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Driving gender equality: Empowering women in the automotive industry

ITU News caught up with Manuela Papadopol, a co-founder and managing director of Sansea consulting, a global management and marketing consulting firm. Manuela Papadopol serves as an advisory board member for Udacity and the Los Angeles Auto Show. She is also an active member of Women in Automotive Technology, an organization created to connect, educate and drive the future of the automotive industry. She is an avid advocate of gender diversity and equality. (This interview was edited for length).

1. As an active member of Women in Automotive Technology, what are the challenges you are trying to address for women in the industry?

One challenge we are trying to address is the disconnect that currently exists in the industry. More than 85% of car-purchasing decisions in households are influenced by women, while the automotive industry has only 16% of women as Senior Executives.

Another challenge that made me look into supporting this initiative for Women in Automotive Technology is that we absolutely need to have diversity and variety in the workplace, because that allows for creating better products, from the design to the purchasing phase of automobiles.

The other thing that is interesting is that not enough women are brave enough to ask for help, or join communities, networking and mentorship groups.

But the problem does not start with the existing workforce, it starts with small children— girls and boys. So I have teamed up with some friends of mine to create an initiative called Create the Future. Its goal is to educate kids—boys and girls on how to design, code and sell a product. We need to make sure all kids have equal opportunities, and to give girls technology and the ability to design and market a product. I have received great feedback from the folks I have shared this idea with and I’m really excited to see this in action in Spring of this year.

I’m very impressed with Mercedes Benz’s networking initiative for women. It allows women to talk about opportunities, learn, and exchange information. All carmakers should create professional platforms for women.

2. In your opinion, what steps are needed to ensure women are active in automotive and technology industry?

We will need the help of the legislators and government, because without fair and equal compensation and benefits we will continue to see a gender gap. For example, there have to be equal opportunities for fathers to take time off to spend with kids and allow mothers to go back to the workforce right after they have children if they want to. Companies should provide that kind of flexibility.

There is a big disconnect from US to Europe to Asia when it comes to compensation and benefits, so we need to look at creating global standards and agreements. Government officials also need to take on more responsibility to address these issues.

It comes down to companies finding ways to identify their best people and enabling them to grow professionally without sacrificing their personal life. For example, very few companies have day care. Can you imagine how much the economy can be improved if companies just opened up day care centres for their staff! Especially in the automotive sector. It’s still a very male-driven environment. This sector can learn about best practices from other parts of the world and it can make a big difference.

I’m very impressed with Mercedes Benz’s networking initiative for women. It allows women to talk about opportunities, learn, and exchange information. All carmakers should create professional platforms for women.

3. As we witness convergence between the automotive sector and information and communications technologies (ICTs), how has working in the auto industry changed in the past decade?

When I started at Microsoft in 2004, I was part of the team of 2 people working on the Powered by Microsoft brand and that was used in millions of vehicles, for the infotainment system in the car. What a difference that brand made! In 2015, and that is already 2 to 3 car generations later, we were already talking about self-driving cars, so we have shifted from infotainment and creating a user experience in a car to, ‘How do we move from point a to point b and be driven?’. I find it incredible how technology has evolved. It sounds like science fiction but it’s reality.

Now technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) will allow carmakers to create better user experiences. A lot more products coming to market will be powered by AI—including better interaction between the car and the driver. The car will know whether there is a child in the car, what time of day it is, who is driving, and will be able to make informed decisions without being prompted by the driver on providing directions, ordering groceries, or playing music and movies.

We are also seeing shifts in business models and revenue streams, as carmakers are becoming tech companies. They are asking themselves how to keep cars more relevant in the market to meet the needs of consumers today. We change devices every year, but we can’t do that with a car. Cars need the ability to update with new applications and functionalities over time.

4. In terms of connected vehicles, in your view, what are the biggest hurdles right now for the industry?

The car is a place where we spend a lot of time and where we are consuming technology but still in a very unsafe way. We are still guilty of checking our phone when we are driving—to read our texts, or for navigation and music. That is because the interaction between the car and the driver is still in its infancy, it’s still not done right. With better user interaction and speech technology we would not need to touch our phones.

Carmakers are slowly getting there. Speech technology simply doesn’t exist in most cars so we are still relying on phones.

There are also safety and security issues that need to be considered, like hackers. We need to design cars with these risks in mind and make vehicles that are safe and secure.

Standards are also very important and we need to continue working on these. The vehicle of today and tomorrow is different from the ones from 3 years ago. So different standards need to be created, especially for self-driving cars. We also need to look at legislation, and questions like how we design cities, roads lanes and parking spaces.

5. Your company, Sansea Consulting, works with technology and automotive companies and startups? Can you describe the challenges and opportunities for innovation in the automotive tech sphere?

I founded Sansea with a friend, which surfaced from my desire to work with technology and car companies to help them rethink business models and strategies, and to ensure that the products they are developing are relevant.

I am on the board of advisers for the Los Angeles auto show. It is incredible to see how we are changing the auto show into more of a technology event. I think that is one of the challenges: how do we change what we have today in terms of events, education, and corporations to meet the technologies that exist in our life. All of these technologies are reshaping our lives, the way we learn, and the way we work together.

I am also on the board of Udacity, and they are revolutionizing education. They are looking at new ways to bring awareness and educate next generation of leaders, and that is something I am incredibly passionate about.

As someone who has received awards, I think we need to recognize the best people we have, men and women equally, and give awards to people who deserve it. We don’t do enough to promote ourselves and our capabilities.

Women in particular should have the courage to stand up and speak up, learn something new, ask for a raise or for a different role in the company, and trust in ourselves.

Manuela Papadopol co-founder and managing director of Sansea consulting, a global management and marketing consulting firm,is an avid advocate of gender diversity and equality.

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