Scaling the heights
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crimination and pressure to act like a man. Women who launched careers in the 1990s talked about more flexible schedules and a growing female influence on the marketplace.
Twenty-five years ago it wouldn't have been possible to put together a room of top-flight female executives to discuss such attitudes, they said.
"The environment was pretty hostile," said Lori Queen, 49, vehicle line executive for small cars at General Motors. "Even in engineering, if you walked through the prototype shop, (you'd get) catcalls, screams. I mean you'd think that they'd never seen a woman. They just don't do it anymore."
Many manufacturing plants didn't even have restrooms for women. Women working the late shift at a plant needed a male escort to go to the bathroom. Women wore suits with floppy bow ties, put in 12 hours or more at work and generally acted like the men in order to climb the ladder.
'Baggage'? That's my life
"I can remember the most significant thing that was said to me early on was my director said, 'If you really want to get ahead, you're going to have to shed your excess baggage,'" said Anne Stevens, group vice president of Canada, Mexico and South America for Ford Motor Co. "And he meant my husband and kids."
Stevens, 56, kept both. She is now the highest-ranking woman at Ford.
Veterans such as Stevens; Queen; Tower Automotive CEO Kathleen Ligocki, 48; and Karenann Terrell, 44, vice president and chief information officer, Chrysler group and Mercedes-Benz NAFTA, were lauded by the younger generation on the panel for breaking down some of those barriers. But the younger women also are pushing cultural boundaries and helping to improve the work/life balance in the industry, the veterans said.
Deborah Wahl Meyer, 42, vice president of marketing for Lexus, sometimes brings her young son with her to company events and on business trips, to the surprise of more traditional colleagues.
"They'll go, 'Oh, what do we have here? It's a child,'" said Meyer. "Then they see that everything's OK. You still work, you still get everything done, and everyone relaxes. But there's always like this intake of breath. That's kind of the next phase."
Technology enables more flexible schedules for both men and women. With cell phones, e-mail and BlackBerrys, co-workers can track someone down almost anywhere - fortunately or unfortunately. Julie Roehm, 34, director of Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge communications for the Chrysler group, took a call at a very inopportune time.
"My water broke, and I was on my way to the hospital with my second," Roehm said. "My phone rang. I'm in the car, and my husband and I are trying to decide what to call this child."
Even after explaining the situation to her male colleague, the man didn't skip a beat, launching right into a discussion about a work dilemma.
Technology does allow the women to control their time better, Terrell said, but "I'm not sure it leveled the playing field. It just opened up a whole set of options that made it much more possible to make the choices that we want."
Hanging on to talent
More has to be done to keep talented women in the industry, panel members said. Women have excellent opportunities at the junior levels of the industry, but the attrition rate is high, said Ligocki, one of the industry's few female CEOs. She left a promising career at Ford in 2003 for the chance to run Tower Automotive, a large but battered parts supplier.
"Not enough women are in senior line positions with enough experience to get up to the top yet," Ligocki said. "It's not yet equal at the top, and so you have to say, 'Well, why are we losing so many talented people, both men and women, actually, from this business?' Is it still too hierarchical? Is it still too traditional? Why are we not bringing out the best people? Women who have a lot of other life choices often make them."
It's not perfect, Terrell said, "but, compared to the '70s and '80s, man, this is a dream."
And the ranks of women, even at the top, are growing. Women are well past the days of no restroom at all. A case in point: After recalling lots of empty stalls in the women's restroom at Ford senior executive meetings a few years ago, Stevens updated ex-colleague Ligocki on another sign of progress.
"There was a line in the ladies' room" at the last such senior executive meeting at Ford, Stevens said. "They're in the pipeline."
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