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 corridor. Fresh from university, with a background in the arts, a Design History degree and virtually no real-life working skills, I took the first job that presented itself at a dry auto technology magazine. The publisher was part of a thoroughly traditional institution – the kind of comical establishment where the management is almost all white middle-aged portly men in ill-fitted suits – the type who take long lunches topped with bottles of red wine on expenses and flirt openly with their secretaries. This was a place where archaic sexist banter – and the occasional racially inappropriate remark – was 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, I escaped to begin life as a free independent design writer, with a foot in the auto world.

Just as the powerful and effective ‘Me Too’ movement has successfully highlight gender inequality, the tragic killing of the George Floyd earlier this year and the following civil unrest boldly shines the spotlight on systemic racism and the lack of true equality which still very much exists in our societies – more pronounced in some than others. Which brings me back to the contemporary car scene.

Gender-wise, the last decade 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 with boardrooms across major traditional car companies occupied predominantly by men in suits. Even within car design, where you would expect more diversity, there is a noticeable lack of women in creative leadership positions other than in interior design, and colour and trim. Similarly, there are simply not nearly enough culturally diverse voices in the auto design world.

Since posting this piece earlier this year (this is a revised version), I had a senior executive from a notable car design studio based in Asia protesting to the above, insisting that there are no such issues in the industry. Yet, the reality is out there: design studios are mostly overseen by men, and (with a few exceptions) white men rule in Europe and the US, with a mix of Asian and European men holding creative power positions at the car design studios in Japan, South Korea and China. 

Even in automotive journalism, I’m baffled by how few writers of colour exist. The YouTube/social media scene 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. Since writing this piece, I have been inundated with messages from women in design and journalism who wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment.

But surely, 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.

And as much as I sympathise with those who came forward since the original article went live, to tell me that they are doing their utmost to make change happen, perhaps more can be done to alter the dynamics. Brands can work directly with educational establishments to show those who may not be aware, or may not have the confidence, the possibilities of careers in the car industry. It happens successfully in other areas, so why not in the car industry?

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 in defence of equality and diversity.

Yet 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 actions.

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’s clear that there is still work to be done. It can do better.

Diverse voices with different experiences and outlooks naturally lead to more exciting conversations. And it will help bring about genuine progress.

… a note following the publication

This is an updated version of a post originally published in June, edited to reflect the responses I received following the original piece. Much of what I claim here is from personal experience and first-hand knowledge. It is not imagined and the evidence pretty much speaks for itself.

Within minutes of posting the original post on social media, messages began appearing in public and private. One I blocked for his hair-raising fascist stance, some I chose to ignore for their stupidity (including one guy from Munich who couldn’t understand the fuss since design studios are, in his words, ‘fun places to work’ and another who unimaginatively wrote ‘all lives matter’). Yet largely they were positive adult discussions from the design community echoing my observations, and with some added tragicomedies which will have to make it into a fictional piece one day.

I am happy to hear some of my colleagues in car design 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 – including mine. Prejudice may not exist in their studios, in their direct view, yet this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Following some rather passive-aggressive online bullying, conducted through cutesy wink-smile emojis, by the white male senior member of the Asian car design studio mentioned above, I eventually took the post down. Somehow I didn’t have the energy to battle his manipulative ways. Saying that his name is often used as an ‘ism’ to explain away this type of blind-to-their-privileges characteristic (insert a wink-smile emoji here for my passive win if you wish). Needless to say, this bitter encounter has indirectly tainted my perception of this particular brand.

Yet, on the whole, the post created a genuinely 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 a really interesting point to conclude on.

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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