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Women not treated well by most car companies

Automotive columnist: , Updated:

Three women were having breakfast at the launch program for the Kia Sedona a couple of months ago when they were told to move to another table because the company's Korean executives were planning to sit there and they didn't want to talk to female auto writers.

Anita Lienert was one of those women, and the Detroit-based writer told this story recently on TV's Autoline Detroit. Lienert was amazingly unruffled in describing the insult in a segment about the culture clash between Asian auto companies and the American men who work for them, and made soothing noises about how we all have to learn to get along.

In Lienert's view, the situation for women in the Asian auto industry was 50 years behind what it is in North America right now.

Her husband Paul, whose auto consultancy firm does a lot of work with the Korean car companies, was also a guest on the show, and he shrugged off his wife's experience and the whole culture clash issue with "it's their company. Duhh."

Now, it's instructive at this point to think what your reaction to Anita's story might have been if the Korean executives refused to sit with black people, or Jewish people, or gays, or the handicapped, or overweight middle-aged white guys with long hair, or thin young men in suits and toupees, or you name it. Bigotry is bigotry if you're the one being asked to move because some aspect of you offends some group of people.

Though the naked application of this prejudice in Anita's story surprised me, the fact that the Koreans feel this way did not. The truth about the Asian prejudice against women in the auto industry and society in general has been obvious for decades.

This is made clear in the latest (April 30, 2006) posting by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) which lists the world's countries in the "descending order of the percentage of women in the lower or single house of parliament."

The germane rankings from the IPU for 188 countries are as follows: Canada 44, the U.S. 68, Korea 76 and Japan 102, but they don't tell the full story because they don't take ties into account. So, if you look at the number of countries that have more women in parliament on a percentage basis, the rankings are really Canada 49, the U.S. 81, Korea 91, and Japan 130. Rwanda's at the top, in case you're wondering, with Sweden close behind.

While those numbers do give some clue as to women's general political status in each country, they do not paint an accurate picture of the fate of women in the auto industry. Sweden may be number two on the IPU's list, for example, but their status in Saab and Volvo only started to improve with their takeovers by, respectively, GM and Ford.

Right now, there are virtually no women in important or even-semi important roles for car companies from Japan or Korea, and that applies to their operations in Canada or the U.S. (including most dealerships) as well as in their home countries. It also applies pretty much to BMW, Mercedes and VW-Audi, by the way, but to a slightly lesser degree. More importantly, I can't imagine that the situation will change any time soon, unless there is some strong pressure brought to bear on them for their behavior.

Which brings me to my key point: Why do women continue to do business with companies that have so little regard for them or their rights? Sure, there was a time when you had to buy from a Japanese firm if you wanted quality and value in a modest vehicle, but those days are long gone. Firms that hire and promote women on an equal basis with men (Ford and GM are by far the best at this) offer comparable or better products now, and they get little benefit for this.

That women continue to buy products from men who wouldn't sit down with them for breakfast because they're women absolutely astonishes me. As a long-time proponent of equal rights for all, I wouldn't buy a Japanese or Korean car because of their inexcusable treatment of women, and I don't know why women and other evolved men don't feel the same. Blatant sexism like that only changes when you apply pressure where it hurts, and that's at the cash register.