What Glass Ceiling?: Kayla Ledohowski-Becker On Defying Stereotypes, Selling Cars, and Resisting the Term “Male-Dominated.”
Kayla Ledohowski-Becker has been fighting expectations for a long time. As the daughter of a prominent hotel family in Winnipeg, Kayla has long been recognized locally for her last name—not always positively. “I was always being poked at for having a silver spoon in my mouth, which is not actually how I grew up,” Kayla says.
It’s a problem faced often by children of wealthy or successful parents: you become known as an extension of your family as opposed to an individual. And specifically for Kayla, the accusation that she was cushioned in privilege wasn’t accurate.
Starting when she was 15, Kayla worked as a server and hostess in her family’s hotel restaurant. Despite her tireless work ethic, she found it difficult to cast off assumptions that she had it easy. “At the time, those accusations would really bother me,” she says. Her frustration gave way to determination. “I knew I had to work a little harder. It made me want to prove myself.”
Her frustration gave way to determination. “I knew I had to work a little harder. It made me want to prove myself.”
And so at 18, while enrolled as a full-time student in university, Kayla left the family business to work in other restaurants, eventually landing a job as the manager of an Earls when she was only 20. “I love hospitality. I like talking and interacting with people. I think hospitality helps give you life experience through the people you meet.”
Earls proved to be a huge turning point for Kayla and her career, but not in the way she expected. A group of regulars—who also happened to work for the Birchwood Automotive Group, the largest network of car dealerships in Winnipeg—suggested she come sell cars with them. “They casually tried to recruit me every time they were in,” Kayla recalls. Much like scouts at a hockey game, these businessmen had noted Kayla’s exceptional work ethic and potential. She had a bright future. They wanted her on their team.
“At that point I didn’t even know how to put air in my tires!” Kayla laughs. As a restaurant manager with a ceilinged income, Kayla worked a ton of unpaid hours to run the restaurant to her high standard. (Once, she even stayed until 4:00 AM to set up for a corporate event, simply because she wanted to make the experience special for her staff.) The new, potential job piqued her interest. “I wanted to work in a business that rewarded me for my discretionary effort.”
Kayla landed the job with Birchwood Automotive. Actually, she landed a few jobs, at several of Birchwood’s dealerships around the city, but she chose to accept a job as a sales specialist at Jaguar Land Rover Volvo Winnipeg—an exceptional place of work for the fact that it had a female sales manager. “That’s probably one of the reasons I ended up starting in the store,” Kayla says. “There were next to no women in forward-facing customer roles at the time.” This was only nine years ago.
Kayla had tapped into a phenomenon well known to women in so-called male-dominated industries: it often takes women to hire women. “People are always so drawn to what is comfortable and familiar,” Kayla says. “When all the managers are men, they’re generally comfortable dealing in a certain way. When you’re bringing in females it changes the dynamic.”
This isn’t to say that employers should not be held accountable for outdated recruitment practices—hiring women and other underrepresented groups should not be seen as a risk, but rather an opportunity to explore new ideas and evolve the business. That said, awareness of comfort-zone hiring preferences gives female employers a powerful incentive to improve the gender distribution of their workplaces.
Kayla can speak to this personally. After transitioning to the role of sales manager at the Birchwood Ford dealership in 2013—a decision prompted by her desire to gain experience outside the luxury realm—Kayla took an active role in reshaping what was, at the time, a bit of an old boy’s club. “That was my first role where I had a team and was hiring people, and so I was able to bring women on board.” The store went from having zero female salespeople multiple, all hired in part by Kayla. “One of those women is one of the top salesperson at Ford to this day. She has been for a long time.”
Kayla made other changes, too, including the introduction of new protocol to ensure all customers—regardless of whether they were buying a luxury vehicle—received a luxury-type buying experience. “They’re people and they’re buying cars. The treatment shouldn’t be different.” Her dedication to inclusivity in customer service led to a prestigious designation for the dealership. In 2016, Birchwood Ford was given the President’s Diamond Club Award in recognition of their excellent customer service. “It’s one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve been a part of to date in my automotive career.” Kayla is also a proud member of Women of Automotive Leadership, a committee founded by MaryAnne Kempe (Birchwood Automotive’s Chief of Human Resources) that creates support services for women of Birchwood Automotive and hosts networking events to encourage recruitment.
“Don’t put too much emphasis on the fact that something is ‘male dominated.’ If you’re the person in the right role, you can change that.”
Still, there are daily challenges Kayla faces as a woman in automotive. For one, she’s often mistaken as a receptionist by customers and store vendors. These interactions don’t bother Kayla; she views them as opportunities to educate. “I think these moments are really critical for change,” she says. Instead of taking offense in these moments, Kayla starts a conversation. “I want to wow people. Being the best version of myself allows me to show people that this is a changing world, and women are just as capable, if not moreso, than their male counterparts.”
If it seems like Kayla is well-versed in the language of human interaction and communication—that’s because she is. She has a Master’s Degree in psychology, which she completed in 2012 while working full-time in automotive. Getting her Master’s wasn’t motivated by a desire for a new career or higher earning potential (she loved her job and planned to stay in automotive) but rather a desire to learn and explore. “If I won the lottery I would be a career student. I’d get a medical license just for fun!,” she laughs, explaining that her “nerdy” tendencies developed in high school and never really dissipated. In university, for example, she studied religion purely for the sake of attending lectures with professors who were passionate about their field instead of money. “I’m not religious at all, but since studying religion doesn’t lead to many career options, the professors with Master’s Degrees and Doctorates all truly love the topic. Sitting in those classes was so engaging and inspiring for me!”
Perhaps “nerdiness,” as a term, needs a re-branding, because in the context of Kayla’s life, nerdiness reads more like passion to learn and problem-solve. Problem solving is what keeps Kayla feeling most like herself on a day-to-day basis. As the General Sales Manager for Volvo Land Rover Jaguar (she returned to this dealership in 2017) her mission is not so different from when she worked in restaurants as a server: she wants to build relationships and work with a team towards a common goal. “What helps keep me feeling like Kayla, as opposed to someone who simply sells cars, is coaching my team. In those moments we’re not selling cars. We’re engaging on a human level and having real conversations.”
Kayla is also helping start conversations outside the automotive industry—or, on top of it, actually. Last summer, a coworker and former beekeeper suggested they cover the roof of the Volvo dealership with beehives. Kayla was all in. “Bees are extraordinary pollinators and they’re so important to the general ecosystem. We wanted to start educating people about bees, and so we took a chance and put the bee hives on the roof.” The project, done in partnership with Beeproject Apiaries, was a huge success: there were over 70,000 bees on top of the Volvo dealership at one point. The hives also proved to be a talking point, generating people’s interest in sustainability and healthy living. The bee project led to further community action, too, such as honey extraction workshops and bee-specific teaching initiatives at inner city schools. “It’s all about making connections in the community,” says Kayla. “We sell cars, but it’s not who we are.” In other words, Kayla and her team are a far-cry from hackneyed stereotypes of car salespeople on TV: those greedy, grimy, anything-for-money men.
Kayla loves selling cars, but there’s one term, often applied to her field, that bothers her: male-dominated. Men still outnumber women by a large proportion in the world of car sales, but that discrepancy is not something Kayla wants to foreground in talking about her job. “I have a hard time saying ‘male-dominated’ out loud because to me, if you want to do something, go do it.” As in, calling something ‘male-dominated’ sets up unnecessary barriers. “Don’t put too much emphasis on the fact that something is ‘male dominated.’ If you’re the person in the right role, you can change that.”
Take it from someone who knows.
Writer: Mica Lemiski