The Evolution of Women in the Automotive Industry

Nowadays, it’s not as rare to see women in the automotive industry, but this wasn’t always the case. Let’s look at some pioneers who paved the way for women in car racing, business leadership, and behind-the-scenes at the auto shop.

Formula 1 Racers

Only men sat behind the wheel when Formula 1 racing started in 1950. That changed in 1958, when Italian driver Maria Teresa de Filippis competed in three Grand Prix races, making her the first female F1 Grand Prix driver. Following in de Filippis’s tracks, Lella Lombardi drove in 17 qualifying sessions and 12 races between 1974 and 1976.

Other historical F1 drivers include English driver Divina Galica, who made three unsuccessful qualifying attempts between 1976 and 1978; Giovanna Amati from Italy, who attempted to qualify three times in 1992; and South African driver Desiré Wilson, who tried once without success in 1980. Outside of the World Drivers Championship, Wilson won a Formula 1 race in 1980 at the Brands Hatch circuit during the British Formula One Series.

To date, Lombardi is Formula 1’s most successful female driver. She established a reputation for herself after finishing sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, earning half a point and her name in the final race results.

Lombardi is the last woman to have competed in Formula 1, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t female racers out there. In 2019, the first W Series race debuted: an all-female single-seater racing championship. Although the W Series held its final race in 2022, Formula 1 launched its F1 Academy in 2023: an all-female driving program to help women advance in motorsport.

Team Leaders

Although she stays out of the cockpit, team principal Monisha Kaltenborn has left her mark on the world of motorsport. A lawyer by training, Kaltenborn got her start in 2000 managing the Sauber team’s legal affairs. She slowly moved up the ranks to chief executive officer, a position she held from 2010 to 2017.

Many public relations, marketing, communication, and senior staff positions in the automotive industry are also held by women. This includes the current General Motors CEO, Mary Barra, who had to steer the auto manufacturer through a major crisis in 2014, just months after she took the position. With a degree in electrical engineering, she became the first woman to hold a CEO position in the auto industry.

Influential Engineers

Automotive technology wouldn’t be the same without women working behind the scenes.

Bertha Benz of Germany is often credited as the first automotive engineer. In 1888, Benz was the first to drive an internal-combustion engine vehicle over a long distance (105 km). In 1893, American engineer Margaret A. Wilcox created the automotive heating system.

Jeanne Brault Laurin (1924 – 2012) was Canada’s first woman mechanic. Growing up, she spent most of her time in her family-owned garage in Saint-Étienne-de-Beauharnois, Quebec. Here, her father taught her everything he knew, encouraging her own passion for automotive mechanics.

Continuing to Make Space

Although incredible progress has been made over the years, women still take up a minuscule number of positions in the automotive space. To ensure we hear everyone’s voice, we must continue creating opportunities for women and girls to explore their interests in this industry.

At NAPA, we believe in celebrating diversity and creating spaces for equal opportunity. Initiatives like the Women Automotive Network are one way we can encourage this equality. The Women Automotive Network is a community dedicated to empowering women in the automotive industry by hosting leadership interviews, offering mentorship programs, sharing job opportunities, and more.

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