As the first female chief executive of a U.S. auto company, Saturn Corp. President Cynthia Trudell had some advice yesterday for women climbing the corporate ladder: Take responsibility for your own career.

In town to tout Saturn's new L-Series of larger cars, Trudell told her audience at the National Press Club that women--just like men--need help from mentors along their career paths, "but I always knew that it was my responsibility to figure out what I needed to do strategically."

Trudell said that as Saturn's president and chief executive, "my goal now is to help women and men realize that they have to take charge of their careers and their lives." She said one of the biggest problems she has found with women is "they really don't know what they want."

Reflecting her own background in science--she holds a doctorate in physical chemistry and has spent her entire career on the manufacturing side of the industry--Trudell said girls should not allow themselves to be steered away from math and science courses in school. "I believe girls should study math and science so they can stretch their minds and prove they can deal with complexity," said the 46-year-old mother of two.

Corporations that shun diversity will not thrive in the future, Trudell said. "In the 21st century, businesses that want to retain their best people will not be able to operate with a traditional attitude of 'My way or the highway,' " she said. "When a business environment doesn't support diversity and inclusion, many women strike out on their own--one reason many corporations find it difficult to retain highly skilled women."

At Saturn, a subsidiary of General Motors Corp., 40 percent of the company's senior leaders are women, a statistic Trudell cites as a key to the success of Saturn's team-oriented environment. "Respecting people's differences comes easier for them [women]," she said.

Trudell, who said she was mentored by male executives during her rise through GM's corporate ranks, said she is now a mentor. "I mentor both men and women, but they have to be mentored differently," she said. "Men and women communicate differently."

In an interview, Trudell said the company's board of directors has approved the financing for a new Saturn sport-utility vehicle, which will probably be built at the company's headquarters plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. But she would not divulge any details of the new SUV except to say Saturn hoped to have it on the market within "the next couple of years."

Trudell also said the company was looking at the possibility of shutting down Saturn's Spring Hill operation for a few months this winter to convert the assembly line to handle more than one model of vehicle.

CAPTION: Cynthia Trudell, president of Saturn Corp., considers a question yesterday at the National Press Club.