Putting petal to the metal

DRIVING FORCE: Denise van Huyssteen at her GM Office in Kempston Road. Picture: BRIAN WITBOOI
DRIVING FORCE: Denise van Huyssteen at her GM Office in Kempston Road. Picture: BRIAN WITBOOI

Global role for GMSA’s gender equality advocate important, writes Shaun Gillham

DENISE van Huyssteen, General Motors’ (GM) communications and public relations head for its African market, is turning the traditional “battle of the sexes” in the work and market places upside down with a fresh approach based on leadership through integration, rather than segregation of the sexes.

While singularly directed at increasing inclusivity and empowerment for women employees, and their growing power as decision makers and consumers, Van Huyssteen’s approach addresses gender equality challenges with the full participation of men, rather than the traditional approach of women “huddled in groups” where they draw their own battle lines in the fight for equality.

Besides her meteoric rise in an industry long dominated by men and her extensive expertise and experience in her field, Van Huysteen’s “all-inclusive” tack undoubtedly played a big role in her recent promotion to chairwoman of GM’s International Women’s Council.

But what makes Van Huyssteen’s endeavours particularly special is that they are not only productively advancing both women and men in their understanding of each other in the workplace, they have also become an integral part of the company’s business and marketing strategy.

This was starkly evident during a whirlwind meeting at Van Huyssteen’s Kempston Road, Port Elizabeth, office this week when the very amicable and equally driven communicator quickly debunked the idea that it was a case of petalheads versus petrolheads in both the vehicle industry and market.

“Ultimately our goal is to be an employer of choice for women and to sell more vehicles to more women. To this end, specific areas of focus include employee personal and professional development, strong brands and products, building customers for life and driving a culture of diversity.

“These are important imperatives for our business as we aim to grow in the markets in which the company operates,” said Van Huyssteen, who served as chairwoman of the Women’s Council in South Africa before taking up her international role. She said that during next year the GM International Women’s Council would be encouraging the various markets to expand their reach from primarily internal initiatives to also incorporate an external focus on customers.

“We are taking a holistic view in terms of the role the council will play in serving as a platform to promote the high priority areas of focus for the company. Key to our success will be securing the support of senior leadership in all the markets and involving their teams to drive key actions,” explained Van Huyssteen.

Locally, Van Huyssteen has already run a number of initiatives aimed at bridging the gaps between genders, which include providing a technical course for women and a platform described as “gender assessment workshops” where both male and female employees could discuss their respective roles in the workplace in relation to the respective genders and their perceptions of each other.

This strategy turns what could arguably have been be a highly combustible gender forum into a low-emissions and high-powered platform for improved understanding between the genders.

Running through a recent, very successful presentation made to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela during the first anniversary of the Women’s Council in September, Van Huyssteen was quick to point out that the gap between men and women new car buyers was closing fast, with research showing that 47% of new car buyers in South Africa during the past two years were women.

“It is also estimated that women influence more than 70% of vehicle purchasing decisions. Further, there are very interesting results around research to determine the factors which drive their purchasing decisions, with price, fuel economy and brand reputation being among the top three factors,” she said.

With plans to extend her gender initiatives from the company to GM’s dealership network, Van Huyssteen will not only be a driving force for a new gender agenda in the greater motor industry, but also in all communities touched by GM’s products and employees.

Having worked for General Motors for 15 years and been a member of the executive committee for GM South Africa, a strategic adviser of the GM South Africa Women’s Council, a trustee of the GM South Africa Foundation and director on the Nelson Mandela Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry board, a humble Van Huyssteen deftly dodged addressing how she felt about her latest achievement.

“Chairing the International Women’s Council as a South African will certainly help boost the reputation and image of the company’s South African operations, which is an achievement in itself,” she said.

This story appeared in Weekend Post on Saturday, 21 November, 2015 e-Edition

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