Shifting gears: Women in the auto industry
Elaine Bannon at the media launch of the Ford Edge
There's no denying the automotive industry is male-dominated. But the industry is shifting gears. Women are entering the field in record numbers and taking leadership roles in everything from manufacturing to design. Here are a few women leading the pack and breaking down barriers in the auto world.
Elaine Bannon is at the helm of one of Ford's most pivotal products — the Edge. She's the chief nameplate engineer of the Edge, responsible for leading her team from the concept stages to the development, manufacturing, and vehicle launch. She's been at Ford for more than 25 years, following in her brother and uncle's footsteps who are both engineers. "Honestly, I never thought about doing anything else," Bannon says. "It was always with me to work in auto on vehicles so I went to engineering school and started working for Ford at the age of 20."
But it was a guy's world back then. "The percentage of men is quite high," she continues. "When I was going to engineering school it was similar. Initially, you do realize there are not a lot of women around, but over time that has changed. After awhile you don't really think about it. You look at each person and who they are individually and I don't think about gender. For me, it's been about the vehicles and my relationships with my coworkers."
Bannon has faced her share of hurdles, especially in her personal life. Her 43-year-old husband, who also worked in chassis and vehicle engineering at Ford, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 2006. "In 2007, he went from using a cane to a walker to a wheel chair," she says. "There was a period of time where I didn't sleep. It got very difficult. During the last week, he said I wanted to say goodbye to my son, who was five at the time, and later he looked at me and said 'hon, I've had enough," and he let go. It was tough."
Despite the pain, Bannon persevered through her difficulties and the launch of the Edge in 2007. "Doing what I do at work and the tremendous people I have working around me helped me keep going," she says. "What I went through made me really respect the relationships in my life. It's made me a better person and a better leader, ironically because it was such a horrible experience. I believe when I look at the products we're launching now, they wouldn't have been as great had I not gone through that experience."
Equinoxes roll down the assembly line at CAMI, which Carolyne Watts manages
Carolyne Watts has a long history at General Motors. In 1982, she was a student at Kettering University, formerly known as General Motors Institute. After finishing her degree she worked at GM's Sainte-Therese Assembly plant in Quebec.
"When I was at the Sainte-Therese plant, we were the only plant building the Firebird and Camaro," Watts says. "It was an iconic brand at the time — the employees got a sense of pride from that."
She moved up the ladder quickly, working at GM's St. Catharines, Ontario powertrain plant and managing three other GM plants. But in the early days as a young woman it was tough. "There weren't very many women so it was challenging, but it was mostly an age difference because of the age I was compared to the men I was interacting with. But that settled down very quickly."
Nowadays, Watts is the President of CAMI Automotive Inc. in Ingersoll, Ontario. She's responsible for two vehicles at CAMI: the Chevrolet Equinox and the GMC Terrain. The plant runs a three-shift operation, six days a week, 1,000 units a day. They have about 2,500 hourly employees and another 350 salaried employees. And Watts is pleased to report some positive changes in the industry. "There are more women entering the field," she says. "Until recently my boss was a female and her boss was a female — you wouldn't have seen that a few years ago at the upper levels of management."
"The manufacturing field is still considered a non-traditional occupation," she continues. "I think it's important that young women entering the field have confidence in their abilities and they also know what their career aspirations are."
Annette Baumeister is the head of Colour & Trim at Mini Design in the UK. The married mother of two immediately embraced the challenges of working in the automotive field. "I went into the automotive industry because the design of a vehicle is extremely complex and there are masses of opportunities for a colour and trim designer to put his or her ideas into practice. You can make an impact in lots of different areas of design."
When it comes to automotive design, she says women have been instrumental. "Women have always played a leading role in the field of colour and trim," Baumeister says. "But we now have shorter processes, a bigger portfolio and a higher workload at Mini driven by the burgeoning range of options for individual design."
So now, the key for women is balancing their personal and professional lives. "Getting the work-life balance right presents a new challenge every day," she says. "You have to combine your job and your family by making arrangements to carry out both functions efficiently."
A 1967 Shelby GT500 Super Snake sold for $1.3 million. Do you think classic cars were made better than modern rides?
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- Yes, the quality of cars from the 1960s and '70s is the best
- No, modern technology makes cars better today
- Maybe, it's hard to say since most Canadians get a new car every 10 years