It’s no secret that in the automotive industry women have been under-represented. Despite this, there have been leaps made and glass ceilings shattered by women who have made strides and left their mark on the industry.
To commemorate the successes of women in the automotive industry, we have compiled a list of six women who have not only helped shape the industry as we know it today but paved the way for future generations to come.
Bertha was a graduate of natural science studies and the wife of Carl Benz, the engineer who came up with the innovative design for a petroleum-fueled automobile.
Born in 1849 in the Ringer family, Bertha was known for being a progressive and forward thinker. She made the decision to invest her entire dowry in building her husband’s company.
Over the next few years, the young family focused on getting their design for the automobile patented, while also taking care of their five children. There was, unfortunately, no interest in Carl Benz’s prototype, but Bertha didn’t let that discourage her.
Determined to show the value of their product, Bertha decided to go on a long-distance drive to prove the concept of the Benz Patent Motor Car. Her journey generated a lot of media buzz and led to design improvements like brake pads and gear shifts.
Margaret A Wilcox
Margaret was born in Chicago in 1838 and was one of the few mechanical engineers of her time. The time she spent experimenting with different ideas led to the creation of the first car heater.
Her design was created to make air run through the engine with the goal of heating up the driver’s fingers in the 20th century. Her invention was popular until it became a safety concern when they could not find a way to regulate the temperature.
Wilcox was granted the patent for the device for interior car heating in November 1893 and her invention forms the basis for the modern car heater used nowadays.
On a frosty day in New York City in 1903, Mary Anderson was struggling to look out the window of a trolley car at the sights of the city’s crowded streets because of the snowy weather. She noticed that the driver was also having difficulty seeing in the sleet and snow and that every few minutes he had to reach out his window to wipe his windshield by hand.
It was on seeing this, that Mary started developing the first windshield wipers. She envisioned a device that would be attached to the outside of the car, with a long spring-loaded arm and a rubber blade. The driver would be able to use it by turning a handle inside the vehicle.
Mary secured the patent for her design in 1903, but her device was rejected by several companies that didn’t see the value and her invention was forgotten until the 1950s when car safety was seen as more of a priority.
The first automatic wipers were invented by Charlotte Bridgwood in 1917, but like Mary, she was unable to make it into a commercial success.
Born in France in 1894 and educated in the UK after the family moved when she was 8, Dorothée Pullinger began work in 1910 at the Paisley works of Scottish automobile firm Arrol-Johnson.
During World War 1, Dorothée was put in charge of female munitions workers at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, producing bombs for the front line. It’s estimated she was responsible for an estimated 7000 people during that time. She was awarded an MBE for her work during the war.
Dorothée moved back to Scotland and became manager and director of Galloway Motors Ltd, a subsidiary of Arrol-Johnson. The company employed a largely female workforce, adopted the colours of the suffragettes and Dorothée hosted an engineering college there. They produced ‘The Galloway’ car, a car built for women, by women. It was a lighter and smaller vehicle with changes such as a smaller steering wheel, a raised seat and a lower dashboard, made with women in mind.
In January 1921, Pullinger was elected the first female member of the Institution of Automobile Engineers, although she initially rejected their offer of membership. She was an enthusiastic car driver and won the cup in the Scottish Six Day Car Trials in 1924 in a Galloway car.
In 2012, Dorothée Pullinger was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.
Mary Barra has a career at General Motors that spans more than 35 years. In that time, she has worked in multiple departments – from executive assistant all the way through to various vice president and executive vice president roles in the company.
In 2014, Barra succeeded Dan Akerson in becoming GM’s new CEO, becoming the highest-ranking female in the automotive industry and the first female CEO of a major automaker.
In 2017, Mary Barra was listed as the most powerful woman in business by Fortune magazine.
Barra is also an active presence in the community of Detroit. She has been known to raise impressive amounts of money for schools and charities in the city.
Michelle Christensen managed to take her love of art and passion for cars and use them to build a successful career in car design.
Her interest in car mechanics was inspired by her father, who was into hot rods and muscle cars. She developed an interest in drawing and fine arts and found that she excelled in these subjects. She then learnt about car design at community college and went to study at the art centre college of design.
She was hired by Acura/Honda in 2005 as their first female exterior designer and her work includes the Acura ZDX and RDX, the Acura RL and RLX as well as the Honda NSX second generation. She briefly moved to General Motors in 2010, but after just 11 months returned to Honda. As Lead Principal Designer at Honda in 2015, Michelle has made a huge impact as the first woman to lead a supercar design team. The NSX went on to receive awards, including Japan’s Car of the Year Special Award.
The automotive industry is a place where women can prove their strength and vision. Top car makers are now realising the impact of women’s contribution and are outlining programs for better recruitment and support for female employees, with automotive schools and degrees also putting more focus towards attracting women into the industry.
In honour of International Women's Day, we also celebrated other women who have challenged the status quo in the automotive sector and motor racing sport. Find out why Hannah Gordon a female mechanic enjoys her job, discover the world's first all-female supercar club and find out more about the world's first female to qualify for the Formula One Grand Prix.
Have we missed anyone off our list? Let us know in the comments.