By Jayne O'Donnell
Alicia Boler-Davis was the first General Motors plant manager to also lead a vehicle launch - for the Chevrolet Sonic.
At Chrysler, Chris Barman headed the team that designed the new Dodge Dart.
Rebecca Seiler and Jennifer Shaw helped develop some of Ford Motor's advanced safety technologies that prevent crashes.
Female engineers - despite their stubbornly small numbers in all industries - increasingly have a big impact on the vehicles and safety features that Detroit is offering. Yet among nearly 28,000 members of the Society of Automotive Engineers, only 1,500 - 5% - are women.
"There have certainly been strides, but certainly not as much as the employers would like," says Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Chicago-based Society of Women Engineers, which encourages engineering as a career choice.
The reasons for the scarcity of female engineers in the auto industry are varied and complex. The recession had a particularly chilling effect on U.S. automakers - GM and Chrysler both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection - which led to thousands of job losses and an exodus of women and others to other industries.
But the ranks of female engineers are thin elsewhere, too, and societal factors often get the blame. The number of women earning bachelor degrees in engineering increased dramatically in the 1970s and '80s, due in part to a more feminist climate that encouraged women to consider traditionally male careers, Shanahan says. The growth began to level off around 2000, however.
A 2010 report by American Association of University Women concluded several factors influence the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering and math. It found that women had to grapple with stereotypes that they weren't as capable as men in those fields and contend with sometime unwelcoming science and engineering departments in colleges and universities.
Automakers and others are trying to address the problem. Betsy Homsher, dean of students at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., says, "If you added up all the money the top 10 automakers have spent on ... hiring women, training them and grooming them for advancement, I wouldn't be surprised if it was in the billions."
Among the efforts:
• Chrysler has a mentoring program that matches women from different parts of the company. The Chrysler Institute of Engineering also matches its new employees with more established sponsors and tries to match women with other women.
• Automotive Next is part of Inforum, the Midwestern women's professional organization, and works to recruit and retain women in the auto industry. A Generation Y committee advises the group on the particular concerns of workers who are under 30.
• Nissan, which has increased the number of female engineers in management positions by 50% in the past three years, just started a sponsorship program that monitors the career paths of female engineers it believes have high potential.
Yet there are still roadblocks to women entering the field.
"It remains a fairly hostile environment for women, especially on the plant floor as women start out their careers," Homsher says.
Boler-Davis, 43, had some convincing to do when she took over as plant manager, first at plants in Lansing, Mich., and Arlington, Texas, and later at the Orion Assembly and Pontiac Stamping plants. Even if they didn't say anything other than "you look very young," Boler-Davis says it was often clear when outsiders came in for meetings that they were "shocked when they saw I was the plant manager."
While she acknowledges the plant environment can be intimidating for women engineers, Boler-Davis says she learned to focus on what she and her mostly male colleagues had in common, rather than their differences.
"I'm very emotional in my personal life, not so much in my work life," says Boler-Davis.
But for some women, that emotional connection - especially in the workplace - is what they crave. A number of women have drifted away from automotive engineering jobs in plants because they found they desired jobs that allowed for more interaction with others, Homsher says.
"If you spend all your time working on (engineering) a door, your level of satisfaction may be considerably less than if you work in HR (human resources) and develop a policy that allows working professionals to job-share so they can raise their children," Homsher says.
Big rewards in safety
Still, plenty of women have found auto engineering a way to work with people on machines that help both save lives and improve them.
Ford engineer Seiler, 40, is the only woman on a 30-person team working on technology that warns and then automatically begins to stop cars when crashes are imminent. While other engineers on her team also write algorithms, as a key engineer developing the current and future versions of the technology, she spends most of her time developing portions of the algorithm to perform tasks and then trying out the systems at the test track using inflatable cars in case the formulas don't work.
Seiler says people thank her for helping to develop systems in production now that prevent crashes.
"People come up to me and say, 'I was in a near miss. I wasn't paying attention to that driver that cut in front of me,' " Seiler says. "People really appreciate it."
Shaw, 35, is the supervisor on an "active safety" team of 11, including two other women. She helped develop Ford features including the self-parking system that helps with parallel parking, technology that warns when a moving car is in your blind spot, and an alert that sounds when traffic is crossing behind a car backing up.
