DEARBORN -- Sixteen of Ford Motor Company’s top female executives were named to Automotive News’ list of “100 Women in the North American Automotive Industry,” which recognizes women who are leaders in the automotive field. Ford had the highest representation of all automotive brands on the list, which is compiled just once every five years.
The women chosen represent a variety of areas within the company – from engineering and purchasing to marketing and human resources.
Nearly all of them agree that the automotive industry is a challenging one, regardless of gender.
“That’s the one thing that is equal for all of us,” said Birgit Behrendt, executive director, Global Programs and The Americas Purchasing. “It’s a tough industry, and it’s very challenged by the economic environment.”
Barb Samardzich, vice president, Powertrain Engineering, agrees, adding that the automotive industry is tough even in good times. “But that toughness is what gives us the challenge that gets us so excited,” she said. “Whether you’re a man or a woman, having those challenges to work on and finding solutions to those challenges is what I think keeps the industry very vibrant and very exciting.”
Working as an executive in the auto industry can be more demanding for some when balancing work and home life, says Sue Cischke, group vice president, Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering.
“I think for most women, they are juggling the priorities of family and career, and it makes it difficult to do everything well at the same time,” she said. “So at different stages in their life they may have to prioritize what’s important for them at that time. You can have it all, but not always at the same time.”
It’s a delicate balance, agrees Joy Falotico, vice president, Global Marketing, Ford Motor Credit. “We have a lot of complexities at home trying to manage family and children, and I think to succeed at that you’ve got to be very organized and very good at multitasking,” she said.
Marcy Klevorn, director, Global Information Technology (IT) Operations, says IT is traditionally a male-dominated industry – especially in some of the more technical areas – and the challenge came into play when you were the only female in a peer group.
“Historically, some men may have had a partner at home who was devoted to keeping the house running, and you may have been one of a few members of the team trying to juggle that plus do your share contributing to the team. “That has definitely changed over the years and now everyone needs flexibility and balance,” she said.
Elena Ford juggles the demands of her job as director of Global Marketing, Sales and Service Operations with her responsibilities as the mother of four children.
“We have to be extremely organized in our house. We spend a lot of time figuring out schedules and calendars and things like that,” she said. “I think it’s a level playing field, though, because just as much as ladies are here late, the gentlemen are here late too, and everyone has something to do after work.”
Like Ford, Desi Ujkashevic, director, Global Design Technical Operations, also has four children.
“You have to have a support system that works for you,” she said. “And as long as you recognize the needs of the corporation and you find a balancing mechanism that you’re happy with, I think you can make it work.”
A good support system is vital, agrees Felicia Fields, group vice president, Human Resources and Corporate Services.
“If you look at very successful women, they probably have incredible support systems behind them – more flexibility with partners in marriage and more flexibility with families or friends who are supportive of them,” she said.
Linda Cash, director, North America Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering, says it’s important to be clear about priorities and set specific boundaries.
“Be creative in your plan to get the critical task done at home and at work,” she said. “Be flexible to take alternative routes to get the lesser task done in different ways. Look ahead and constantly monitor the schedules in both places to make the best, less stressful plan.”
In addition to managing the demands of work and home life, other factors come into play for female executives, says Mary Lou Quesnell, general sales manager, Ford Customer Service Division.
“A woman’s greatest asset could become her greatest liability,” she explained. “Many times a woman’s response can be perceived incorrectly or differently than intended. A female manager might be really optimistic and she is viewed as a ‘cheerleader,’ or a woman just gives solid criticism and she’s perceived as ‘negative.’”
Nancy Gioia, director, Global Electrification, says the diversity that women bring to the table gives Ford a competitive advantage, especially considering the fact that women influence 80 percent of car-buying decisions.
“We see products and we have different needs for those products, so I think one of the benefits we have with women in the industry is we can influence the product directly to be a better fit for us as a population of consumers,” she said.
Susan DeSandre, Global Exterior and Raw Materials, Purchasing, says she hopes there will come a time when women are not singled out for being leaders in the automotive industry because of gender.
“Success in the automotive business is not about physical size, stature or brawn, where men arguably have an advantage,” she said. “Women are equally capable in the success criteria for the automotive business, so why differentiate?”
Marcy Fisher, director, Body Interior Engineering, says she hopes accolades like Automotive News’ list inspire a new generation of leaders.
“I hope the value of the recognition of women in the auto industry is to encourage young women to pursue technical careers,” she said. “At some point when all cultures around the globe view this as a norm, the recognition won’t be needed.”