By Holly Reich
In 2014, Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors, making her the first female CEO of a major automobile company. Barra is among a growing number of women, like Jennifer Vuong, news anchor and multimedia editor at Automotive News, and Nancy Gioia, director of global electrification at Ford, who are making imprints in the automotive industry.
Despite the prominence of leadership roles, women hold about 25 percent of jobs in the motor vehicle and parts industry as of late 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet women influence 80 percent of car buying decisions, according to “Women in Cars,” a 2014 analysis by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. The oft-cited industry number is supported by a more concrete number: As of 2012, women now hold more driver’s licenses than men for the first time in the U.S.
“What’s most interesting about this statistic is that more than half the women around the world are unhappy with the automotive products presented to them,” says Brandy Schaffels, chief editor of AskPatty.com, an automotive advice site geared to women. “(Women) want better storage options, nicer interior lighting and materials, and ergonomics that better suit their smaller body size.”
Even more interesting is that fewer than 1 in 5 engineers in the auto industry are women, according to Lindsay Brooke, author of the report “Women in Vehicle Engineering,” recently published in SAE’s International Automotive Engineering magazine.
“This is the time when the demand for product developers and technical expertise is acute,” Brooke says. “Female engineers in key positions including design, lighting, technology and product development add a lot to the mix.”
The following three women engineers are making their mark on today’s cars while setting the groundwork for the next generation of young women interested in automotive science and technology.
Dawn Piechocki: Engineering manager for Expedition and Navigator at Ford Motor Co.
Piechocki is responsible for integrating, testing and executing all of the engineering requirements for Ford’s full-size SUVs, Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator. That includes overseeing and integrating vehicle development of the chassis, powertrain, body and electrical components. The engineer commutes between two offices bimonthly, one in Dearborn, Mich., the other in Mexico City. In Mexico, as the only woman in engineering management, she has 55 people reporting to her. “When I came here I was unsure about how I would be viewed. My concern was whether or not culturally I would be accepted as a female in a technical management position. The engineering team asked for me specifically and I’ve been accepted very well.”
She also tests out vehicles in diverse environments around the world including sand, towing and rock-climbing evaluations in Borrego, Calif., desert drills in Dubai, and performance drives from Mexico City at 7,500 feet to Acapulco at sea level.
Piechocki, who holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Wayne State University and a master’s in engineering and management from the University of Detroit, began her career at Ford 23 years ago in car chassis engineering. She shifted into trucks and SUVs in 2002.
“I originally wanted to be a doctor, but after doing dissection in high school, that totally turned me off. Dissecting a car is much less terrifying and cleaner,” says Piechocki, who had never tinkered with her own car before working for Ford.
“I work on mentoring the engineering team in Mexico and getting them more exposure to the automotive industry. I also speak to younger women who are interested in science and math. And I have found a lot of women, especially younger women, are just intimidated by vehicles. But I explain that the automotive field is huge, and even if you are not doing work on a vehicle, there are so many areas that you can impact.”
“When I think about the job that I do and the decisions I make that influence the whole vehicle, I take a step back and say, “Wow, that’s the decision I made. I was responsible for it and now the whole vehicle is actually in production. It’s energizing and fulfilling at the same.”
Elizabeth Krear: Chief engineer of the Ram 1500 truck for FCA group
As chief engineer of the Ram 1500, Krear oversees all budgets, planning, engineering, development, quality and launch management of the truck. “As an engineer, I can be a decision maker,” says Krear, whose decisions included getting a Master of Science in mechanical engineering, then a Master of Business Administration while building pilots for the 2013 Ram program. “During this busy time my boss offered an opportunity for me to attend Michigan State in the Executive MBA Program. He told me that he needed an answer the next day,” says the 25-year industry veteran. “So I went home and talked to my husband and two kids, and we agreed that we could make it work. I never turn down a great opportunity.”
“I wanted the kids to be a part of the experience, so I put 800 or so jawbreakers in a big fishbowl on the kitchen table where I would study. The jawbreakers would entice the kids to join me, and we would do homework together. I worked Monday through Friday and never turned my BlackBerry off. It was tough but I found balance by integrating all aspects of my life.”
Krear says when she was graduating high school and wasn’t quite sure what to study, her dad asked her what she wanted to be. A businesswoman, she says. “He told me to go get an engineering degree. It was great advice,” she says.
“Engineering training is basically problem solving. It has so many business elements as well. I mentor a lot of women and high school girls in the Chrysler Mentoring Program. I tell them that if you are good at math and interested in how things work, then engineering is a great field. There are so many facets of engineering.”
Elizabeth Baron: Technical specialist in virtual reality and advanced visualization at Ford Motor Co.
Baron is the principal inventor of the Ford immersive Vehicle Environment process and technology, which immerses a person into a full-size, photo-realistic vehicle environment. It enables real-time product evaluations on engineering, aesthetic design, ergonomics and manufacturing, all before the physical builds take place.
“The biggest challenge is representing the physical world, the workings of a vehicle, and have it make sense using 3-D technology,” says Baron, who last fall was presented with Ford’s highest technical honor, the Dr. Haren Gandhi Research and Innovation Award.
Baron became a tech specialist on Ford’s first digital team in the mid-’90s after developing software in the late 1980s along with “geeks who had ponytails and wore flip-flops year round.”
Baron, who mentors at the University of Michigan for Women in Science and Engineering, holds a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial technology and computer science from Eastern Michigan University.
Baron exchanges ideas with a lot of outside sources, including NASA, Boeing, John Deere, Disney and DreamWorks Animation. With Disney, she might share ideas that result in better cars for Ford and better theme parks for Disney, with NASA it could be motion tracking and capture.
“Last year I visited DreamWorks Animation studio and saw their creative pipeline. Though there are fundamentals that we can share ideas on, there were glaring examples of the differences of our industries,” she says.
“Computer graphics and entertainment is ginormous; they seem to have budgets beyond reproach.”
She says the engineering and scientific community is more intimate and has a different mindset.
“Our customers (engineers) are focused and grounded in replicating a reality,” she says.
“I am the only woman on my team. And I am immersed in two male-dominated fields, both engineering and computer graphics programming,” Baron says. “But I don’t think about my interactions with my co-workers in that way. Thankfully we respect each other, and that’s what is important.”