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In the auto world, women still battle to crack old boys' club

© GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File / by Luc OLINGA | General Motors CEO Mary Barra (L) -- the only female CEO in the auto industry -- is seen at the official debut of the new 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 at the Detroit Auto show on January 13, 2018

DETROIT (AFP) - 

The auto industry is famously male dominated, forcing women in the field to fight sexism, discrimination and unequal pay -- though woman car experts say having Mary Barra at the helm of General Motors is a "very significant" development.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct, industry experts Maryann Keller, Michelle Krebs and Rebecca Lindland say they have never faced harassment comparable to that described by the accusers of, for example, film producer Harvey Weinstein.

But speaking to AFP on the sidelines of the Detroit Auto Show, one thing was clear: as women, they felt unwelcome in the "old boys' club" of the automobile world.

All working as industry analysts -- with expertise in a world which seems incomprehensible to many -- Keller, Krebs and Lindland are regularly consulted on the battle between US and Japanese manufacturers, the ambitions of Tesla or the arm-wrestling of BMW and Mercedes Benz.

But the 62-year-old Krebs, of AutoTrader.com, recalls that when she started, "There was some skepticism that I wouldn't be sticking around."

"I don't know if I was taken seriously initially," echoes the 74-year-old Keller, who was a financial analyst on male-heavy Wall Street before she became an automobile expert, eventually opening her own consultancy.

She remembers "silly events" and "inappropriate remarks" from salesmen, but declined to go into further detail.

- Golf, fishing and car racing -

Krebs and Lindland, meanwhile, explained some of the discrimination they faced.

"I had to make sure that I knew everything because they doubted that a woman would know everything," said Lindland, who is in her 40s.

"There were a lot of male bondings that I was excluded from," added Krebs, referencing the golf, fishing and car racing outings enjoyed by her colleagues.

"In the very early days... when you go on car drives you usually partner up," she said. "Nobody would ride with me."

A former journalist, Krebs began her auto career in 1980 at a local newspaper in Michigan.

She worked her way up to become the first woman to review cars for The New York Times in the 1990s -- but found herself on the receiving end of insults from misogynistic readers.

"I got a letter from someone in Texas that said, 'Women have no business writing about cars -- they belong in the kitchen making cookies and making mine chocolate chips.' I never forgot," she said.

And for Lindland, who has been passionate about cars since the age of nine, auto shows are often frustrating.

"The assumption is that I'm part of the support staff," she said.

As for pay, Lindland added she had "no doubt" that is another area where women lose out.

"Myself and other female colleagues are paid less... that's probably for me the most frustrating and upsetting bit," she said.

Meanwhile, troubling allegations have surfaced about mistreatment of women workers at two Ford Motor Company factories in Chicago.

Last month, Ford's CEO apologized to employees at the plants after a scathing expose detailed decades of sexual harassment and abuse.

In recent years, auto groups have made efforts to hire more women -- but the majority of employees are still men.

- 'Petrol in your blood' -

"It seems to me that there are safe places where you can have women... you can be an economist, you can be in HR," said Keller.

In fact, Barra, CEO of General Motors since 2014, is the only female at the head of a large automobile group -- an appointment Keller described as "very, very significant."

However, she said questions were raised about Barra's credentials -- despite the fact she had spent her entire career in the auto field.

Meanwhile, she added, Ford's newly appointed, less experienced CEO, Jim Hackett, faced no scrutiny.

"I think it was... because she is a woman," said Keller, who compares perceptions of women working in the industry to manufacturers' view of female consumers.

"Starting in the 90s, probably if I went to a dealership to buy a car, they would say bring your husband," she said.

Indeed, it took years for the three women to earn their colleagues' respect -- a moment Lindland will not forget.

"I still remember when they said, you know, we now know that you have petrol in your blood," she said.

by Luc OLINGA

© 2018 AFP