· 7 min read · Features

Driving diversity at Ford


The 1968 Ford sewing machinists' strike was a driver for the Equal Pay Act. Three of Ford's top HR leaders explain how diversity is front and centre.

In June 1968, a group of women changed the world of work forever. On finding out they were being paid 15% less than men doing the same level of work, nearly 200 female sewing machinists walked out of the Ford Motor Company plant in Dagenham, eventually halting production entirely. The strike led to the passing of 1970’s Equal Pay Act, was immortalised in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham, and is now back in the news thanks to a West End musical adaptation.

On first visit to Ford’s head office in Warley, Essex, you could be forgiven for thinking nothing much has changed since the era of the sewing machinists. The decor of the building, itself an exact replica of Ford’s US HQ in Dearborn, Michigan, is firmly stuck in the 1970s, all brown walls, imposing boardroom chairs and steel filing cabinets. But under the surface, it’s clear that things have changed dramatically since 1968, for Ford’s female employees especially.

For a start, the three senior leaders HR magazine is meeting to discuss how Ford has evolved since the strike are all women: Donya Urwin, VP, HR, Ford of Europe, Middle East and Africa, Doris Olulode, director of HR business operations, Ford of Europe and Jane Skerry, executive director, HR, Ford of Britain. Urwin is the first woman in 15 years to have held her post, which she took up in 2014. And Ford of Europe’s chief operating officer is also a woman.

“We all know the story [of the sewing machinists strike],” says Olulode. “For us, for the organisation, it’s about creating an inclusive environment. Today all the positions we have within the organisation have a grade attached, and employees are paid the rate for the job, irrespective of if they are male or female. We’ve made significant progress. Every organisation has a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

It’s fitting that we are conducting the interview only a few days after the official date women start ‘working for free’ in the UK, due to the gender pay gap (4th November). Unequal pay is an issue with which organisations continue to grapple, and while many shy away from reporting and auditing on the subject, at Ford measurement is absolutely key. “Where there’s an element of discretion on pay, we monitor it on a cyclical basis,” explains Skerry. “Where there are promotional increases, we do analysis. It’s ingrained in how we operate.”

Appropriately for a business built on manufacturing, Ford relies on processes and metrics to drive equality. “We are a manufacturing and process-orientated company, so we like metrics,” says Urwin. “This is a very rigorous environment and if you measure stuff it tends to make a difference.”

Diversity can often be seen as one of the ‘softer’ HR remits, but by focusing on metrics and processes, Ford has ensured its largely male workforce of engineers and manufacturers take it seriously. “If you create policy and  structure, that will change behaviour, which in turn changes culture,” says Urwin.

It’s a “continuous improvement” frame of mind says Olulode, to use another  manufacturing term). That means making sure women are monitored across every grade, and using the number of women in senior roles as a performance metric.

By couching diversity in the language of metrics, operational leaders across the company have been swept along willingly. “A lot of people use metrics to talk about the topic,” says Urwin. “We don’t impose [targets] but they will often say: ‘These are my numbers, this is my pipeline and this is where I’m going to be in five years’ time’.”

Every skills team across the business, in areas such as engineering, manufacturing and finance, has a diversity committee, which is responsible for looking at diversity and identifying actions to address any areas of under-representation. Every two years, the skill team is audited around the progress they’ve made and best practice is shared across the company.

As a manufacturing company relying heavily on engineers, Ford is not alone in suffering skills shortages in some areas. While the number of women in engineering jobs has doubled since 2012 to 26,000 today, women still comprise only 9% of the profession. That’s the lowest rate in Europe. The Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) campaign argues that in order for the UK to plug its STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills gap, more women must enter the sector.

To tackle this shortfall and encourage more young people, both male and female, into the profession, Ford works with local schools as well as offering both ‘craft’ and higher level apprenticeships. Employees run Saturday clubs for local children to come in and learn about engineering. Ford is also one of eight main corporate sponsors of the government’s Your Life campaign to encourage more young people into STEM and this year the company announced a £1,000 prize for women in STEM studies, which is awarded to a female student judged to have inspired the next generation.

To celebrate female engineers in its plants, Ford holds a ‘bring your daughters to work day’, which was extended this year to ‘bring your daughters and their friend to work’, says Skerry. “We had 50 14- to 18-year-old girls at our engineering centre, meeting female engineers and talking about what they do every day and how they got into the area,” she adds. “It shows them what engineering is like – that it isn’t dirty and oily, which is something they might not get to see unless we engage them in it.”

