From #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter: 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 and with a background in the arts, a Design History degree and absolutely no real-life working skills, I took the first job that presented itself. It was 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 wine on expenses and flirt openly with their PAs. This was a place where archaic sexist banter and the occasional ‘funny’ racially inappropriate remark were commonplace.

On occasion, I found myself defending colleagues whose gender, looks, race, sexuality upset the institution’s ‘norm’ –- never with much success since the bullyboys made sure the victims were quickly silenced. Eventually I escaped to begin the life of a free and independent design writer. I kept a foot in the auto world though.

Since its explosion a few years ago, the powerful #MeToo movement has ushered a much-needed debate surrounding gender inequality and sexual violence. In much the same way, the tragic killing of George Floyd earlier in the year and subsequent protests in US cities and across Europe led by Black Lives Matter have boldly shone a spotlight on the systemic racism and the lack of true equality in our societies. 

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 few female automotive chief executives with boardrooms across major traditional car companies occupied predominantly by men in suits.

Even within car design, in the creative world where you would expect more diversity, there is a noticeable lack of women in leadership positions other than in interior design, colour and trim. Similarly, there are simply not nearly enough culturally diverse voices in the auto design world.

When I originally posted this piece (this is a revised version), I was contacted by a senior executive from a notable car design studio based in Asia protesting to the above. He insisted that there were 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 mainstream automotive journalism, it is baffling how few writers of colour exist. The YouTube/social media scene seems has 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 seem to 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 the above.

But I’m not here to point fingers. Rather, my interest is in understanding why this is the case. 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?

A senior member in car design, and a good friend, highlighted something that I hadn’t quite considered. Having read the original piece, he told me there is a genuine want and a push to be more inclusive. Yet the reality is to become a head of a design department in a large car company requires substantial experience, and it will therefore take time before this new wave of women and diverse groups have gained the expertise to manage departments. His own independent studio in Italy is a healthy mix of ages and sexes and ethnicity, and the benefits are clear in the work they produce. 

Recruiting women and people of colour and diverse backgrounds is one element. But perhaps more can be done at an earlier stage to include a wider pool of talent. Brands can work directly with educational establishments, even at school level to show those who may not be aware, or may not have the confidence or connections, of the possibilities of careers in the car industry. It happens successfully in other areas, so why not here. 

By contrast, art, architecture, design, fashion (areas in which I am also involved) have made significant efforts to be inclusive, acknowledging that there exists a problem, then discussing it 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 having an honest dialogue. 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 worryingly passive-aggressive online bullying peppered with cutesy wink-smile emojis by the white male senior member of the Asian car design studio mentioned above, I eventually took the post down. He simply wore me out. Saying that, his name appears often 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).

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 separate 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 eventually to positive change.