"'I was looking for job that had a very obvious influence on the world," Shaw says. "If I was working on microchips, I'd be very far away from the customers, but here I'm working on a product every day that is affecting people's lives."
Shaw also worked on Ford's keyless entry and ignition, something that solves the problem for people who don't like having to dig for their keys. Her own mother, who carries a big purse, was one of the big beneficiaries.
Gay Kent, General Motors' safety vice president, also found the safety field especially rewarding. She helped design an auto industry first - side air bags that deploy out of the driver's seat above the center console to prevent injuries or deaths caused by contact with the car, or another head.
Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne recently singled out vehicle line executive Chris Barman, 41, for her work developing the Dodge Dart, which he called "tangible evidence of how women are helping to lead the new Chrysler."
"Her team is also responsible for several other products that will be crucial to our success, such as the successor to the Jeep Liberty sport-utility and the new Chrysler 200 sedan," Marchionne said in prepared remarks. "Chris is just one example of the women who are making a huge impact in every area of our company."
Seiler grew up outside Detroit, but her father was a tool distributor and her mother a nurse practitioner. It was a visit to space camp in middle school - not a love of cars - that led her to engineering. She dreamed of becoming a space shuttle astronaut, but a Ford summer internship and downturn in the space industry convinced her cars were the way to go.
Shaw's route to auto engineering took a more familiar path. Her father was a retired civil engineer who designed parking lots and roads. Her mother was a high school math teacher, and science was never off the table. She also went to an all-girls Catholic high school where she was told "women could do whatever they wanted to do" and to not think of anything as "a career that's off limits."
Kent grew up in a Detroit-area neighborhood with three girls and 15 boys with a father who was an engineer for Chrysler. So, in many ways, she was destined to be comfortable and competent in the mostly male world of auto engineering. She looks back fondly on her years of working on transmissions in the 1980s, recalling how rewarding it felt to test a car and "to get it to shift at the point you wanted it to" after drawing shift patterns on paper.
After graduating from college with a BS in engineering, Barman was hired by Chrysler's Institute of Engineering, which rotates people through different areas in the company. When she finished, she asked to work in brake engineering.
"Our brakes were terrible," says Barman. "I thought, 'I know I can go there and make an impact.' "
She did. One of the vehicles she worked on in the late 1990s, the Sebring convertible, went from having the most brake noise to the least.
Often, it is that opportunity to make a difference i that female engineers say they find most compelling. Even when it causes complications in their own lives. Barman likes to tell freshmen women at Purdue University, her alma mater, about her work studying Mercedes-Benz's electronic stability control when Chrysler was owned by Daimler.
She tells them about the thousands of lives that are expected to be saved when the now-mandated stability control is on all vehicles.
"Women want to feel like they are making an impact on the world around them," Barman says. "So I tell them I was part of bringing this technology into Chrysler products that resulted in that reduction in injuries and lost lives."
And she did it while working for six months with a Mercedes team of 200 associates. She was one of only two women. The other one was on maternity leave.
But striking a work-life balance can be a challenging - especially as women move to high-profile positions while trying to raise families.
Barman credits her "wonderful husband," Brian Dunn, who is a manager at a Chrysler truck assembly plant. The two remain flexible so the other can meet the commitments of their job each week and still take care of their son and daughter, ages 11 and 13.
Chrysler has also recognized the need for working parents to balance work and family so they are "happy, balanced and productive," Barman says.
Last year, Boler-Davis was named to the newly created position of vice president of global quality and U.S. customer experience. As the mother of two boys, ages 7 and 10, who play several sports, the juggling can be tough. Her husband is a salesman with a more flexible schedule, which helps her work as many as 15 hours a day in her new global post.
Boler-Davis says she sometimes smiles thinking about how well it's going, "but I've also had those times where I wake up in a middle of the night and say, 'This is not going work.' "
It helps to have led development of the Sonic, the top-selling vehicle in the subcompact segment and the only small car built in this country.
Boler-Davis knows she is a trailblazer and potential role model for many.
"I'm conscious of that, and I want other women and minorities to have an opportunity," she says.