In her second year as a manufacturing engineer at General Motors Corp. in the early 1980s, Mary Sipes had to get a toolmaker to change some of his equipment. He replied that he was not going to take orders "from some little girl."
Today Sipes is in charge of all full-size sport-utility vehicles for GM. She is one of a new generation of female executives making their mark in the auto industry, slowly changing a male-dominated culture just as the marketplace is shifting around them.
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Women represent about half of all licensed U.S. drivers, up from 44 percent in 1972, and they account for a significant and climbing percentage of new-vehicle sales.
Automakers are catching on, nowhere more intently than at GM and Ford Motor Co., as Detroit's two wounded giants try to reconnect with alienated U.S. car buyers. Women now run three major brands -- Saturn and Hummer at GM, and the Volvo North America subsidiary of Ford -- and are increasingly present in such male-dominated areas as vehicle engineering, design and manufacturing.
As a result, the products on American roadways are beginning to change. Female auto engineers say they are trying to expand the appeal of each vehicle, making them suit women and giving men more than they expected at the same time.
"We don't do pink trucks," said Sipes, who as vehicle line director oversees development of GM's full-size SUVs and has women working as an assistant chief engineer and in finance, marketing and program management. "But we now realize these trucks are being purchased by women as well as men. And if you don't have women involved on a daily basis . . . in that product design, you're going to alienate those women who would love to buy it otherwise."
GM Chairman Rick Wagoner says he is counting on Sipes's new line of trucks to help restore the company's profitability. The designs will include greater visibility, instrument panels that sit lower and farther forward to put more distance between occupants and air bags, adjustable pedals for drivers of different sizes and lightweight materials so that seats and doors can be moved more easily by people with less upper-body strength -- all elements that were added by women with women in mind, Sipes said.
Such changes are cropping up throughout the marketplace. An entirely new category of vehicle -- the crossover, or car-like SUV -- has evolved largely from women's desire for a vehicle that is sportier than a minivan but handles better than a truck. The introduction of such features as run-flat tires and the wider marketing of safety technology all trace back to efforts to reach female drivers, said Maureen Sullivan Martin, an industry consultant and spokeswoman for the Automotive Women's Alliance.
"I think everyone would agree we have a long way to go, but the manufacturers and suppliers are embracing" an emphasis on women, Martin said. "It may be slow, but it certainly has a high return on investment."
It also strikes some analysts as a last-minute push to overcome years of neglect during which Detroit has valued women mainly as props to promote new car designs. Automakers have been among the slowest of U.S. businesses to appreciate the value of women as decision makers, according to the New York-based consulting group Catalyst. In a recent Catalyst survey of major corporations, just over 11 percent of top executives in auto-related companies were women, compared with more than 22 percent in publishing, nearly 16 percent in pharmaceuticals, 14 percent in railroads and 15 percent in mail and freight delivery.