Women on Wheels: Famous Women in the Automotive Industry

You probably associate the automotive industry with being predominantly male, but not many people know that the industry is changing for the better and now employs more women than ever.

During WWII, we saw record numbers of women take over the manufacturing of pretty much everything from vehicles to artillery shells, but in 2017, women remain under-represented in the automotive world.

But there is some good news … although fewer, it seems that more women are being promoted to senior roles; CEO’s, Vice Presidents and Lead Engineers are just a handful of examples. Couple that to high-profile racing teams, supply specialists and brand consultants, and you’ll see that women are gaining further influence in the automotive world.

It’s some way off before we reach equilibrium – for some “women in the car industry” might still be Pirelli Calendar Girls or any other beauties promoting cars or tyres in often controversial ads. However, there is a definite shift nowadays towards recognising a role, rather than a gender.

Let’s take a look at successful women who made history on wheels.

Formula One

Although we may associate Formula One with a purely male based sport (certainly the driving), you may be surprised to hear that there have been a number of female Formula One drivers, and it isn’t just a recent thing either.

Desiré Wilson was the first female driver to win a Formula One race back in 1980, but there have been numerous others that have been responsible for developing the cars we see today. The most notable of them is Susie Wolff (née Stoddart).

Perhaps the most well-known woman in Formula 1 currently is Claire Williams OBE, daughter of Sir Frank Williams and Deputy Team Principal of the Williams Formula One racing team. Or of course we could pick Monisha Kaltenborn – the Team Principal of the Sauber Formula One team.

Both team bosses have a view to improving the gender disparity, but Ms Williams in particular is working toward encouraging youngsters to take up engineering as part of her ambassadorial role for Women in Innovation, a campaign run by Innovate UK in which female leaders travel around schools and give talks to school girls about STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics).


There are a number of manufacturers employing women in top-level roles, and depending on where your brand loyalty lies, the most noticeable would be Elena Ford, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry.

Elena Ford is the Vice-President of the Ford Motor Co, the first female Ford to do so. She isn’t just there to tick a box either; Elena handles everything from consumer experience, vehicle quality and establishing best practice throughout Ford USA.

FoMoCo aren’t the only company that have looked to the future either – Trudy Hardy is the Vice-President of Marketing for BMW North America and Mary Barra is the CEO of General Motors in the U.S. arguably one of the largest automotive manufacturing brands worldwide.


There can’t be a reader that’s unfamiliar with the three amigos that are behind the world’s biggest car entertainment show, but there have been a number of women who deserve their place on the world stage thanks to their automotive knowledge and background.

Vicki Butler-Henderson is one such woman. She’s a super-fast racing driver that also branched out into the TV presenting game, and made a decent job of it. It’s just a shame that the programme she worked on really couldn’t compete with the competition (of which there was just one other).

Speaking of fast racing drivers … Sabine Schmitz was no doubt a legend around the Nordschleife but it was only really through Top Gear that she became known worldwide. Although she still races for the likes of Porsche and BMW (and still pilots the ‘Ring Taxi’ for fun), she is fast becoming known for her TV broadcasting career, at which she excels.


It’s true that society is changing; studies say that the global automotive industry is made up of around 25% women (that includes all aspects, including peripheral activities). But will that figure rise any higher?

Manufacturers are working towards employing more women, and we can definitely see an increase in women being employed in more senior roles. With the likes of Claire Williams, Elena Ford, Trudy Hardy and Sabine Schmitz, we can see that the automotive industry is becoming less gender-specific.

However, while we still talk about ‘women’ in engineering, surely the hope should be that one day we will talk about Engineers, Managing Directors, Dealer Principle’s and Race Technicians as just that – a role within a company or organisation that has no gender connotations attached to it.



About the author

Giles Kirkland is a passionate car expert, blogger and contributor to Oponeo. He recently took to exploring the concept of the modern masculinity and femininity with a special focus on gender roles in the automotive industry. He happily shares his thoughts on various platforms.

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