Fleet News

Special feature: Women in fleet

BACK in the olden days – say, 30 years ago in the automotive world – when cars were cars rather than an amalgam of acronyms, fleet managers were men who knew their diffs from their DAFs. Women knew their place, generally decoratively gracing the reception desk or typing the boss's letters.

But that has all changed. Without fuss, women have quietly moved in, made a niche for themselves and now make up at least a fifth of fleet decision-makers.

More extraordinary than that, 80% of the management category winners in this year's Fleet News Awards – the 'Oscars' of the fleet industry – were female. Considering their late start, that figure is quite startling and something that would not have been believed in the industry even 10 years ago.

So what could account for this meteoric rise in what is traditionally perceived as a male-dominated environment?

Stewart Whyte, director of the Association of Car Fleet Operators (ACFO), runs basic fleet management courses through his company Fleet Audits. On the most recent course, nine of the 10 participants were women. They had all expected the course to be male-dominated while, in fact, the lone male was surprised to find himself outnumbered.

Whyte believes the issue is not about women suddenly flocking to replace men in the world of fleet but about the fact that they are beginning to get noticed within the industry.

He said: 'There are probably more women running fleets than men, often as an add-on to a secretarial or H&R job, but there has been a glass ceiling issue in the past, with policy-makers like finance directors generally being men.

'That is beginning to change in all areas and a disproportionate number of those women are finding their niche within the fleet industry, so women are beginning to become policy-makers rather than just administrators.

'Thirty years ago, you needed to understand motors because maintenance was a big part of the job. You needed to know about things like gear ratios and anti-freeze. That's no longer the case and that has taken away any barriers to non-technical people.

Everything now is outsourced and most people are more interested in whether they're getting electric windows or not.

'The female predominance in this year's Fleet News Awards is probably down to increased confidence among women who have seen more and more awards going to females and so are encouraged to enter and go for the top prize.'

As a Fleet News award winner in 2002 and 2003, Gill Bishop (formerly Garrett, until her marriage a couple of weeks ago) is a worthy advocate of women's role within the fleet industry. Bishop, currently fleet manager of Guide Dogs for the Blind, began her career in customer services and worked for Premiere Products of Cheltenham. She became assistant to the fleet director in the late 80s and then took on the position of fleet administrator.

'There have been enormous changes,' she said. 'Fifteen years ago, you would go to a car launch and be the only woman there. When you spoke to other male fleet managers, they didn't always take you that seriously – you didn't have much credibility.

'In the past five years, men have realised that women can do the job and bring with them extra qualities. They are often very methodical and, I think, more subtle in their approach, sometimes going for a different angle than men.

'Women are also hungrier to prove themselves, maybe because we feel we have something to prove and are more willing to learn because we are happier to admit when we don't know something.'

Margaret Welsh, this year's Fleet Manager of the Year, sub-100 vehicles, is typical of women in the industry in that she came to the job by accident rather than design.

'I started at Croft 14 years ago as a receptionist/supervisor and the then managing director asked me to take care of a few cars. As the years went by and Croft's fleet grew, I just got the job of dealing with it. I think I was only asked because I used to sell motor insurance.'

Welsh says she has never experienced anything but respect from her fleet colleagues and is grateful for what she describes as 'tremendous' help received from both inside and outside of her company, one reason for which might be her willingness to ask for advice whenever she feels the need.

As the first-ever car saleswoman in Northern Ireland, Susan McDonald, 2004 Fleet Manager of the Year, 400-plus vehicles, soon learned to look after herself in a man's world. She said: 'It was back in 1976, when the Ford Cortina had 45% of the market. I was only 19 and customers were initially surprised, then would always challenge me on technical matters. Once I'd successfully acquitted myself, I would earn their respect.'

McDonald found herself forced out of the job when she was continually 'pestered' by a male colleague but was tough enough to stay in the motor industry.

'Of course, it would be called sexual harassment now but in those days you just left and looked for another job.'

Her career led to her running the largest fleet in Northern Ireland while still in her 20s. Her 28 years in the business, during which she has seen a huge increase in the number of women in fleet, means she is confident enough never to be patronised by male contemporaries, though she says some of her colleagues have 'condescending' attitudes.

This year's Fleet Risk Management Award winner Phillippa Caine originally trained as a bi-lingual secretary and worked in France, Hong Kong and Singapore before helping to set up a gas broking business and then joining the Confederation of Registered Gas Installers (Corgi) as company secretary.

She said: 'Being a woman in the fleet industry can only be viewed as interesting. While being encouraged to give frank opinions on the 'toys' available or the thought that has been put into the design in respect of handbags and car seats, I have also managed to share one or two more interesting comments regarding tracking, road holding or a change in the engine, which generally receive a condescending rub of the shoulder. But do I enjoy the smile when they find I may have had a point.'

Di Rees, celebrating 25 years with Leo Pharmaceuticals this year, joined the firm as PA to one of the directors and began looking after the company cars soon afterwards. That was in the days when fleets were usually looked after by transport managers who had 'come up through the trades' and had all the technical knowledge to confound her with.

She was often the only female representative at seminars and meetings and believes it was her forceful personality that enabled her to survive those early days.

Rees, obviously adept at turning circumstances to her advantage, deserves the last word: 'In the early days, people assumed I was the secretary and would ask to speak to the boss – so nowadays, if I don't want to speak to anyone, I just tell them I'll get the boss to phone them back.'

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