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The Detroit News/DetroitNews.com, Detroit, MI

"Women slide into driver's seats at male-dominated test tracks"

Many say economics, not feminism drive them to the automakers' proving grounds

September 6, 1998 -- By Anita Lienert / The Detroit News


CHELSEA - Chrysler test driver Marcia Barnes, spent a morning in early August "running reverses" in a Plymouth Breeze - going one tire, revolution back and then forward 32 times in a row.

The backward test seemed like an ironic exercise, considering how far women such as Barnes have come in an auto industry job that just 25 years ago was an exclusively male domain. Today, the number of women test drivers at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Ground exceeds men, with 27 female vs. 21 male drivers.

Women make up 30 percent to 35 percent of the 600 drivers at General Motors Corp.'s vast Milford Proving Ground and more than 25 percent of the drivers at Toyota's Wittmann, Ariz., test track.

The significance of their progress is not lost on the female test drivers at Chrysler and GM, especially as women continue to bump up against the glass ceiling in male-dominated occupations.

"Many (of the women) come here from maintenance or factory jobs," said Barnes, a 40-year-old single mother from Jackson who has been a school bus driver and maintenance worker at Michigan Speedway. "We know how important this is. In fact, we call it "The Country Club of Chrysler."

This tiny pocket of progress in the auto industry is an "anomaly," according to Eastern Michigan University sociology professor Marie Richmond-Abbott, who specializes in women and work.

"There is still the feeling that the work world is reserved for men, especially in blue-collar occupations, which are still largely a male preserve,'' Richmond-Abbott said.

For women such as Barnes, the issue of women test-driving cars - a critical assignment that can have an impact on what kind of product ends up in showrooms - is mainly about economics, not feminism

Barbara Musolf, a GM test driver, points out the biggest benefit of being a test driver: The money.

Twenty years ago, Musolf made $3.25 an hour as a bus driver for the Huron Valley School System. That pay increased to $8.50 an hour when she started working as a per diem driver (six-month assignment without benefits) at GM in 1982. Today, she makes $19 an hour plus benefits in her United Auto Workers job as a test driver at the Milford track.

"It's a good way to make money," Musolf said. "Today, there's nothing unusual about seeing a woman on the track. If you can drive a stick shift and back a vehicle up an upgrade you can pass (the entrance requirements) here."

At the domestic manufacturers' test tracks, test driver positions are considered an unskilled job. The still male-dominated driver-mechanic or skilled trades positions that do some test-driving generally earn $2-$3 an hour more.

The women bring a different approach to the world of test-driving, said Jerry Wilson, manager of communications at Bill's Milford Proving Ground.

"Men are superior in limit handling, where you push a car to the limits in high-speed, flame-proof-suit-type of driving," he said.

"But the bulk (of our testing) is everyday driving. Women seem to be better at simulating customer usage. They are better than the men at following a schedule that tells them which roads to be on, and things like rates of deceleration and acceleration."

Initially, it was hard to persuade management to let women get behind the wheel. But events such as passage of the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, helped pave the way.

Jeanne Soubliere, 61, was the first female test driver hired at Milford in 1972. Women who make up the ranks of test drivers consider her a pioneer of sorts, but in a Camaro, not a covered wagon.

Soubliere, who is retired, used to bus tables and cook in the proving ground's cafeteria when she heard there was a test-driver opening. The pay was $2-$3 more an hour than what cafeteria workers made and Soubliere said she "fought" for the job, although she later found it sometimes more demanding than carrying heavy trays in the cafeteria.

"Sitting in a vehicle is very tedious," Soubliere said, recalling endless trips around the 132 miles of track. "You come to know every tree and every blade of grass. It isn't physical. It's mental. And we had to do it for eight hours a day. It was the same roads, over and over again."

Soubliere found more celebrity than sexism in her new role.

In 1974, she was one of the featured guests on the TV game show What's My Line. She didn't stump the panel, but she won prizes and a trip to New York.

The harder challenge of being a woman in a man's world would come when she was promoted to Milford Proving Ground traffic safety instructor, teaching staff and law enforcement personnel defensive driving.

"You've done everything that the men are doing and now they come to traffic safety and say, 'There isn't any damn woman gonna teach me how to drive,' " Soubliere said.

Jean Jennings, 44, was hired as a Chrysler test driver in Chelsea in 1977 and is now the deputy editor of Ann Arbor-based Automobile magazine.

She remembers the test-driving job as being a tough baptism into the auto industry, where male co-workers would ask her offensive questions such as "Why don't you wear a bra?"

"There was a lot of flak to take 20 years ago," said Jennings, who later worked as a mechanic in the Chrysler Impact Lab.

"There were still pictures of naked girls on the top of every guy's toolbox. My response to that was to take pictures of the mechanics in the shop and paste them on my toolbox along with Bazooka comics and inspirational messages."

Today, Irving Roberts, manager of test operations at Chelsea, says his hiring decisions are based mainly on the applicant's driving experience and the ability to write reports well and use a computer. Some of his drivers previously hold driving-intensive jobs for UPS, U.S. Postal Service and pizza chains.

"Women tend to be more consistent, more diligent and stay more focused," Roberts said of his female test drivers. However, sometimes "male ego" impedes the rest of the staff, he said.

"You put a guy in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a big engine and tell him to run cress country and he wants to run over trees," Roberts said. "The women don't want. to run over trees."

What is the next step for women such as Barnes and Musolf? A logical extension would be among the ranks of the driver-mechanics and mechanics who pull down better pay. But that may be a tougher challenge,

"Male mechanics at the Proving Ground outnumber female mechanics 20-1," Roberts said. "There aren't a lot of female mechanics in the entire world. They don't exist."

 


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