour and trim. Design studios are almost all overseen by men. Perhaps there haven’t been many women willing to take up the responsibility, or there may be other reasons for female designers not feeling confident to go for such roles. All these areas would benefit from an open discussion.

‘Black Lives Matter’ has certainly underlined the untold story of race. There aren’t nearly enough culturally diverse voices in the automotive world. Perhaps brands can work directly with educational establishments to show those who may not be aware or have the confidence, the possibilities of careers in the car industry. Again, an open dialogue can only lead to progress.

Even in automotive journalism, I’m baffled by how few writers of colour exist. The YouTube/social media world seems to have filtered in a few more shades, but the numbers are negligible. The same can be said for women and LGBT representations. Dare-I-say, I sense that the women who do make it into the fraternity feel like they should either conform to feminine stereotypes or try to fit in by being one of the boys. Although I see myself as an outsider, perhaps I’m also guilty of one such path (or maybe being an outsider is my invisible defense shield so as not to be categorised).

Surely though, more diverse voices will lead to more exciting conversations in all aspects of automotive – from design to engineering, and from the boardroom to the newsroom.

By contrast, art, architecture, design, fashion – areas in which I am also involved – have made significant efforts in trying to encourage diversity within their industries, acknowledging that there exists a problem, then discussing this openly. What is perhaps telling is that since the killing of George Floyd how few of my colleagues in automotive have responded vocally on social media and elsewhere. Yet the design and arts communities have come out in full support of the anti-racist movement. From MoMA to the Barbican Centre (even my yoga studio), cultural establishments have posted bold statements regarding their anti-racist pledge. This doesn’t mean these galleries and centres were racist, it means they acknowledge that more can be done. They are taking positive action.

I look back at my time at that very first institution and shudder at the sheer blatancy of gender and race inequality. Those men got away with so much because they knew that ultimately the system favoured them. The modern car industry is certainly more refined and there is less obvious a show of chauvinistic, but it clear that there is still work to be done – that it can do better.

The more progressive companies are making a conscious effort to address the imbalance and create a fairer working environment for everyone. Diverse voices with different experiences and outlooks naturally lead to more exciting conversations. And it will help bring about genuine progress

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a small note a week on

Last week I wrote the above observational piece here, on my personal website, about the lack of diversity in the car industry. Since I don’t engage on mainstream social media – Twitter and Facebook – I decided to post a link on my professional network on Linkedin where I felt, if there were discussions, they would be fair and, well, professional.

Little did I know what was to await. Within minutes messages appeared on the post and in private. They are still appearing. Some I’ve had to block but mainly they are positive discussions from industry people who echo my observation above.

And I thank all the brave people who came out with their stories, and all those who showed live support on the post. I am also happy to hear from some of my colleagues in car design at how they take such issues seriously. Some, I now know, have created departments dedicated to working towards fairer and more equal environments. I hope they too will continue to listen to other voices and experiences. Prejudice may not exist in their studios, in their direct view, yet this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

It really is good to see the post genuinely create an engaging conversation, and much of what I’ve learned will naturally feed into my future writing. One reader noted that the car industry, on the whole, has long refrained from talking politics, that they see themselves as sperate to these bigger discussions. I thought this is an interesting point. If this were true of a sector which, up until now, has largely been involved in building personal motor cars, surely the next stage of transport, an altogether much more complex web, requires a deeper connection to politics and society?

These are some thoughts that I hope will lead to more exciting discussions and positive change.

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