Women Get Feet in the Door of the Car Design Boys’ Club

By By Robert C. Yeager;  WHEELS

“Things are better now,” said Sharon Gauci, executive director for industrial design at General Motors, who was one of only two women in her industrial design class in college.CreditCreditNick Hagen for The New York Times

Thirteen years ago, Sharon Gauci became the first woman asked to join the judges’ panel for her native country’s Australian Design Awards. The annual laurels had been handed out since the 1950s, so Ms. Gauci may be forgiven if she viewed the invitation — a career highlight — as a smidge overdue.

“Things are better now,” Ms. Gauci, General Motors’ executive director for industrial design, said recently. “But the numbers still aren’t what we’d like them to be. Our industry needs and wants creative people from different backgrounds — women, minorities, everybody.”

Today, as one of her company’s top design professionals and a member of its leadership team, Ms. Gauci, 48, plays an important role in the “visual expression” of General Motors and its brands around the world. In 1993, however, when she graduated with honors from Swinburne University in Melbourne, she was one of just two women in her industrial design class.

Only a handful of colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degrees in automotive design, typically called transportation design and often a subset of industrial design. Women still account for a small percentage of graduates, but their numbers are increasing, the schools say.


“We see more women in industrial design generally, with transportation design a part of that,” said Chris Livaudais, executive director of the Industrial Designers Society of America. He estimated that 25 to 35 percent of the society’s working members are women.

Over the last seven years, the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., has noted a 25 percent increase in the number of women enrolled in the school’s transportation design programs. Alumnae have gone on to key industry posts.

Michelle Christensen, who graduated in 2005, helped shape the NSX Supercar as a lead exterior designer at Acura. Tisha Johnson, class of ’99, is vice president for interior design at Volvo in Sweden. A surfer, motorcyclist and former sky diver, Ms. Johnson described cars as a natural extension of her fascination with motion in Dot, the ArtCenter’s twice-yearly magazine.

At Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, “only about 10 percent of our transportation design seniors are women,” said Paul Snyder, who heads the school’s undergraduate program. But every one “will be in high demand when they graduate,” he added.

Crystal Windham, a 1994 graduate of the college, who directs Cadillac’s interior design team, knew little about cars as a teenager. Encouraged by a high school teacher to pursue her passion for art, however, she attended an invitational event at the College for Creative Studies and “fell in love,” she said.

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