We constantly hear these days that the customer is king - or queen, depending upon your gender. Auto manufacturers are desperate to show how deeply they care about their customers. Particularly their female customers.
Surveys show women influence more than half of all car buying decisions. But when the managers of a car company gather for a photograph, all you see are middle-aged men in dark suits. There's something wrong there.
Like other vehicle manufacturers, Ford Motor Co. says it would like to see that imbalance redressed. The company also wants to show its efforts are more than mere tokenism.
One recent Friday afternoon, I received a phone call from Rose Mary Farenden, director of global recruiting for Ford Motor Co. She invited me to participate in a 'Women in Engineering' session at Ford's engineering center in Dunton, England, the following day.
Rose Mary Farenden is not someone you say no to - even when the day in question came directly after a visit to the Frankfurt auto show. It was a day I had reserved for rest, relaxation and laundry.
Farenden was project manager for the Focus, Ford's replacement for the long-established Escort. For her work on the Focus, Automotive News Europe honored her as Woman of the Year in 1998.
Ford Chief Executive Jac Nasser recognized Farenden's talent. He brought her from England to Ford's US base in Dearborn, Michigan, to fill a newly created position. Farenden's mission: To make Ford more attractive to young and talented people. Young women are at the top of that list.
Ford and other automobile companies know only too well their industry is not the glamorous choice these days on university campuses. The computer and information technology industries have been far more attractive in recent years.
About 150 women engineers from around the UK showed up for the day out in Dunton. The majority of them worked in fields other than automotive.
They were lured by the prospect of a tour of Ford's huge engineering facilities, an opportunity to network with fellow engineers, and a nice lunch. They also got to meet Farenden and women engineers at Ford. Perhaps best of all, they got to take a thrilling lap around one of Ford's test tracks in a Ford Puma rally car piloted by a female race driver. Each ride finished with a tire-smoking handbrake turn.
At the end of the day Farenden and others participated in a panel discussion about the problems women engineers face in their lives and careers. Such problems as balancing work and family, advancing in a male dominated profession, and so on.
'I'm sure every one of you has struggled and felt alone,' Farenden told the group. 'We need to encourage each other and start building a support network.'
Some of the women were skeptical about Ford's motives in inviting them. During the panel discussion, one audience member asked bluntly why Ford had asked the women there. Was it to sell them cars, or was it for recruitment?
Farenden said Ford certainly wouldn't mind if a few of the women decided to buy Focuses, or went home to tell their friends about the car. But the real purpose of the day, she said, was to give women engineers a chance to talk with each other and start networking.
Al Kammerer, Ford executive director of business and product strategy/development, admitted that learning to appeal to women customers has been a learning process for Ford. Kammerer was formerly vehicle line director on the Focus team.
'When you look at studies, vehicles from Japan tend to appeal to a higher proportion of women customers,' he said. 'It's an overgeneralization, but the Japanese know how to sublimate their wants to satisfy the customer.
'Westerners will say, 'I like it this way,' and will design (a car) according to their own wishes. Those people are usually white males.'
The Women in Engineering day was an impressive exercise. Not only did Ford get the undivided attention of 150 potentially influential consumers, it also got a chance to dazzle them with the variety of career opportunities in the auto industry. Kammerer said Ford will have about 300 job openings for engineers this year.
Kate Taylor, an aerodynamics engineer for S&C Thermofluids in Cambridge, England, did not go looking for a job. But she was glad she participated.
'The engineering profession benefits from a wide range of people working in it, so you do get that freshness of thought,' she said. 'If you weren't going to have any women engineers, that's 50 percent of the population whose ideas you're not getting.'