As the auto industry and the technology that drives it changes, many industry leaders say women hold the keys to success. Leading technology is no longer primarily focused on sheet metal and horsepower — fields that have been heavily dominated by men.
Instead, differentiating technology going forward is more apt to be focused on the customer in fields such as user experience and human-centered design. And women are playing a more active role in those emerging fields.
In decades past, mentions of the auto industry would conjure up images of powertrains, racing and an overall thrilling drive experience.
While those factors are still relevant today, the user experience has become more important to consumers, said Carla Bailo, CEO at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
While women have succeeded in the male-dominated world of sheet metal, career options broaden when automakers consider the human aspects of operating a vehicle. "The automakers are realizing that we need to make a car that is suitable and usable for all," Bailo said.
Many of this year's Leading Women honorees have seen this trend play out during their careers.
Mamatha Chamarthi, chief information officer for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles North America, said when she worked in information technology for the automaker in the late 1990s, IT — and technology in general — was seen as a "back-office function." That's no longer the case.
It is now a "front-and-center and differentiating part of the product," said Chamarthi, a Leading Women honoree who considers that shift to be "the biggest transformational change in the auto industry."
For instance, a whopping 40 percent of customers today will leave a vehicle brand, she said, because it doesn't meet their connected-services needs.
When Bailo joined the industry more than three decades ago, automakers often dismissed customer feedback, she said. They figured they were the experts and customers didn't know what they were talking about. That thought process has changed drastically, she added.
Research shows that female leaders connect with the outside world slightly more than men, said Cheri Alexander, professor of faculty management and organizations at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and a former GM executive.
Women tend to be effective listeners and observers and can translate their findings into product features, she said.
"When you are trying to gather information from customers, their wants and desires, you have to really listen and be able to convert what you hear into things that will delight the customer," Alexander said. "The many roles women play in their lives — professional, mom, partner, chauffeur and caregiver — help them to understand what is needed in the interior of cars."
Lisa Drake, Ford Motor Co.'s North America COO, said such abilities position women well for roles in human-centered design and user experience.
"The product design process and the focus on how we deliver cars and the experience to our customers is changing, and I actually think it's going to play well into the leadership skills and the traits that women naturally can bring to the table," Drake said. "The past probably wasn't perfect for us, but I think the future holds a lot of opportunity."