Inventors and great drivers, visionary designers and fearless lovers of speed. Step after step during the march towards women's emancipation, the automotive sector has always been one in which women too have been able to assert their ability to lead, their entrepreneurial spirit and their managerial talents. Women have always had a close relationship with cars, more than is sometimes imagined, and right from the first appearance of the motor car. The first woman to take the helm of a car manufacturer was way back in 1895: Sophie Opel, wife of Adam Opel who founded the company, remained in charge of Opelwerke even after her husband’s death and continued to do so until 1913, a total of 18 years.
The women of the 20th Century
Moving later into the 20th Century we arrive in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, when at General Motors the so-called "Damsels of Design" became some of the first women designers with the production of a large number of acclaimed interior design projects.
In 1982 the wife of the successful industrialist Herbert Quandt joined the supervisory boards of BMW after his death. Together with her children, Johanna Quandt held about half of the company’s ordinary shares. In 1990 Frenchwoman Elisabeth Bougis developed one of Renault’s most successful models, the Twingo. It was thanks to the enterprising spirit of this woman, who supervised the entire project including development, production, marketing and sales, that Renault was able to secure the collaboration of big names like Kenzo and Benetton for the design of the interiors. In 1993 twelve American women founded the "Automotive Women's Alliance Foundation", aimed at ensuring that women could gain more power and influence within the global automotive industry. To date the foundation has raised two hundred thousand dollars to finance scholarships for women.
The women of the 21st Century
Arriving in the 21st Century one of the foremost experts in aerodynamics is the Italian woman Antonia Terzi, who from 2004 worked for the Ferrari and Williams teams in Formula 1. She then became Head Designer of the so-called "TU Delft Superbus", a prototype electric-powered bus capable of carrying up to 23 people at a maximum speed of 250 km/h. And there is also Linda Hasenfratz, the first woman at the helm of mechanical car components manufacturer Linamar and, in 2003, the American Anne Stevens, who became the most influential woman in the automotive industry as the first female executive vice president of Ford. In the same year Wang Fengying became chief executive of the Great Wall Motor Company, the most successful car manufacturer in the Chinese private sector.
There is no doubt that, over the years, the identity of female customers has become increasingly well defined, so much so that in 2004 the first concept car created specifically for women was created, with Volvo becoming the first car maker to to assemble from scratch a team exclusively made up of women.
In 2009 Frenchwoman Odile Desforges became the first female vice president of Renault and added her voice to the call for equal opportunities for women and men in the car industry. The list continues. In 2010, in her role as CEO of Smart, Annette Winkler became the first woman in charge of a brand of the Daimler group, and Rita Forst became one of Europe’s most influential managers as a senior director of Opel. With her arrival in the automotive sector in 2011 following a career in politics, Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt was the first female member of the Board of Directors at Daimler AG. In 2012 Ursula Piëch joined the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen and, as the wife of Ferdinand Piëch - the majority shareholder of Porsche and former Chairman of the VW Board of Directors - she is now one of the most powerful female directors in the car industry.
Susie Wolff ushered in a paradigm shift in Formula 1, finally managing to secure a place in the Formula 1 pits as a test driver for Team Williams. This ambitious Scotswoman has been followed by many other women who have all earned their place among the royalty of motor sports as engineers, sports directors and test drivers. In 2013 the American Barb Samardzich joined the stars of female management in the American car industry by entering the top management team at Ford Europe, while Elena Ford, the great-great granddaughter of Henry Ford, became the company’s first female vice president and helped to revolutionise its car production process. In 2014 the American Mary Barra became the most powerful woman in the automotive industry as CEO of General Motors. In this role of total responsibility Barra has had to tackle one of the biggest-ever scandals in the history of GM, forcing her to recall 1.6 million vehicles. Defects in ignition systems had caused a large number of accidents, suddenly throwing Mary Barra into the press spotlight.