By Asha Sivenath, NSA Human Resources General Manager
More than a century ago, while navigating the streets of New York City, a woman noticed that streetcar drivers often had to stick their heads out windows to see during inclement weather, sometimes even getting out to clear up the windscreen.
She got to work contriving a solution which consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade on the windshield. In 1903, a patent for her “window-cleaning device” for “removing snow, rain, and sleet from the glass in front of the motorman” was granted by the US Patent Office.
Although automakers at the time turned away from her invention, her device would go on to become a non-negotiable apparatus for vehicles across the globe.
Her name was Mary Anderson. She invented the windshield wiper. Mary was one of many women who have, through history, made a significant contribution to a male-dominated automotive industry. Carmakers are now taking heed, promoting gender diversity in key leadership positions, both in boardrooms and manufacturing plants.
Nissan South Africa (NSA), for example, has since 2017 spent upwards of R56-million for the training and development of its female employees, resulting in more females entering senior management positions in the company and leading some of its crucial projects. One such project includes the R3-billion upgrade of Nissan’s standout Rosslyn Manufacturing Plant in Pretoria from which the brand’s award-winning Navara bakkie rolled off.
Such innovations, like those in the Navara, are derived from out-of-the-box thinking, which cannot happen when a company employs similar-minded people with similar backgrounds. Eliminating the workforce gender discrepancy therefore has the potential to completely revolutionise the automotive industry.
It is imperative to actively encourage women at an early stage to pursue a career in the automotive industry, and thereafter create an environment for growth to retain their skills within the sector as they progress.
The only way to do this is to remove existing biases, nurture talent, and create opportunities for our women to break the status quo.
This can be done through setting employment equity targets which aim to increase overall female representation – with a focus on women of colour – in top management roles. To make this a reality, for example, Nissan has further ensured its array of training programmes contain a 50/50 gender split, creating an environment for rising stars in the company to flourish.
The automaker has pooled together a series of programmes and activities focused on talent development, succession planning, and mentorship for female employees and prospective graduates looking to enter the sector.
But more needs to be done within the industry. Several reports show that women make up only a quarter of the world’s workforce in the automotive sector, with women of colour being an even smaller fraction. Some of the reasons why women leave the industry, or choose never to enter, are a lack of promotional opportunities, biased cultural norms, and poor work-life balance.
The automotive industry as a whole is far from perfect when it comes to gender representation, but by taking active steps now, carmakers can harness the untapped value women offer to the sector.
Women pioneers like Mary Anderson were once shunned, their groundbreaking innovations having no place in the boardrooms of carmakers. It was only in 2011, almost sixty years after her death, that she received due recognition for her contributions when she was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
As South Africa celebrates Women’s Month, Mary remains first a stark reminder of the potential that women have in the automotive sector; and second, a cautionary tale of how ignoring that potential can lead to a loss of innovation and development for years to come.
Asha Sivenath is the GM: Talent Management for the Nissan Africa Regional Business Unit. Asha’s passion for people and their growth has led to a 20+ years career in HR where she has worked for leading companies such as the South African Breweries (SAB) and has been with Nissan South Africa for almost a decade. Since joining Nissan 8 years ago, Asha grew from a non-manufacturing HR role to becoming the first female HR General Manager in Nissan SA Manufacturing and has now become a continental lead in her current role.