Last spring, a fifteen-minute car ride with a Chrysler engineer gave me insight into the way women will change the car industry. Christine Barman told me about the future of engineering while I drove one of her company’s products.
Barman pointed out that women tend to show more interest in the technology found inside of cars, a trend that car companies anticipate will continue to grow as millennials come of age. Female millennials have more education than their male counterparts and will soon out earn them.
Women already buy over half of cars and influence most purchase decisions. It’s Barman’s personal mission to ensure more women will be charged with engineering those future cars.
Barman is in a rare position to affect change from the top down. Late last year Barman was promoted and now heads up electrical engineering for all Chrysler products and oversees a global department made up of over 900 engineers. She is responsible for a broad array of the company’s technology that range from safety and stop start systems to cabin electronics.
It’s a standout year for women in the automotive industry. When Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors in January, her ascent created a ripple of excitement that spread far beyond the automotive industry. Historically, Barra will be foremost known as the first female to lead a car company in a business traditionally dominated by male leadership.
But General Motors has a long track record of hiring financiers to head the Detroit based company — and Barra is a product expert who was trained as an engineer. Barra’s ascension is the highest-profile indication of an industry-wide shift toward embracing female engineers, with Barman as one of the primary drivers of the trend.
Barman, a petite blonde with a calm, measured voice, grew up on a farm in rural Indiana. She was a 4 H Club member, and excelled at math and science in high school. “I would sit in the workshop and put things back together to make them work.” She planned to become a pediatrician and studied mechanical engineering at Purdue University.
However, a summer internship at General Motors shifted her focus. “I was fascinated by the technology, how things change. I never had an appreciation for how complicated the automobile was.” When she planned to return to GM the following summer, she couldn’t convince the human resource department to move her from the materials lab to the floor, because of her gender.
In the early ‘90s the car industry was a blatantly less friendly environment for women.
But the complexities of the automotive industry intrigued Barman. She dug her heels and accepted a position at Chrysler after graduation. She knew she’d made the right decision when she received her first engineering team assignment — the rip-roaring Dodge Viper. Barman learned to brush off comments people made about her gender. “I tried to use humor to diffuse a situation,” she says. “It’s about the data you bring to the conversation.”
Once women choose engineering disciplines it’s essential that they have internal support to advance in their careers, one reason Barman keeps her door open. Barman says she’s formally mentored over 20 people at Chrysler, but the real number is much higher. Her colleagues describe her as a mentoring machine.
Teresa Hodder is a mentee of Barman’s. “It became important to be to get advice on how to handle work life balance situations and to have career development discussions. Chris has encouraged me to explore career options that were more risky and more outside of my comfort zone,” she says. Hodder, a mother of three, was able to transition from manufacturing to vehicle engineering with Barman’s guidance.
Barman is part of a group of women executives that hope to transform the stodgy 20th century image of the automotive industry into a dynamic field that appeals to the best and the brightest tech-minded women. “We need to break down the barriers and help people understand that automotive isn’t old dirty low tech. It’s fast evolving, very impactful in the world hi-tech,” Barman says. She is active with Inforum’s Automotive Next, a Michigan-based industry group devoted to attracting more women into the ranks of the automotive industry.
Terry Barclay, the president of Inforum, founded the AutomotiveNEXT several years ago. “We’re trying to change the image of the industry, not to rosy it up in a chamber of commerce way, but to talk about the opportunity that exists there,” Barclay says. “The companies that have come together are normally fierce competitors. Together they are stronger to bring forth a more accurate and well-rounded image of this industry.”
Nancy Gioia, who heads up global electrification, user interface and connectivity at Ford Motor Company chairs AutomotiveNEXT. The strategy has focused on reaching out female engineers and students through trainings and roundtables with mentors throughout the year.
Women still have a long way to go in the auto industry. Industry wide, they make up 3.3% of executive positions, according to AutomotiveNext statistics. Women have a hard time permeating the jocular networks at these companies, where a thick skin is essential to staying in the game. They earn .78 cents on the $1, even as women continue to dominate selection of car purchases and propel the use of connectivity.
“You can downsize a company and not pay attention to diversity, but you can’t grow market share without paying attention to diversity,” says Barclay. “I cannot tell you the impact that Mary Barra ascending to her roll in the field of vision that they should consider. You look at the CEO level that’s really rare, but you look a couple layers down and you see the incredible jobs that women have.”
Cars are works of modern engineering and rely on computers, an encouraging fact for college engineering departments eager to place female engineering students.
Women make up only 25% of mechanical engineering programs nationwide, but they account for half of the students in computer engineering says Margaret Wooldridge, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan. “The number of lines of code in the vehicle is astronomical. That shift has gone to discipline more dominated by women.” The scope of mechanical engineering is also changing. “The knee jerk image of gears and welding are from the hard core pre-era.” Modern mechanical engineering holds key bio-mechanical properties, which are also propelling a gradual shift.
If women want to make an impact, the shifts in the automotive industry provide new opportunities as the nature of transportation shifts to focus on alternative energy.
Sven Beiker is the Executive Director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, where Barra attended business school as a GM fellow. He sees the nature of engineering shifting to appeal to a broader range of engineering students.“At Stanford students in different fields are getting interested in the automobile and in mobility,” says. “It goes well beyond the traditional vehicle mechanical engineering. I can definitely tell from the time when I went to engineering school in the early ‘90s both in education and in the industry. For an engineering student, the default would be Apple, Facebook, Google, but now they might get inspired by Tesla.”
Girls must gravitate to math and science at the high school level in order to build their ranks in automotive engineering. Barman returns to her alma mater Purdue University’s women in engineering program. She sometimes speaks to freshman women. “I’ll talk on a high level about what we’re working on in autonomous driving, connectivity and infotainment, she says. “You can start to see with the students it resonates with them.”
Women who pursue engineering careers in the automotive industry have the potential to make an impact on the world. “I worked on safety system that 10,000 lives a year are saved,” says Barman. “That’s the stuff they need to hear.”