For ambitious female auto executives, the good news is: The notorious glass ceiling is being raised higher. But the bad news is: So far, no female auto executive has found her way into the boardroom, which remains a male stronghold.
The past few years have seen more and more women gaining coveted jobs in the auto industry. To name but a few:
Volvo's quality department has been headed by a woman, Ulla-Britt Frajdin-Hellqvist
Citroen's head of European marketing is Magda Salarich, the 1999 Automotive News Europe Woman of the Year
This summer, Renault's Marie-Christine Caubet was named sales director for France, where the carmaker sells nearly a third of its production. (Caubet is the 2000 Automotive News Europe Woman of the Year. See Page 4.)
Women are gaining footholds in carmakers' management committees, which are one step removed from the board. For example, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen's 70-strong management committee has three women members.
As for Caubet, she has become the first woman to join Renault's 20-strong comite de direction. But the seven members of the group's executive committee, where key decisions are made, are all male.
The same is true at other European carmakers.
'It's a fact that all the members of Volvo's executive committee are men,' says Ingmar Hesslefors, a spokesman for the Swedish carmaker. 'This is not satisfactory.'
Carmakers' newfound attentiveness to their women employees could be regarded as enlightened self-interest, as they've grasped that many of their customers are women. .
Women also have a greater influence when it comes to choosing the family car. Whereas 15 or 20 years ago, women may have only chosen its color, now 'the choice of the family car is a cooperative decision,' says Hesslefors.
But if carmakers' top management teams are aware of the growing role of women as car purchasers, that isn't always the case with their sales forces on the ground.
'Time after time, we read in the newspapers that a female customer walked into a dealership and didn't buy a car because of the way she was treated,' says Volvo's Frajdin-Hellqvist. 'The salesman would only talk to the husband.'
So the hope is that the appointment of women at key positions will help change the attitude of other auto industry employees.
'As a large proportion of cars are bought by women, there ought to be more women designing cars and running sales and distribution,' says Daniel Jones of Cardiff University, Wales. 'This is still a macho industry and has a long way to go.'
Promoting women is also a matter of political correctness. 'We do it in the name of diversity,' says Volvo's Hesslefors. 'In the USA, race issues are at the center of discussion. Here in Europe, the man/woman relationship is the hot topic.'
As more women attend engineering and business schools, carmakers are able to raise their intake of female graduates. The proportion of women in Opel's yearly intake of new graduates was 10.7 percent in 1999. It 1990, it was just 5.2 percent. Renault's intake climbed from 19 percent in 1997 to 31 percent last year.
Woman employees are also on the rise on the shop floor, as technical progress makes physical strength less important.
'Be they workers on the assembly line or top executives, I have noticed that women in the car industry are very feminine, and are quite careful about the way they look,' says PSA/Peugeot-Citroen spokeswoman Erika Louis-Roy. 'They are not tomboyish.'
PSA did not have the gender breakdown of its intake of graduate trainees available. But it says women accounted for 13 percent of its employee total in 1999, compared with 11 percent in 1991. That, says PSA, is largely due to an increase in the number of women executives, up from 9.5 percent in 1991 to 11.5 percent last year.
At PSA's plant near Rennes, France, where the Xantia is assembled, women make up 20 percent of the staff. At PSA's Paris headquarters, the figure is 33 percent. But at foundries, where conditions remain much harder, women make up just 4 percent of the work force.
On the production line, women's opinions are often sought on color, design and quality control matters.
Dynamit Nobel, which paints the doors for the Smart city car, says women make up 49 percent of its work force.
'We need a sensitive eye for quality control and for colors,' says Dynamit Nobel executive Hartmut Hensel. 'Women are much better [than men] at this.'
Based on her recent experience working in America, Volvo's Frajdin-Hellqvist feels American women are further advanced than their European counterparts - both as car buyers and as auto industry executives.
'US car culture is very different to the rest of the world. In the USA, the car is part of your life,' she says. 'Both men and women are very skilled when it comes to knowing about car performance, functionality and price.'
For all the talk of equal opportunity, PSA's Louis-Roy says it would not be good for carmakers to set quotas for women employees.
'We hire women for their competence, and we expect women to know how to promote themselves,' she says.
Louis-Roy recalls a recent trade fair on education and training where PSA had a stand.
'During the morning, about 40 boys and two girls came up to us. The boys asked with great passion about Formula One. The girls asked about the inside of the car, and how we choose the colors.'
As long as boys outnumber girls at trade-fair stands, one should not expect - or wish for - parity at the middle or top rungs of the car industry's corporate ladder.
But for the girls who do ask questions, and who do look under the hood of the show car, one must hope their chances of making it to the boardroom are equal to the boys'.
Bradford Wernle and Wim Oude Weernink contributed