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  • John Mahoney

Taking the Wheel

Despite the car industry’s failure to achieve anything like gender equality, it’s impossible to ignore the contributions women have made to the vehicles we drive, from the birth of the automobile to the current EV revolution. By John Mahoney
General Motors CEO Mary Barra at the company’s Factory Zero electric vehicle assembly plant in Detroit. Courtesy Nic Antaya/Getty Images.

For all its triumphs, the car industry has a problematic reputation regarding the advancement of women. Take Toyota, for example. Last year, the Japanese giant released some truly outrageous statistics concerning just how many women it employed (or didn’t). Spoiler alert: the figures don’t make for an edifying read. For this past financial year, the world’s largest carmaker reported that just 25.5 per cent of its hirings across its entire global workforce was female. Worse still, that already paltry number falls to 14.2 per cent for full-time hirings, 14.8 per cent for managerial positions and 5.5 per at the director level. (Toyota has pledged to address the imbalance and is working towards boosting its overall percentage of women executives from 12.5 per cent to at least 30 per cent by 2030.)

It’s worth pointing out right here that this is not a Japanese problem. Remember, Toyota has plants in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Türkiye and the UK, and sells cars (and has employees) in more than 170 countries. Similarly grim numbers are reflected elsewhere by any carmaker you care to name. But despite the industry’s failure to recruit females, against the odds, women’s contribution to it is enormous and dates all the way back to the very advent of the motorcar.

Which brings us to the story of inventor and automotive pioneer Bertha Benz, who just happened to be married to Carl Benz, the very same man credited with inventing the automobile. But what many don’t know is it was very much a team effort.

It helped that Bertha was both a bit of a badass and an expert engineer. She upgraded the lethal wooden block brakes to fractionally safer leather brake pads, added less flammable wire insulation and fixed the fuel system. More important than all of that, it was her money that helped finance the creation of the first car. With this in mind, it wasn’t exactly stealing when Bertha and two of her teenage sons “borrowed” Carl’s Model III prototype in 1888 and went on a 105-kilometre joy ride across Germany — the first time such a large distance had been attempted in a car without an army of mechanics in tow.

The journey, without the knowledge of either her husband or the authorities, was invaluable as it finally proved to investors that there was a future in the horseless carriage, saving both the early car and Benz’s business from being a footnote in history.

Of course, Bertha, being a married woman in Germany, wasn’t actually allowed to hold any patents for her inventions, but she nonetheless laid the groundwork for many other women engineers — and female innovation came thick and fast.

Ford chief engineer Linda Zhang in front of a prototype all-electric F-150.

Just five years later an American woman, Margaret Wilcox, decided that an onboard wood or coal burner perhaps wasn’t the best idea to heat a petrol-powered vehicle and invented a far safer in-car heater that used water to warm the cabin and demist windows.

Then, in 1903, another American woman, the real-estate developer Mary Anderson, filed a patent for what would become the template for modern wipers after noticing a New York trolley car driver leaning precariously out of his cab to clean the windscreen. It took almost 20 years before Cadillac adopted the innovation, cheekily waiting until the patent expired to introduce wipers in 1922, thus avoiding having to pay Anderson a single cent.

Fast-forward to the 1950s and General Motors suddenly woke up to the buying power of women postwar and briefly introduced the “Damsels of Design”, a team of female industrial designers. It might sound like tokenism on a grand scale, but the team was hugely influential within GM and helped herald the retractable seatbelt, the glove compartment and the illuminated vanity mirror before being axed in the early ’60s after the senior executive who employed them retired and was replaced by a misogynist who promptly declared: “No women are going to stand next to my male senior designers.”

As well as designers, one, sadly unnamed, farmer’s wife from Gippsland even went as far as inventing an Australian icon when she wrote a letter pleading that Ford create a new type of vehicle capable of taking her to church in comfort on a Sunday but still able to carry the pigs to market on a Monday. Ford listened and the letter ultimately inspired the ute, which become an instant sales hit in Australia from the mid-1930s.

A Mercedes-Benz “horseless carriage”.

In a delightful case of serendipity, in 2023 the chief engineer of the Ford F-150, the US’s larger take on our smaller Aussie ute, is a woman. The F-150 remains the US market’s bestselling vehicle, having topped the charts for an incredible 41 years. Heading it up is one of the biggest jobs in engineering in any industry. Equally remarkable is Linda Zhang herself.

A Chinese-born immigrant who joined Ford at the tender age of 19, Zhang rose meteorically through the ranks of the Blue Oval while she studied for her degree, master’s and MBA — and it didn’t end there. The F-150 is at a turning point in its history as it prepares for its all-electric future and Zhang has been instrumental in introducing the Lightning, the first battery-electric version in the pick-up’s 75-year history. With initial demand by far outstripping supply, Ford will by the end of this year ramp up production of the electric version alone to more than 150,000 — an astonishing number considering some experts doubted there would even be a customer for an electric work truck.

There are few more impressive women in the auto-making business than Zhang, but we’re willing to make an exception for the next woman kicking resistance to gender diversity into the long grass. General Motors CEO Mary Barra was nominated by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s top five most powerful women, just behind US vice-president Kamala Harris. Praised for her leadership, which has seen GM embrace electric cars faster than some of its rivals, Barra has already declared that by 2025, GM will sell more zero-emission vehicles than Tesla worldwide.

Managing a carmaker isn’t easy at the best of times, but Barra has had to battle through a global pandemic, a semiconductor shortage and all manner of other supply and labour issues. She has had to make a series of difficult decisions, such as factory shutdowns, that some commentators dared to suggest she wouldn’t be capable of making because she’s a ... you guessed it.

Now remember, last year Barra’s GM sold 5.9 million vehicles, while Tesla, admittedly still growing, could only build 1.31 million. While Musk screams for our undying attention — he recently tweeted an offer to cage-fight fellow tech titan Mark Zuckerberg — few outside the US will know Barra’s name. And that’s probably how she prefers it. After all, she’s too busy forging a path for more women to follow in her tracks and deliver cars we want and love, without the emissions and drama.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our ninth edition, Page 50 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Taking The Wheel”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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