Women's welcome hasn't always been warm

Catcalls, girlie calendars on the walls, being mistaken for secretaries or wives, having to use the worker's entrance at men-only clubs. Many of today's top women in the auto industry have seen a lot during their careers.

Some behavior has been clueless but not malicious. Other episodes suggest downright hazing. The good thing: Such behavior has diminished tremendously. Many of the episodes happened in the 1970s and 1980s, when women were just starting to gain a foothold in the industry.

"In the manufacturing environment you have to have rhinoceros skin," said Teri Quigley, a plant manager at General Motors.

Teri Quigley, GM: "You have to have rhinoceros skin."
Mary Gustanski, an engineering director at Delphi, remembers being taken 30 feet in the air on a plant lift. The operator intentionally banged into overhead pipes to knock dust all over the young engineer.

"They thought I would want to clean up and take them to quitting time," Gustanski said. "I said, 'Let's finish the job.'"

Sue Cischke, a group vice president at Ford, tells about a chief engineer who once said: "Sue, I think one day a woman could be the head of a plant, probably a trim plant so that she could tell whether the seams were straight."

She recalled: "My boss at the time was literally kicking me under the table, like 'Don't say anything, don't say anything,' because I was pretty outspoken. That was funny. He thought that was progressive, which was pretty sad."

GM product executive Mary Sipes remembers when colleagues entertained at strip clubs and assembly plant workers "would tape balloons on your butt." Sipes once was told she'd get no raise because she was her family's second income and men in her department needed the money more.

"When I talk to younger women today, the response I usually get is 'No way,' Sipes said.

"It makes me so happy. How glad I am they can't relate because the world has changed so much."

Women working on the retail side of the industry haven't been immune.

Dealer Mindy Holman said: "I had an irate customer that called and would not believe me when I told him that I was the general manager of Holman Hyundai. He insisted I must be the secretary and finally hung up. That kind of stuff doesn't happen very often anymore."

Dealer Lisa Schomp remembers wearing a miniskirt to greet customers with coffee at her father's Oldsmobile store. "He said I would have to start from the bottom," Schomp recalled. "But if I was his son, I might have started in the sales or service department."

Today there are no mandatory miniskirts and much less of the other behavior, too.

Said CAMI Automotive's Carolyne Watts: "They've gotten used to us now, and we're not going away."Arlena Sawyers, Donna Harris, Diana T. Kurylko, Dave Guilford and David Barkholz contributed to this report

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com

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