What Drives Her: How Diversity—and Equity and Inclusion—Are Changing the Face of the Auto Industry

Sandra Phillips Rogers, Toyota, Lori Costew, Ford And Ken Barrett, Gm
Sandra Phillips Rogers, Toyota, Lori Costew, Ford and Ken Barrett, GM

DEI isn’t new, but it’s getting new attention.

Meet Mary. She’s the chief executive of one of the largest auto companies in the world. General Motors has more than 155,000 employees, millions of customers and earns billions of dollars each year. It’s a serious business. Mary isn’t just a figurehead; her appointment as CEO wasn’t simply optics to make the company look good. She earned her role through a long standing strategy, now known as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, designed to develop and promote talent inside the company.

This story was part of the 2021 Reuters Automotive Summit discussion on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with Sandra Phillips Rogers, chief diversity officer and chief legal officer, Toyota; Lori Costew chief diversity officer and director of people strategy, Ford; and Ken Barrett, chief diversity officer, General Motors; you can hear the full discussion here: Chief Diversity Officer Panel (reutersevents.com) 

Related: How a Powerful Latina Drives a Japanese Company to the Top of the US

If Customers Look Like You, Shouldn’t Leadership, Too?   

Surprised that Mary’s career path was intentional? Don’t be. Female leadership at many of the top of the world’s most important companies is growing, and that is by design. To be successful, companies know they need to develop talent from all walks of life to attract the best and brightest, as well as those who represent their customers. And while it may seem like the auto industry is behind on the trend, it’s actually not. Mary is evidence of this. She’s not the only woman in top leadership at a car company; there are more than a few —including many top female leaders at GM — and the number is growing. And, Mary is also a driver of this effort. After the murder of George Floyd, she publicly set an objective of making General Motors the most diverse company in the world. 

Don’t you love all this? I know I do. And, GM isn’t alone in creating diversity and inclusion in its organization. Ford, Toyota and others have long had a concerted effort to develop talent from among the diverse groups that make up the population of potential employees and leaders, and who represent their customers.

The practice is called DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion. Diversity, or developing a talent pool representing people from diverse backgrounds; Equity, which ensures that both opportunities and outcomes are equal for everyone; and Inclusion, which ensures that everyone feels welcome and included in the organization. 

Related: Notable African American Women Making Moves in the Auto Industry

A Girls Guide To Cars | What Drives Her: How Diversity—And Equity And Inclusion—Are Changing The Face Of The Auto Industry - Gmbarraagainstracism04

Following the murder of George Floyd, General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra held a press conference to speak out against racism and injustice during which she committed to inclusion at GM and condemned intolerance. Photo: General Motors

Why DEI in the Auto Industry Matters…Even to Non-Auto Workers

Equal pay. Equal opportunities. Career growth. The opportunity to lead. A path that leads to the C-Suite, for everyone who wants a shot. These are things that our society has been asking for and that opportunity can be found in the auto industry. 

If we want to see more opportunity for higher paying jobs for diverse groups of people across the board, we need to start where the most opportunity lies, and the auto industry is one of those sectors.

For women—or Black or Asian or Hispanic or LGBTQ or any person who is not white—to earn the same pay and opportunities as the mostly white men who have traditionally had higher-paying, career building jobs, we have to start with the jobs that they are drawn to. Many, but not all, are STEM jobs, and automotive is squarely rooted in STEM. But there are plenty of other opportunities, from finance to media and everything in between. Don’t let the sector fool you; automotive encompasses a vast array of job opportunities.  

Related: Diversity in Auto Companies? GM Execs Reveal the Key to their Future

The Business Case for DEI Means Even More Opportunities Ahead

From internal talent development efforts to interest by the investment community, DEI is increasingly part of the strategic focus for auto companies. Lori Costew, chief diversity officer and director of people strategy at Ford says she’s regularly asked to participate in conference calls with Wall Street investors. “They want to know what’s going on, what are you doing, why should we invest in you” and DEI is a big focus, she said. Ford’s “board of directors never focused on DEI, now I report on it every month,” Lori said. And she’s not alone. 

Why do investors care so much about diversity within the ranks of the companies they invest it? Don’t think it’s simply altruism at work. It’s not. This is a business, after all, and DEI makes a great business case for success. “More and more, we are tech companies,” said Ken Barrett, chief diversity officer at General Motors, “and we are in a battle for talent. We have to be seen as inclusive” in order to attract the best from the top schools, people who might be drawn to Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Younger people, from recent college graduates to those who are building dynamic careers, tend to value an organization’s culture and authenticity as much as they do pay and career opportunities. If they are not happy, if they don’t feel included and valued, many believe, the money just isn’t worth it. 

But when the culture is right, people can really soar. “Diversity allows team members to be engaged and operate at their peak, to drive innovation, to make better decisions, and in a competitive environment it gives you a strategic advantage,” said Sandra Phillips Rogers, chief legal officer and chief diversity officer at Toyota.

Sandra Phillips Rogers, Toyota, Lori Costew, Ford And Ken Barrett, Gm

Sandra Phillips Rogers, Toyota; Lori Costew, Ford; and Ken Barrett, GM

How Does Change Happen? Change Agents Share Their Experience 

So, how does an organization create an authentic culture where everyone feels valued and rewarded? How do these strategies impact the overall success of the company? And how can others in this orbit learn and put these practices to work? We’ll chat with Lori, Ken and Sandra, all agents of change in their organizations, on October 19th at 12:10 ET at the Reuters Automotive Summit virtual gathering of auto industry executives. We will talk about strategies and practices that help auto companies set higher goals, elevate the industry and create even more opportunities, for both career builders and car buyers.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss