LONDON - Saab's advertisements in the European press for its 9-5 sedan reveal the progress that women have made in the auto industry. The ad gave as much prominence to Kristina Wiklund as to the car, because she developed its unique whiplash-protection system.
When Wiklund joined Saab in 1983, car advertisements frequently draped a woman over the hood, rather than boasting of their role in building the vehicles.
Last year, Automotive News Europe chose Gerrit Huy as Automotive Woman of the Year from a small but growing band of women executives in the industry. This year's choice was Renault designer Anne Asensio. Both of the winners had plenty of competition for our prize, but women remain a tiny minority in the industry.
Some sectors have seen more progress than others. Many women have risen though the ranks of personnel, legal and corporate affairs departments. Few have done so in manufacturing or engineering.
'We need to diversify the workforce in all departments,' said Susanne Wegerhoff, Ford's director of public and governmental affairs. 'We need the spontaneity and insight of new people, not just the experience of the old.'
Few women hold top jobs in production. Two clear exceptions are Cynthia Trudell and Lucyne Felis.
Trudell is president of IBC Vehicles Ltd., a joint venture between General Motors and Isuzu. IBC this year won the contract to produce a new medium van being developed by GM and Renault.
Felis is president and CEO of Polish supplier Potmot Prszka SA. The supplier of springs and pumps had to find new customers to replace the Russian truck industry. Over the past three years it found General Motors, Ford, Fiat and Volkswagen.
Sales is another area where women are rare. Barbara Soar is Rover Group's parts director.
She brought in a new distribution strategy for Europe, based on replacing a web of small facilities with three integrated warehouses. Soar also stepped up the level of service, with overnight parts deliveries instead of every two weeks.
At Renault, Marie-Christine Caubet is undertaking a dramatic reorganization of her company. Caubet, 47, is head of Renault's French sales subsidiaries and of a new sales company, Renault France Automobiles.
Getting the best out of people is said to be the key to management.
Monica Gustafson, 37, agrees. For the past three years she has been leading the team developing the 1998 V70XC cross-country and R all-wheel-drive models.
'My job was to translate the ideas of the business people into a technical product,' she said.
The pre-study stage in 1995 was 'the painful phase, when you give birth to something,' she said. 'The development afterward is easier because technical solutions have already been found and costed.'
She believes it is essential for the team to have not just a common goal, but a common understanding of that goal.
Now that the job is done, Gustafson will be taking up a new post, but she declined to discuss it.
Saab's Wiklund trained as a mechanical engineer.
This year 'has been the best in my working life,' said Wiklund, because five years' work on the Active Head Restraint system came to fruition.
The system automatically tilts the headrest forward to support the head. This helps protect against whiplash injuries in a rear impact. The front seat is designed to let the occupant's body sink into it, rather than bounce off it.
The system was developed with Delphi Automotive Systems.
'Normally, you state the specifications of a part, and someone makes it,' said Wiklund. 'But with a new safety device you cannot work that way, because you risk losing some of the bio-mechanical benefits when the unit is produced. It is important to know the difference between dummies and humans.
'You start with just an idea at first, a simple idea. Then you have to cooperate very closely with your supplier to make it real, and to avoid compromises.'
Wiklund has worked on many safety and engineering projects. She found the breadth of her experience at Saab was a big asset when managing the Active Head Restraint program.
'When you are working with safety issues you have to know all the parts in a car, and to know people in all the departments of the company. So, when a project is in danger of stalling, you have ideas about how to get it moving again.'