- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2015

For young women inclining toward science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the frustrating refrain is often the same: This is boys’ work.

But for this year’s International Women’s Day — and as part of Women’s History Month — the Ford Motor Co. took a unique approach to the sex disparity by unveiling the hashtag #SheDrivesWeDrive to shed light on female engineers working to churn out the next generation of Detroit automobiles.

“What we’re doing is literally and figuratively driving change,” said Elizabeth Baron, virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist with Ford. “We’re looking at ourselves as women in the automotive industries as agents of change. And also, of course, creating these amazing vehicles that are so fun to drive.”

Ms. Baron holds a bachelor’s degree in computer-aided design programming from Eastern Michigan University. Despite the generally masculine energy of the auto business, coming to work at Ford, she said, was a natural extension of her passion for photography and math.

“I think it’s naturally the way my brain is wired,” she said.

Likewise, her co-worker Johanna Slanga, a vehicle integration specialist with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, saw her attraction to the automotive industry as a fit for her prodigiously technical and curious nature. She got under the hood at a young age, often assisting her father in diagnosing the engine troubles of the family’s rides.

“I’m a car gal right to my core,” Ms. Slanga said. “I enjoyed solving problems, kind of seeing how things work. For me, it goes very deep, to my soul, loving cars. [That] has driven me to Ford both literally and figuratively.”

Despite their passion, both Michigan natives experienced some manner of gender roadblocking while trying to break into the car club. Ms. Baron, who has been with Ford for 27 years, recounts a moment early in her career when she was mistaken for a secretary, which, she said with a tinge of bitterness, was “an easy mistake to make at the time. But that doesn’t happen anymore. I can’t even remember the last time I encountered [an issue] just because I’m female.”

Ms. Baron and Ms. Slanga work with a majority male team, but both insist their work in such an atmosphere is sex-blind, with the hard work and dedication speaking louder than biological determination.

“[With] that passion you kind of fit right in. You’re kind of one of the crew,” Ms. Slanga said. “If you’re passionate about what you do, if you work hard at it, you know what you do, it’s a very respectful environment.”

Ms. Slanga sees the problem of educating young people not necessarily as an issue of favoring one sex over the other in imparting STEM education, but rather of educators helping to recognize where their students’ talents and inclinations lean.

“That didn’t just come at one point,” she said of her virtuosity with assembling things since grade school. “The light switch just came on that I like math and science. So I think putting a focus on the education part early on is very critical.”

Ms. Slanga said one of the points of the #SheDrivesWeDrive campaign was to raise awareness of the fact that women like her, with a passion for science, have successfully pursued careers in fields that take advantage of their skill sets.

Countering stereotypes is also part of that campaign, Ms. Baron said. This included a chat with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop leader about building soapbox derby racers, just like the Boy Scouts do.

“It’s kind of expected that the boys will build those little race cars and run them down a ramp and see who will get the best time,” she said. But her daughter’s troop leader “is very interested in helping the girls become more comfortable looking at things in the science and engineering disciplines. Some girls are really afraid to try it because they haven’t been exposed at an early age when it becomes second nature the more you’re exposed to it. That’s what I hope will change more in the future.”

Ms. Baron, in turn, volunteers her time not only with the Girl Scouts but also speaking to the Women in Science and Engineering Group at the University of Michigan. Ms. Slanga mentors several women in college as well as Ford interns, as she had women to confide in while in college and starting out professionally.

Despite such noble efforts, statistics on gender pay disparity remain in the public eye. Patricia Arquette, who won an Academy Award last month for her role in the film “Boyhood,” used her acceptance speech to clamor for pay inequality to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

A critical aspect for women to reach that promised land, Ms. Baron said, is to be anything but timid. Women should be “advocating for what they believe they’re worth and what they believe they should be entitled to,” she said, adding that men should do the same.

“I think more men are regularly advocating for themselves,” she said, “so that’s something I’d like to encourage a woman to think about. I mean, it has to be done respectfully. You have to have facts and data on your side to support why you think you should be where you’re at. But be strategic and be bold.”

“Honestly, just don’t ever be afraid to stand up for yourself,” Ms. Slanga added.

Ms. Slanga is thankful that Ford is embracing the #SheDrivesWeDrive campaign to allow their voices to be heard and their experiences known, which she hopes will inspire young women to follow her into the STEM fields. As important, she said, is avoiding the pitfalls of office gossip and cliquishness that can sabotage the strides women have made in their professions.

“Bring your honor, your integrity and your respect to the workplace,” Ms. Slanga said. “If we remind ourselves of that every day, I think you’d find some of the more negative side of the office chatter would definitely be dissolved.”

“Life isn’t fair,” Ms. Baron said. “Every relationship ever has good and bad in it. In those instances where there is chatter, I consider it not value-added. I usually don’t even justify stuff like that with any attention at all. It’s just not worth it.”

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