General Motors CEO Mary Barra, right, is interviewed by Cox Automotive's Michelle Krebs in Detroit. Picture: Carlos Osorio / AP

Detroit Motor Show - The automotive industry is famously male dominated, forcing women in the field to fight sexism, discrimination and unequal pay - although woman car experts say having Mary Barra at the helm of General Motors is a "very significant" development.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct, industry experts Maryann Keller, Michelle Krebs and Rebecca Lindland say they have never faced harassment comparable to that described by the accusers of, for example, film producer Harvey Weinstein. But speaking on the sidelines of the Detroit show, one thing was clear: as women, they felt unwelcome in the 'old boys' club' of the car world.

Keller, Krebs and Lindland all work as industry analysts in a world that seems incomprehensible to many, and are regularly consulted on the battle between American and Japanese manufacturers, the ambitions of Tesla or the arm-wrestling of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

But industry expert Krebs recalled that when she started, "There was some scepticism that I wouldn't be sticking around."

Keller was a financial analyst on male-heavy Wall Street before she became an car industry expert, eventually opening her own consultancy.

"I don't know if I was taken seriously initially," she said, remembering 'silly events' and 'inappropriate remarks' from salesmen, but declined to go into further detail.


Krebs and Lindland explained some of the discrimination they faced.

Lindland said: "I had to make sure that I knew everything because they doubted that a woman would know everything."

Krebs added: "There were a lot of male bondings that I was excluded from," referring to the golf, fishing and motorsport outings enjoyed by her colleagues.

"When you go on car launch drives you usually partner up. In the very early days nobody would ride with me."

Former journalist Krebs began her car industry career in 1980 at a local newspaper in Michigan, and worked her way up to become the first woman to review cars for the New York Times in the 1990s - but found herself on the receiving end of insults from misogynistic readers.

She said: "I got a letter from someone in Texas that said, 'Women have no business writing about cars - they belong in the kitchen making cookies. Make mine chocolate chips.' I never forgot."

Passionate about cars

Car shows are often frustrating for Lindland, who has been passionate about cars since the age of nine.

"The assumption is that I'm part of the support staff," she said.

As for pay, Lindland added she had 'no doubt' that is another area where women lose out.

"Myself and other female colleagues are paid less," she said. That's probably for me the most frustrating and upsetting bit."


Car companies have made efforts to hire more women, but the majority of employees are still men, and troubling allegations have surfaced about mistreatment of women workers at two Ford plants in Chicago.

In December, Ford boss Jim Hackett apologised to employees at the plants after a scathing expose detailed decades of sexual harassment and abuse. .

"It seems to me that there are safe places where you can have women," said Keller, "You can be an economist, you can be in HR."

In fact, Barra, CEO of General Motors since 2014, is the only female at the head of a large automotive group - an appointment Keller described as "very, very significant."

'Bring your husband'

However, she said questions were raised about Barra's credentials, despite the fact she had spent her entire career in the car industry, while Ford's newly appointed, less experienced Hackett faced no such scrutiny.

"I think it was because she's a woman," said Keller, comparing perceptions of women working in the industry to manufacturers' view of female customers.

"As recently as the 1990s, if I went into a dealership to buy a car, they would probably say bring your husband."

Indeed, it took years for the three women to earn their colleagues' respect - a moment Lindland will not forget.

"I still remember when they said, you know, we now know that you have petrol in your blood," she said.

Agence France-Presse