(WOMENSENEWS)–Britta Gross, director of Global Energy Systems and Infrastructure Commercialization for General Motors, is literally getting the world ready for the advent of the electric car with the Chevrolet Volt.
Gross, with a degree in electrical engineering, is in charge of preparing states to be "plug-in ready" for the Volt by working with energy and utility companies to produce the necessary charging infrastructure to support the new vehicle. She then goes to federal, state and local governments to help pave the way for the implementation of new policies to support electric cars.
Gross has worked in the field for over 25 years, but she’s still an anomaly.
Women have been gaining ground as engineers since the 1980s, according to a National Science Foundation report, but in 2006 women were still only 19 percent of those holding a bachelor’s degree in engineering, like Gross.
In late March, Gross joined three other female engineers in a Web chat–online meetings where participants can exchange written instant messages–about the Chevrolet Volt, the first electric car with extended range capability by General Motors that all four women helped create, market and distribute.
"The Volt is a great demonstration of the opportunities that exist for women," Teri Quigley, plant manager at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, the production place for the Chevrolet Volt, said during the online forum. "It requires hard work just like any job, but the door is wide open for success."
Women make up less than 11 percent of working engineers and earn 86 percent of the salaries of their male counterparts in engineering.
Engineering salaries are among the highest earnings for college graduates, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In electrical engineering, the median salary for the lowest 10 percent of the field is $52,990, while the median salary for the highest paid 10 percent of engineers is $125,810.
Getting Past the Word Engineering
"I think the only barrier, given you are strong and capable, is getting women past the word engineering," Gross said in an interview with Women’s eNews. "It sounds stale and not very exciting and I can’t imagine anything more exciting than my career."
Engineering careers are time consuming and all four women in the Web chat said one downside to their work was the time it took away from family life.
"It’s clearly the No. 1 challenge," said Gross. But she added there are also benefits for children. "It makes stronger kids and they appreciate what mom can do."
Currently, the Volt is available in some states, including New York, California, the Washington metropolitan area and Michigan. In July and August, expansion across the country will begin with the Chevrolet Volt 2012 and the company plans to be nationwide by the end of the year.
For Gross, that means making sure areas have Web sites and numbers for consumers to call about the cars, that electrical contractors are prepared and incentives are in place.
The list price for the 2011 model is $41,000 with a tax credit of $7,500, said Cristi Landy, production marketing manager of the vehicle, who was on the original car team formed in 2006.
Today, a few electric cars are in production or on the market around the world. In the United States, the Volt and Nissan Leaf are the first "family-size" electric vehicles, compared to most electric cars, which are usually small and have two doors.
In the mid-1990s, General Motors withdrew an all-electric car, the EV1. The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" recounts the marketing of the EV1, the recall and the disappointment of the engineers and car owners involved.
Gross says the EV1 and the Volt have some key differences. The EV1 was a two-seater, light-weight, all-electric car with limited driving range and produced with specialty materials. Gross says there is a standard now for charging electric cars, which was not in place when the EV1 came out.
An Electric Car First
The goal for the Volt team was to make an electric car with wide-range capability. Although the Volt can use gas, Gross says it is an electric car first.
She says 78 percent of drivers travel less than 40 miles a day. The Volt can travel for 25 to 50 miles on electricity alone depending on conditions.
For the next 340 more miles, the car uses electric and gasoline power, making the four-seater appropriate for a small family, said Pam Fletcher, chief engineer for Volt and Plug-In Hybrid Propulsion Systems.
The car takes up to 10 hours to charge and requires a three-pronged, 120-volt outlet, which can be found in most homes. There is a button to lower the charge to avoid fuse blowouts. A 240-volt charger, which comes with installation costs, can reduce charging time to four hours.
Gross said that General Motors found that 50 percent of cars are parked at home or at work. Based on this, Gross is working to make chargers accessible at home first and then work locations.
The Volt team is also trying to make the car more accessible to apartment residents, who may not have a place to charge the vehicle.
The Web chat was presented as a chance to discuss women’s interest in engineering, but the majority of the questions were about the car itself and its operation.
But one participant did describe herself as a female General Motors automotive technician interested in becoming an engineer.
"I just wanted to say that I very much appreciate you all taking the time to talk to us all about the Volt," wrote a woman identified as Tiffany Rose on the Web-hosting page for comments. "And your experience as professional women in the field. It has been an inspiring experience!"
"Tiffany, thanks for your note," Quigley responded. "We all encourage you to continue your formal education for an engineering degree. You’ve already got the hands-on experience with your current job. All the best in your future endeavors."
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Katherine Rausch is an editorial intern at Women’s eNews and a freelance writer with a degree in journalism.
For more information:
Live Chat with Female Leaders of the Chevrolet Volt:
National Science Foundation Statistics:
Engineers’ Earnings, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: