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August 11, 2007

Cargirl: GM-in Dresses

Gm_tahoe by Kate McLeod

GM guys donned drag to get the Tahoe right.

Think of it as the woman's revenge, or better, a great learning experience: General Motors engineers running around the Milford Proving Grounds in skirts, heels, fake fingernails. 


No, they weren't getting ready for a cross-dressing competition. They were learning what women go through when they deal with automobiles.


Companies are always doing off-site morale-boosting days that involve some kind of see-the-world-through-the eyes-of-the-customer exercise. But this one, done a few years ago, had a sign on it that said, "It's about time." Women buy half the cars, but they've generally been designed by men and for men.


This is changing and here's a story of the (gender) change.


A vehicle line director named Mary Sipes, one of several women who have made it into the upper echelon of GM management, is the mastermind behind one very unusual day.

Ms. Sipes' MBA and her on-a-mission determination to produce the best vehicle for the customer has put her near the very top of a very male business. Engineers, designers, purchasers and all involved in GM's future, full-line SUVs work with her. Sipes answers to Gary White, GM North America Vice President and Full-Size Truck Vehicle Line Executive, who is in charge of the new 900-platform, which includes the Tahoe, Suburban, Denali, Escalade and Avalanche.


When the SUVs were in development, Ms. Sipes took the future, full-line SUV team out to the proving grounds to do some vehicle testing. They expected the usual driving exercises, but she had another idea. Hint, hint: On the way she stopped at a shoe store to buy several pairs of size-12 high heels.


"A few times a year we go off site and try to have a learning exercise that is a lot of fun," said Sipes. "We took our group to the proving grounds and broke them into teams. One guy on each team had to be Mr. Mom. We dressed him in a garbage bag to simulate a tight skirt. We gave him rubber gloves with press on nails, a purse, a baby and a baby stroller and some chores like loading groceries."


With all female handicaps in place, the men were then required to go through what women do routinely every day. They had to put the baby in a car seat and buckle them in, fold up the stroller, pull up the liftgate and stow the stroller, put grocery bags in the back. They then had to walk around the vehicle and step into it not using the running board. Wearing the gloves with press on nails they had to operate the key fob, adjust the radio and then figure out what to do with their purses-without breaking or losing a nail. Lost or broken fingernails or torn garbage bag skirts resulted in points against the final score.


"We had a lot of laughs," said Sipes, "but the men's awareness of how women function in the vehicle really changed."


Girldriver USARetractable running boards are standard now on all GM large SUVs. "The men didn't understand why they were needed since they just step over them," remarks Sipes. "Now they are there and they can be turned on or off depending on whether or not the driver wants to use them."


Women also now have a place to put their purse in GM's large SUVs-another result of Sipes' caper.


"I never think twice about finding a location for my purse," said Mark Cieslak, vehicle chief engineer for full-size trucks/hybrids, as if he'd been carrying one all his life. Cieslak seemed very proud that he got to be Mr. Mom and learn from it.


"You had to manipulate the key fob, open the car door and dial in a radio station wearing those fake fingernails. It was an experience," he said. "Then you start to think if I have a purse, is the console big enough to stow it? And hats off to women in skirts who are trying to get into a vehicle."


"I took for granted that my wife had all these things to do like put our child in a child seat," he adds. "It isn't that easy in pumps and a skirt."

Cieslak's big moment came when he got home that night and told his wife and daughter what he'd been up to.


"They were really impressed that we did something like that and that finally we were designing a vehicle that accommodates everybody. It was so rewarding to see how it resonated with my daughter and my wife."


The timing for this event was perfect since General Motors was developing the new SUVs. "As a result of our exercises, we made the liftgate easy to open and close, made the console big enough to hold a purse and put running boards on the vehicle," says Sipes.


Companies don't really deconstruct successes around whether or not female energy has an effect on business, but Sipes' cross dressing event got quantifiable results that most likely would not have occurred without her feminine point of view.


"Twenty years ago I never would have attempted this at GM," says Ms. Sipes. "I would have been labeled a feminazi and lost my career."

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