After all this time, industry still wrestling with diversity

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At a time of social unrest stemming from incidents of police violence and questions of injustice, industries across the country are facing heightened concern over issues of diversity and inclusion.

The auto industry is no exception, a gathering of suppliers said last week.

From hiring practices to ad spending to minority-owned supplier procurement, the sector is coming under new fire for its results on industry diversity. Automakers and their suppliers have long been criticized for a lack of diversity, particularly in leadership roles.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra was sharply criticized last month for failing to meet with media companies about GM’s spending levels with Black-owned media. Meanwhile, Piston Group, the nation’s largest minority-owned auto supplier, had its minority business enterprise status revoked in February — a decision currently under appeal — for its lack of minority management. That decertification could, in turn, pose challenges for U.S. automakers that rely on spending with Piston to meet their own minority spending goals.

Last week, several automakers and suppliers, including the Detroit 3, BorgWarner, American Axle and Lear Corp., joined other industry leaders in a statement opposing voting law changes in some states that could disproportionately restrict minority participation in elections.

Thania Esquivel, global director of marketing at thermal-management technology supplier Gentherm, said some progress is being made. But diversity requires greater attention.

“You need to have diversity of thought to bring solutions to the table,” she said during a virtual Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement event in partnership with SAE International last week. “When it comes to accountability, I think it really comes to making it a part of the culture.

“You can’t have a band with all the band members playing the same instrument.”

A critical part of that effort is having adequate representation in executive leadership, said Art Benjamin, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion at New York marketing agency Tinuiti.

“When I sit down with an executive leader to talk through their [diversity and inclusion] strategy, we start with the why,” Benjamin said during the event. “I want to make sure that they have the employee and the employee community and the underrepresented communities in mind when they’re doing the work.”

Gentherm holds quarterly town hall meetings to discuss its efforts and sets company objectives around diversity, inclusion and accountability, Esquivel said.

“The conversations that we’re having are uncomfortable, transparent — but that’s what motivates change,” Esquivel said. “The end is an inclusive culture for all that’s sustainable.”

Yanfeng Automotive Interiors also has a Diversity Inclusion Group that participates in companywide town halls. Yanfeng spokeswoman Rachael Watson said that the group has influenced company policy changes.

But the auto industry faces unique challenges, she added. The fast-moving nature of the business can sometimes lead to diversity conversations being sidelined.

“Capacity is an issue,” Watson said. “We’re a very busy industry. We’re a Tier 1, and sometimes things are on fire. So people can’t always commit the same as they probably would like to.”

As companies seek to advance the diversity issue, challenges remain.

“When we’re talking about something that’s this sensitive, there’s this opportunity for you to be inauthentic,” Watson said. “We don’t want to see our communication, our approach to [diversity, equity and inclusion], to be perceived as a flash in the pan. For a sustainable approach to something, it’s got to touch every level of something — that comes from leadership.”

Another challenge is making the business case for diversity, Tinuiti’s Benjamin said.

“Many or most executives always come with positive intent,” he said. “But oftentimes, along the way, there begins to be this struggle between intent and business outcome.

“When employees feel empowered, feel heard, feel seen, then they produce better, they perform better, they stay longer, there’s less turnover, and your company does better in the bottom line because of these reasons.”

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