It’s not news that Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors are behind on including women among their board members or highest-paid executives like other manufacturing companies here.
But a fresh alarm bell is ringing with the Korean duo these days as their Detroit rival General Motors has recently named a woman as its new CEO.
On Dec. 10, GM made a surprise announcement appointing Mary Barra, senior vice president for global product development, the company’s first female CEO. She is also the first woman to lead a global carmaker.
“This is truly the next chapter in GM’s recovery and turnaround history,” Barra told employees the day of her appointment at company headquarters in Detroit. “And I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Hyundai and Kia, both considered among the most male-dominant workplaces in Korea, are also seeking to lure more talented women as they renew welfare benefits for them to start and continue their careers at the companies.
Those attempts, however, seem to have failed to trigger major changes thus far.
Over the past five years, there has been no big difference in the female ratio both at Hyundai and Kia. At the end of 2012, 57,052 men and 2,575 women were working at Hyundai, with female workers making up less than 5 percent. The female ratio at Kia was a tiny 2.5 percent.
In recent years, the companies had two high-profile nominations. They picked female marketing specialists from outside the companies.
Kia named its first female executive in 2010, appointing Chae Yang-sun, a former vice president at L’Oreal Korea, to head its marketing team.
Hyundai followed suit last year as it named Choi Myung-wha, who worked at McKinsey, LG Electronics and Doosan Group as a marketing and branding specialist, as its marketing director as well.
They are still the sole female executives at Hyundai and Kia. (At GM Korea alone, there were 17 women in top positions last year.)
A lack of support from management, insufficient childcare and a stubbornly male-dominant culture are often cited as key factors that keep women from continuing their social careers, especially in the automotive industry.
Experts urge Hyundai and Kia as leading players in the domestic market to take further steps to nurture female leaders or “role models” from mid-level management positions to the top-level.
“Most women in the automotive industry are more involved in marketing activities rather than product development or engineering jobs,” said an industry source on condition of anonymity. “It would be nonsense for management to pick a CEO with no automotive background. That also means more diverse opportunities should be offered to women,” he said, predicting a female CEO at Hyundai was still far from reality.
Women themselves are also required to take on more responsibility and sometimes shoulder risks.
A Hyundai executive who recently interviewed new employees pointed out that most women preferred “more comfortable, softer jobs” such as marketing and PR.
“We cannot force them to do jobs that they don’t want,” he said, wishing to remain anonymous.
In the case of the new GM CEO, Barra joined the company in 1980 as an engineering student and became a plant manager, executive director of engineering, head of human resources and since 2011, the senior executive overseeing all of GM’s global product development.
Outgoing CEO Dan Akerson, who will resign next month, made it clear that Barra wasn’t picked because she is a woman.
“Mary’s one of the most gifted executives I’ve met in my career,” he said of her.
By Lee Ji-yoon (firstname.lastname@example.org)