Currently reading: Research shows huge gender disparity in UK showroom staff
New research by Mazda UK has laid bare the impact today’s imbalance has on customers

Remarkably, given the millions of pounds and many hours of effort invested in chasing every sale by car retailers across the land, one of the biggest ways to gain an upper hand may well also be one of the most obvious: employ more women.

It’s more simply said than done, of course, but new research by Mazda UK has laid bare the impact today’s imbalance has on customers and sparked an initiative that boss Jeremy Thomson says is “critical” to resolve the issues, spurred on by the data highlighting just 24% of industry dealer staff are women, with 8% in sales roles and 6% in senior roles. “6% is senior roles - that’s an absolute shocker,” he concedes.

Why critical? Aside from the obvious societal failing given 48.5% of all UK driving licences are held by women, in a March 2022 survey of around 2000 Mazda customers and prospective customers, weighted to ensure fair representation in answers, 76% of women and 44% of men acknowledged they were aware of the imbalance.

In turn, 52% of women and 31% of men said they would like to see more balance and 42% of women and 24% of men said they’d have a more favourable perception of the dealership if there was more balance. “In simple terms our customers or would-be customers are telling us that if we can address this, we are more likely to sell cars,” says Thomson. “I’m here to do the right thing - but open about the motivation of selling more cars as a result.”

Mazda’s own data can be layered on top of an independent poll by Auto Trader in 2018, with headline findings revealing 94% of women don’t trust dealerships, 15% saying they weren’t acknowledged in-store if they went in with a partner and 13% finding the in-store experience uncomfortable. Thomson’s own data also reveals a generational shift in attitudes.

“In simple terms, the younger our respondents were, the more bothered they were by it,” says Thomson. “My hunch - and it’s impossible to say this with absolute confidence given it’s a spot survey - is that the response isn’t just a result of their age, but rather because of a societal shift in attitudes. In other words, if we don’t address it now, the problems that stem from the imbalance are only going to get more acute.”

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Validating the perceived problem was one thing, but responding to it far more complex than changing a recruitment strategy. “There was strong sentiment expressed by all responders - regardless of age or gender -  that they didn’t want women to be put into roles purely to fulfil quotas,” said Thomson. “While the vast majority said they want better representation, it’s clear that it has to be achieved through talent and opportunity, not forced.”

Mazda UK therefore approached 12 of its dealership groups and invited them to take subsidised membership of the Automotive 30% Club, run by Julia Muir for  CEOs and MDs willing to set the goal of a minimum 30% representation of diverse women in key roles by 2030. “If that sounds like a quota, you need to understand the science behind the 30%,” says Thomson. “Up to 30% you have to push to move the dial, afterwards the evidence is that you have created enough of a critical mass for change to flow through.”

Eight groups agreed - those not doing so typically declining because of other pressures they are under in the post-covid world - joining six who were already part of the club. In total the 14 groups represent 51 locations, or 43% of Mazda’s dealerships in the UK. “We considered all sorts of approaches, from issuing a charter that dealers would have to sign up to through to mandatory standards or financial incentives, but we felt the best way forward was to lead by example.

“Because of the way the 30% Club is run, every CEO or MD had to be personally vetted by Julia. She’s very clear that she needs to believe in their willingness to implement change. As a result there’s no risk of anyone participating passively - you have to be willing to make change, and of course that’s what we had identified was required.”

Bespoke workshops have followed, led by Laura Brailey, Mazda Head of Retail Operations, with the firm co-funding membership so long as the dealer groups agree to share best practice. “This is one area where nobody should be competing,” Thomson says. “I will be delighted if what’s learned through Mazda’s dealerships is fed back into these groups and the other brands they represent. The dealers taking part represent 744 retail locations across all their manufacturer franchises - enough that this could make a real industry-wide difference, but if we’re honest not enough when you consider there’s about 5000 in the UK.”

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Examples of changes that have already happened range from quick fixes around language used in recruitment adverts through to initiatives to encourage more women to move from aftersales, where representation is better, to sales. 

“Some recruitment decisions could be braver, that much is clear,” says Thomson. “In a changing industry, with digital disruption, omni-channel selling and so on, the roles are very different, and that means breaking some of the established paths and giving more opportunity, being more flexible, just thinking differently,” says Thomson.

“The job adverts point is small but incredibly effective. Men write adverts that use language that appeals to, and therefore attracts men, something identified by a Harvard University study in 2011. Now some online employment websites offer “gender decoding” tools for job adverts being placed - it’s a simple change to use them. So often an ideal candidate is described as “driven” or “determined”. It’s extraordinary the difference gender-balanced language, such as asking for someone who is “engaging” can make to the mix of applications. We have a lot to learn.”

As such, Thomson acknowledges that Mazda’s initiative is a starting point. From here, he and his team are setting benchmarks that they believe represent real progress, and will be updating the entire network on what they’ve achieved at the next dealer workshop in June. 

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“I see positivity and I see real change starting to happen, but we are at the start of a long journey,” says Thomson. “My motivations aren’t just altruistic; at Mazda we’ve invested heavily in elevating our brand, and if we haven’t addressed this issue then we cannot claim to have delivered on our goal of elevating customer experience  and matching their values and expectations. It’s a fundamental problem that we need to address.”

Learning from leading dealers

While Mazda is challenging some of its dealers to think differently, it’s also open to learning from them - and few are more progressive than TW White & Sons Ltd, a Surrey and Kent-based dealership group that represents Mazda, Suzuki, Kia and Hyundai.

Several years ago managing director Neil White made the bold decision to scrap paying a sales-based bonus, instead putting his salespeople - swiftly renamed as client advisors - onto a salary that roughly reflected their previous annual income, and then moving all his technicians onto equivalent salaries. 

“I went home, looked in the mirror and wondered if I was going to regret it in 12 months time,” says White. “In fact, the opposite is true: we sell as many if not more new and used cars, add-ons such as warranties, and our staff turnover in the past three years has been effectively zero. Our advisors and technicians are equals, they don’t have the stress of hitting targets but they work every bit as effectively.”

White’s group marketing manager Jen Westwood says the key is managing the teams effectively. “Paying a low basic salary plus commission had one positive effect: under-performers would leave quickly. But that’s a management issue; we’re lucky that we don’t have many issues, but when we do managers just have to be a bit more proactive.

Staff are bonuses on a customer satisfaction score only - “if it’s average they earn nothing - it has to be well above average,” says White - while the business has also moved to anonymise all CVs when vacancies open.

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“We advertise using gender-neutral language, remove any personal details from CVs before managers see them to avoid unconscious bias and, where possible, offer flexible hours,” adds Westwood, who says around 20% of the 100 employees are women now. “Our stats won’t change overnight, but we are determined to try everything to make a difference.”

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Add a comment…
Oldphart 11 June 2022

Customers need training as well. A man walked into my mates showroom and greeting the excellent sales lady with "Hello, I'd like a white coffee please, and can I talk to a salesman?"

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