Urwin agrees positive female role models are critical to girls considering a career in this area. “One of the key things is to make sure women think they can work in this environment,” she says. “It has a reputation, but a factory isn’t what people think it is. It’s clean, shiny and scientific. If you expand that to engineering centres and beyond, people begin to think they can work here. And then they see women who do it – and the women aren’t wearing overalls and they are wearing make-up. We need to show people this isn’t what they think it is, so one of the biggest things we can do is bring people in or take [our] people out.”

While gender is an integral part of the 1968 strike and Ford’s heritage, so to are union representation and employee voice. “A key part of our role is to be the employee advocate, and that’s not just an HR sound bite,” promises Urwin. “When you work with strong representation among your employees, if you don’t remember it, they remind you of it regularly. When you have bright, capable people, they generally have strong voices. We do not employ many fragile, retiring wallflowers.”

And Ford certainly still has strong representation: 100% of hourly paid staff and 50% of salaried staff are represented by a union. Just as diversity practices have developed, so too has the shape of the union relationship. “We have more of an on-going dialogue with the union these days,” says Skerry.

“If you think back to the era of the sewing machinists, disputes weren’t always necessarily settled in a collaborative way,” adds Olulode. “Employees would stop work, but we don’t see that degree of resistance now. It’s much more collaborative.”

Union representation more broadly is declining; do they see a place for unions going forward? “There will always be a place for a group of people who represent others who aren’t able to [represent themselves],” believes Urwin. “Anything that makes you stop and think can be valuable. You [the business] can’t just go off and do things. You are required to talk about what that will mean for the employee.”

“There’s always going to be room for dialogue,” agrees Olulode. “If that doesn’t exist in whatever shape or form, then you don’t have that relationship between the leadership group and the employees. [For HR], it’s about objectivity as opposed to being too close to the leadership group or the unions. It’s about doing what’s right for the organisation and working collaboratively.”

Like all car manufacturers, Ford has gone through a large amount of change over the past few decades, as automotive manufacturing has declined in the UK. However, the industry has shown signs of resurgence in the past year; from January to June 2014, the UK had its best period in new car sales in nine years, with 1.28 million sold, a rise of 10% compared to the same period in 2013. Ford still makes a third of its engines in the UK, and in October this year the company announced it would be creating 318 jobs at Dagenham, in a new plant building low-carbon engines.

In dealing with the ups and downs of the industry, Urwin says the “biggest thing is to be flexible”. “It’s about having people who can deal with ambiguity,” she adds. “You never know what is going to happen. When I first started, you’d talk about this year being challenging and next year being less challenging. Now, the default is: it’s always going to be challenging. If it’s not political, it will be economical. If it’s not economical, it will be something else. Certainly the industry is changing, but the world is changing too.”

She adds that when dealing with change, everything has to “start with the business”. “The only thing you can put a stake in the ground on is how the business is doing, not just now but in five years’ time,” she explains. “As long as you do that you can have conversations that, while not easy, are kept non-personal.”

Honesty and openness remains the best policy, all three agree. Employees and formal union groups are given regular business updates, shown figures on how the organisation is performing and asked for ideas to solve any issues. “That openness makes a big difference,” says Urwin. She adds that in the automotive industry there are “three major chimneys”: “the people that design [cars], the people that build them and the people that sell them”. Each naturally ebbs and flows as the industry shrinks, grows and develops.

A constant state of flux means a focus on “continuous learning”, says Skerry, with individual employees often taking the initiative to upskill themselves in line with technological advancements. “We have an environment that’s very encouraging of skills,” adds Urwin. “The culture propels it. When you work with bright, capable people, they don’t want to stand still. If you don’t keep up, the world leaves you behind.”

As the Made in Dagenham musical continues to light up the West End, Ford’s heritage remains front of mind, and ingrained across its HR practices. But for sustainable success, there needs to be focus on tomorrow as much as yesterday. “You should honour your history, and there should be a link from your history to where you are now,” believes Urwin. “But we also need to give employees something that springs them into the future.”

Top picture, left to right: Jane Skerry, Doris Olulode and Donya Urwin