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Women engineers impact auto industry

Mary Barra became chief executive of General Motors last year, making her the first female CEO of a major car company.

Elizabeth Krear, chief engineer for the Ram 1500. "As an engineer, I can be a decision-maker," said Krear, a 25-year industry veteran.
Elizabeth Krear, chief engineer for the Ram 1500. "As an engineer, I can be a decision-maker," said Krear, a 25-year industry veteran.Read more

Mary Barra became chief executive of General Motors last year, making her the first female CEO of a major car company.

Barra arguably has the highest profile among a growing number of women - like Jennifer Vuong, news anchor and multimedia editor at Automotive News; and Nancy Gioia, director of global electrification at Ford Motor Co. - making imprints in the auto industry.

Women held only about 25 percent of jobs in the motor vehicle and parts industry as of late 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet women influence 80 percent of car-buying decisions, according to "Women in Cars," a 2014 analysis by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. That oft-cited industry figure is supported by a more concrete number: As of 2012, more U.S. women held driver's licenses than men for the first time.

"What's most interesting about this statistic is that more than half the women around the world are unhappy with the automotive products presented to them," said Brandy Schaffels, chief editor of, an automotive-advice site geared to women. "[Women] want better storage options, nicer interior lighting and materials, and ergonomics that better suit their smaller body size."

Fewer than one in five engineers in the auto industry is a woman, according to Lindsay Brooke, author of the report "Women in Vehicle Engineering," recently published in SAE International's Automotive Engineering magazine.

"This is the time when the demand for product developers and technical expertise is acute," Brooke said. "Female engineers in key positions including design, lighting, technology, and product development add a lot to the mix."

These three engineers are making their mark while setting the groundwork for the next generation of women in auto science and technology:

Dawn Piechocki, an engineering manager at Ford, is responsible for integrating, testing, and executing all the engineering requirements for its full-size SUVs, the Ford Expedition, and the Lincoln Navigator. That includes overseeing and integrating vehicle development of the chassis, power train, body, and electrical components.

She also tests out vehicles in diverse environments around the world, including sand, towing, and rock-climbing evaluations in Borrego, Calif., desert drills in Dubai, and performance drives from Mexico City at 7,500 feet to Acapulco at sea level.

Piechocki has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Wayne State University and a master's in engineering and management from the University of Detroit. She began her career at Ford 23 years ago in car-chassis engineering, and shifted to trucks and SUVs in 2002.

"I originally wanted to be a doctor, but after doing dissection in high school, that totally turned me off. Dissecting a car is much less terrifying and cleaner," Piechocki said.

"I work on mentoring the engineering team in Mexico and getting them more exposure to the automotive industry. I also speak to younger women who are interested in science and math. And I have found a lot of women, especially younger women, are just intimidated by vehicles. But I explain that the automotive field is huge, and even if you are not doing work on a vehicle, there are so many areas that you can impact."

Elizabeth Krear is chief engineer of the Ram 1500 truck for the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Group. She oversees all budgets, planning, engineering, development, quality, and launch management of the truck.

"As an engineer, I can be a decision-maker," said Krear, a 25-year industry veteran who got a master's degree in mechanical engineering, then a master of business administration while building pilots for the 2013 Ram program.

When she was graduating from high school and wasn't quite sure what to study, Krear said, her father asked her what she wanted to be. A businesswoman, she said. "He told me to go get an engineering degree. It was great advice.

"Engineering training is basically problem solving. It has so many business elements, as well. I mentor a lot of women and high school girls in the Chrysler mentoring program. I tell them that if you are good at math and interested in how things work, then engineering is a great field."

Elizabeth Baron is a technical specialist in virtual reality and advanced visualization at Ford.

She is the principal inventor of the Ford immersive vehicle environment process and technology, which immerses a person into a full-size, photo-realistic environment and enables real-time product evaluations of engineering, aesthetic design, ergonomics, and manufacturing before the actual building take place.

"The biggest challenge is representing the physical world, the workings of a vehicle, and have it make sense using 3D technology," Baron said.

She became a tech specialist on Ford's first digital team in the mid-'90s after developing software in the 1980s. She has a bachelor's degree in industrial technology and computer science from Eastern Michigan University.

Baron exchanges ideas with outside sources such as NASA, Boeing, John Deere, and Disney. With Disney, she might share ideas that result in better cars for Ford and better theme parks for Disney; with NASA, it could be motion tracking and capture.

"Our customers [engineers] are focused and grounded in replicating a reality," she said.