The Woman and The Car: A Journey to CEO

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Earlier in the week we looked into the amazing contribution to the safety of the automobile made by three ladies, who were also actresses, inventors, authors, real estate developers, the list goes on!  Today we follow this story further, and investigate the growing contribution of females in this industry.

1921 – Dorothée Pullinger: The woman who built a car for women

We have mentioned Dorothée before on our Facebook page, but no list would be complete without her so we’re including her just in case you missed her the first time!  Starting work as a draughtswoman at a car manufacturer  based in Scotland Dorothée was given an opportunity during World War One and put in charge of female munitions works in Cumbria where she was eventually responsible for 7,000 workers.

After the war she moved back to Scotland and became manager of Galloway Motors at its factory near Kirkcudbright.  Though originally built to manufacture aeroplane parts in the war, as an automobile factory Dorothy was able to keep the business open and provide employment to local women.  Galloway Cars seemed like quite the place to work, adopting the colours of the suffragettes, providing two tennis courts on the roof for employees and it was host to an engineering college for women.  Whilst working for Galloway, Dorothée managed the production of the Galloway Car, “a car built by ladies, for those of their own sex”.  In a nod to Dorothy Levitt I’m sure, the Galloway was one of the first automobiles to introduce a rear view mirror as standard.  Unfortunately, by the end of the 20s these cars were no longer produced as times were tough for independent car makers.

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Though she became a founding member of the Woman’s Engineering Society, Dorothée left the car manufacturing business as she eventually became fed up with people telling her she was taking a mans job.  After this she opened a laundry business and served her country during the Second World War before moving to Guernsey where she passed away in 1986.

Only 4,000 Galloway Cars were ever made but if you ever find yourself in Glasgow then get yourself along to the Riverside Museum where you can find the only publicly displayed model in the UK.

1943 – Helene Rother automotive designer (interior)

Though not an engineer, Helene Rother is an important part of the contribution of women to the automotive engineer as the first female automotive designer in Detroit, joining General Motors in 1943.  Born in Leipzig, Germany, Helene spent her early life studying art, designing jewellery and hat pins and fleeing Nazi-occupied France.  Helene and her daughter found safety in New York City via northern Africa, where Rother’s first job was as an illustrator for Marvel Comics.

A year later she joined the interior styling staff of General Motors in Detroit, responsible for upholstery colours and fabrics, lighting, door hardware and seat construction.  The significance of her position was downplayed at the time but she was earning three times the average wage of a man in Detroit at that time.  As the Automotive Hall of Fame puts it “She was one of the few women to succeed in a man’s job during an era when the vast majority of women couldn’t even see a glass ceiling-it was hidden behind steel doors”.

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Her experience at GM enabled her to establish her own design studio specialising in designs for automotive interiors, furniture and stained glass windows.  Not one to shirk her CPD responsibilities, she regularly participated in Society of Automotive Engineers conferences and published a technical paper asking “Are we doing a good job in our car interiors?”.  Her work advocating women in the industry was recognised in The SAE Journal in 1949, she was the first woman to address the SAE in Detroit and thanks to her work styling their interiors Nash Motors was awarded the Jackson Medal, one of America’s most sought after awards.

Her contribution to automotive design was important and is often overlooked, and though she was not the first woman to work in styling “she was an early pioneer and one of the best”.

2015 – Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors

The final lady of note is Mary Barra, who after the retirement of Dan Akerson from General Motors became the first female CEO of a major automobile company (GM).  Mary studied electrical engineering at General Motors Institute, followed by an MBA at Stanford in 1990.  A great example of hard work paying off, she started working at GM at the age of 18 as a co-op student and held various engineering and administrative positions eventually working her way to Vice President of Global Manufacturing Engineering in 2008.  In 2011 she was named Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, with responsibilities including design, global purchasing and supply chain.

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She has survived a harrowing first couple of years, facing revelations that faulty ignition switches contributed to at least 74 deaths and 126 injuries, million car recalls and lower returns to shareholders than expected.  However under Barra GM is also becoming more financially disciplined, as she is willing to make tough decisions like pulling out of countries.  Named Fortune’s Most Powerful Woman in 2015, we shall definitely be keeping an eye on her work at GM.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed learning about these inspiring women as much as I have.  Do you think we may have missed someone?  Has this made you think twice about a career in the automotive industry?  Don’t hesitate to comment below and let us know!

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