Farmer, now plant manager at General Motors Co.'s Flint Assembly and Flint Metal Center in Michigan, said she asked a co-worker to fill in while she went home.
"At that point, you just have to say, 'I'll be back.' " Farmer said. "But I would say one person out of a 33-year career is a pretty good average."
Farmer relayed the story during a panel discussion among 12 of Automotive News' 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry. The women agreed that the Detroit 3 are accommodating to women who want to balance work and family responsibilities. But some said some suppliers and foreign automakers lag behind the Detroit 3.
Despite substantial progress, many women in the auto industry still struggle with problems that hold back their careers, panelists said.
For instance, auto companies often require international experience to advance, but some overseas cultures reject or resist female executives. Also, some marketing jobs require field experience, but many women decline to uproot their families or move away from spouses and children.
Finally, the auto industry has shed tens of thousands of jobs in recent years. And the culture of the industry is still perceived by many as a male-dominated bastion resistant to change.
So it's no surprise that many prospective female executives decide to work elsewhere.
Even women who have achieved success in the auto industry think it lacks promise for young women. In a survey by the professional services firm Deloitte of 41 of the 100 Leading Women, only two said they would fully endorse the auto industry as a possibility for a daughter's future career.
About half said they would encourage their daughters to pursue automotive, but with caveats. And 10 said they either would not recommend the industry or would discourage a daughter from joining it.
The perception that the auto industry is a tough place for women to thrive "is as much within as it is without," said marketing consultant Jan Thompson.
"I never asked permission. This is what I'm doing because this is what's going to make my life happier for me and my family, and I've always achieved results," said Linda Theisen, who was a Metaldyne vice president when she joined the panel and now is vice president of purchasing at Fisker Automotive. "Have confidence in your decision."
Women in management have set examples that allow the rest of their department — men and women — to set boundaries on the extent to which a job can control their lives.
"We make it a point to make sure people understand that they're most valuable at work when they're also accomplishing what they think they need to accomplish at home," said GM's Farmer.
"If you work second shift, and your kids' games fall on that shift, it's OK to say, 'Here's the schedule, and we've got a game here, here and here.' And we all just kind of push in and fill in the blank until the person comes back."
May Leng Yau-Patterson, head of Chrysler Group's manufacturing planning and control, said she never worries about employees who are moms or moms-to-be.
"I believe that the more [children] they have, the more efficient they are," she said. "I know that, as a mom, you're going to get things done."Moms and wives But women's responsibilities as wives can stand in the way of their advancement — especially in sales and in marketing, where the route to the top often goes through sales.
Sales staffers usually must relocate several times, said Thompson, who has worked in sales and marketing for four automakers.
"That cuts a lot of women out because of spouses that have jobs," she said. "Eventually you get to the point in marketing where they say: 'You haven't spent any time in the field. How do you know how dealers feel?' And you're stopped."
And in most other automotive career paths, an international assignment is a requirement to become a top-level executive.
"By the time you get to that level in your career, your kids are teenagers and it's difficult to just up and leave and go to Japan," Thompson said. She advocates making advancement more accommodating to family responsibilities.Even if a woman does want an overseas assignment, some countries' cultures aren't welcoming to women, said Ford's Gioia.
"Will they be successful in the culture in which they have to go and operate?" she asked.
Auto companies seeking to encourage female executives sometimes face the challenge in keeping women from being poached by other industries because they have benefited from learning a complex industry. The key, Gioia said, is continuing to develop positions that touch many business areas.
"You aren't just an engineer. You have to understand the business framework, the cost analysis," she said.
Gioia advocates creating "challenging assignments that retain, that are far broader in scope — for miniature entrepreneurs, almost."