How Women Have Influenced the Automotive Industry

March 27, 2024

For Women’s History Month, let’s delve deeper into the journey of women in automotive manufacturing. It is an industry often associated with male dominance, but women have had major influence and involvement from the start. Women work on assembly lines, in sorting facilities, and more recently, occupy leadership roles. Women have demonstrated exceptional skill and dedication to this industry and drive innovation and progress forward. We will explore their contributions as well as the challenges they have overcome to succeed. 

A Brief History of Women in Automotive Manufacturing 

According to most accounts, women were involved in the automotive industry in varying degrees from the start. Karl Benz, who is credited with inventing the first true automobile, implemented many suggestions from his wife, Bertha Benz, that vastly improved the original motor car. And when automobile production hit the assembly line, women were there too, although their roles were usually limited to certain tasks.  

The rise of the automobile industry in the early 20th century coincided with a shift in societal norms regarding women’s work, particularly during World War I when men were enlisted in the military, creating a demand for female labor in various industries, including automotive manufacturing.  

During this period, women began to take on roles such as assembly line workers, mechanics, and even test drivers, albeit in smaller numbers compared to men. During World War II, a sizable portion of the male workforce was again mobilized for military service, and that’s when women’s presence and importance in the automotive industry truly expanded, with many stepping into traditionally male-dominated roles to keep production lines running.  

The Shaping of an Industry 

Many women left their mark on early automotive manufacturing. Mary Anderson is credited with inventing the windshield wiper. Noticing how difficult it was for the drivers of streetcars to cope with the elements, especially snow and rain, she set out to solve the problem. Ultimately her invention was patented in 1903 as a “window clearing device” and could be controlled from inside. Unfortunately, there was not a great demand for her invention in 1903 and her patent ran out just about the time Henry Ford was beginning mass production of his Model T automobiles. 

In 1920, Marie Luhring achieved the distinction of becoming the first woman in the United States to become an automotive engineer and eventually became a truck designer, making significant contributions to the field. Her work with Mack Truck Co. solidified her reputation as a highly creative and cutting-edge designer. 

As the automobile industry continued to grow in the 1950s, some savvy manufacturers began to recognize that appealing to women would be a smart business move. After all, the suburbs were expanding, and having a family car was becoming more common. Soon women were being hired as automotive designers. These early industrial designers worked on the look of the vehicle inside, including aspects such as upholstery, doors, seats, trim, and overall aesthetics. This trend was arguably kick-started by GM’s Harley Earl, who hired an all-female design team, dubbed The Damsels of Design because he wanted female input. Even though it was viewed somewhat as a publicity stunt, the women knew what they were doing would influence future perceptions regarding women and auto design. Their contributions persist today in child-proof doors, makeup mirrors, retractable seat belts, and storage consoles. 

Notable Women in Automotive Manufacturing Today 

Mary Barra became the CEO of General Motors in 2014, becoming the first woman to lead a major global automaker. Under her leadership, GM has focused on innovation, electric vehicles, and autonomous driving technology, shaping the future of the auto industry. 

Lisa Drake, currently Vice President of EV Programs and Energy Supply Chain for Ford Motor Company, has held numerous top leadership roles, including COO of North America. 

Crystal Windham is an award-winning industry leader in automobile industrial design and is currently the Executive Director of Global Industrial Design at General Motors.  

Sue Cischke served as Ford Motor Company’s Group Vice President for Sustainability, Environment, and Safety Engineering. She played a key role in Ford’s sustainability initiatives, including the development of fuel-efficient vehicles and environmental stewardship programs. She also played a key role in the effort to develop one national standard for fuel economy, resulting in industry-wide commitments to nearly double fuel efficiency by 2025. 

Cristina Aquino is an automotive engineer known for her work on improving vehicle safety. She has been involved in designing safety features such as airbags, seat belts, and crash test standards, contributing to advancements in occupant protection and vehicle safety. Her dedication to improving safety standards has not only saved countless lives but has also played a vital role in shaping the automotive industry’s commitment to prioritizing safety as a fundamental aspect of vehicle design and manufacturing. 

Linda Zhang is the Chief Engineer of the Ford F-150 Lightning, Ford’s first all-electric pickup truck. She played a pivotal role in the development of the F-150 Lightning, overseeing its engineering, design, and production, and shaping Ford’s electric vehicle strategy. 

Grace Lieblein served as Vice President of Global Purchasing and Supply Chain at General Motors. She implemented strategic sourcing initiatives and supplier diversity programs, driving efficiency and innovation in GM’s supply chain operations. 

A Personal Take: Insights from One of Our Own Successful Women 

We asked one of our Sustained Quality Regional Operations Managers about her experience. Tiffany Gordon recounted her journey of breaking into the male-dominated arena of manufacturing. 

  • What challenges did you have to overcome, if any, that arose from being a woman in this field? 

Being in the manufacturing industry for over 12 years I have encountered several challenges due to being a woman. One of the biggest challenges I have had to overcome is gender bias. Far too often women in manufacturing are looked at and assumed to be in assisting roles such as admin, secretaries, or schedulers. I’ve had several encounters where I’ve been ignored in meetings, talked over, or they have asked to speak to my boss. It is assumed that women are not knowledgeable in the manufacturing world and even when I have proven my knowledge and experience it is questioned with sarcasm and demeaning tones. I’ve been called “honey”, “sweety” and “doll” more than I can count. When disagreeing or debating I’ve been labeled as “aggressive”, “rude” and even a few vulgar names.  

  • What do you consider your greatest accomplishment? 

I believe my greatest accomplishment during my tenure in manufacturing is my ability to stand tall during adversity. I refuse to make myself small when I’m in a room where women are the minority or when my abilities are questioned. In fact, it tends to motivate me more now. I’m also proud to say that I have personally mentored a handful of women who have either been promoted within our company or have gone on to assume a leadership role in another company in manufacturing. 

  • How have you seen the industry change over time regarding women working in the business? 

In the last decade, I have witnessed more women breaking down barriers and pursuing careers in business management, engineering, and weld. Far too often in the past women hesitated to simply apply for manufacturing jobs because they doubted they were qualified. Women are now standing up and taking their rightful stance in the field. I think the other important change is the power to speak up. I have witnessed far too many women leave their positions due to pay gaps, sexual harassment, and other biases. I have had the pleasure of seeing women in this industry stand up and set the expectation for equality. 

The Path Forward – The Journey Continues 

As we reflect on the journey of women in the auto industry from its early days to the present, it becomes evident that this sector is ripe for equal opportunity and yet there’s room for improvement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women account for anywhere from 10-27% of the workforce, depending on the subcategory of job roles, such as repair, retail, leasing and sales, and manufacturing. Highlighting their achievements and continuing contributions may help to broaden the appeal and opportunities to be found and foster growing gender diversity in the years to come. 

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