Why Annette Winkler's promotion is such a big deal

Douglas A. Bolduc is a special correspondent for Automotive News Europe
Daimler's promotion of Annette Winkler to run its Smart brand was not only a significant victory for women in a male-dominated industry, it was another indication that Germany has emerged from the dark ages when it comes to gender equality.

In early September 2005, Germany was not even mentioned when I asked former Automotive News Europe Woman of the Year winners to name the European country that would have the first female CEO. France and Sweden were named as the most likely countries to break down that wall first.

The women, though, were very encouraged about what was going on in Germany. At that time, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union was the front-runner prior to the German federal election planned for Sept. 18, 2005. By November, Merkel was Germany's first female chancellor.

When Merkel was being sworn in, Winkler was head of Daimler's Belgium-Luxembourg business unit. In 2006, Winkler was named Daimler's vice president of global business management and wholesale for Europe, a job she will give up Sept. 1 to head a new Smart product unit within Daimler's Mercedes-Benz Cars division.

Some might argue that Winkler is not a “true” CEO. Winkler will report to Joachim Schmidt, Mercedes head of sales and marketing, rather than Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche. Downgrading the importance of Winkler's achievement is unfair because the bottom line is that she will have a seat at a table that has been closed to women before.

Winkler's promotion follows another glass-ceiling-busting move.

Birgit Behrendt, who like Winkler was named one of ANE's 25 Leading Women in the European Automotive Industry in 2008, took over as executive director of Ford's global programs and Americas purchasing on July 1. She has moved to Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., from Germany, where she was Ford of Europe's vice president of purchasing since 2004.

For any vehicle under development, Behrendt will help Ford develop a preliminary sourcing strategy, identify tooling requirements and work with suppliers during pre-production and vehicle launch. In short, Behrendt is the purchasing operation's product czar.

Five years ago, Germany was considered a long shot as a place where female executives could elevate to the top of the executive ladder. With two 50-year-old German natives on the rise, that is no longer the case.