Betsy Ancker-Johnson arrived in Detroit at a time when the American auto industry was virtually a men’s club run by male industry insiders. Ancker-Johnson was the opposite. A scientist with a long list of credentials, she became General Motors’ first female vice president in February 1979. And as if to double her challenge, she was handed two of the industry’s most controversial areas to manage: environmental compliance and vehicle safety.
Ancker-Johnson quickly assured the old boys’ club that she knew her stuff. With a Ph.D. in physics, she had been a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley, served in management at Boeing and conducted research at leading laboratories around the country.
She came to GM from the Argonne National Laboratory, where she had been associate director for physical research. She also knew the ins and outs of Washington, having served as assistant secretary for science and transportation with the U.S. Commerce Department.
During her tenure at GM, she grappled with a changing industry, both in its relationship with government regulators and in its relationship with female managers.
Ancker-Johnson, who retired from GM in 1992, recently spoke with Projectgulfimpact.org from her home in Austin, Texas. Here are edited excerpts.
It’s hard to recall that, not so long ago, there were no female executives in the auto industry.
I’ve been told repeatedly that I was the first woman in the industry to become a vice president. It came up at my retirement dinner from GM, and I had to tell them all that I’d much rather be remembered for being competent and making a contribution.
But still, you were in the vortex of a changing world. What was that like for you on a personal level?
In 1979, the gentlemen were all walking on eggshells. I remember the first meeting I went to in the GM boardroom. It was a public policy planning meeting. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was an established order to how you entered the room. The chairman and president came in and sat down, then the others followed. But many of the gentlemen were still outside, urging me to go in ahead of them. I remember looking at them and thinking, I’m not going along with this baloney.
What was the corporate atmosphere like for you?
GM was very serious about treating me precisely like any other vice president. In those days, there were very few who were recruited from the outside. They actually pointed that out to me in their telephone call to recruit me to the job.
I believe the reason they wanted me had nothing to do with my being a woman. It had to do with my scientific credentials and experience. When I was in place, they bent over backward to make sure everyone understood that I was the best choice for the job. Within a month, I was testifying in an EPA hearing on behalf of the corporation. I could still barely spell General Motors. It was difficult for me, but I broke my neck to do the job.
How did your underlings respond to you?
I never had any problem. My management style is to search out the most competent people – preferably smarter than I am – and treat them with benign neglect. If they’re doing their job right, I stay off their case. If something goes wrong, I don’t lay the blame on them. And I think that wins great loyalty. I tend to have more problems with my bosses because I don’t like being overmanaged.
How much did the GM management landscape change for women after you came?
In the 13 years I was there, I saw two other female vice presidents and a plant manager appointed. But I saw many other competent women entering the pipeline – not a ton of them by any means, but I think the reason is partly that not that many of them have had the right experience.
What attracted you as a scientist to an environmental job with what was seen then as the bad old smoggy auto industry?
I thought, this is a fantastic opportunity, overseeing almost 200 plants worldwide, with the responsibility to represent a corporation in Washington. I had no experience with environmental. My Ph.D. is in experimental physics, and by training I’m an electrical engineer. But at that time it would have been very unusual to find a Ph.D. in environmental. It just hadn’t been hatched at the time – especially to find someone who also had management experience – so it was a narrow pool.
Even today, environmental issues are sometimes a tough sell in the auto industry. Was it a frustrating effort 20 years ago?
The younger people in the hierarchy were much more open to cooperation than to the sort of begrudging compliance we typically got. By the time I left, some were even converted to the idea of prevention as the best approach.
I tried to bring more attention to environmental issues by having 1 percent of a plant executive’s annual bonus tied to environmental efforts. It was judged by outside auditors at every plant.
Yikes! How did that go over?
Not too well. You wouldn’t believe the number of phone calls I got from plant managers complaining and wanting to know why they didn’t get that 1 percent of their bonus. The second year, the chairman decided to abandon it. I thought it was a great idea. Maybe it would work today.
As GM’s head of safety in the 1980s, you had to figure out how to meet the government’s airbag edicts.
Our biggest issue was that airbags were not only helpful but dangerous. I’ll never forget going down to NHTSA to call to its attention data we had that small children were being harmed by airbags. GM had its own insurance company, and we could collect very accurate data about what happened in accidents. But NHTSA just sloughed us off. Since then, I’ve been reading about how NHTSA is calling attention to the fact that children can be hurt. I’ve ground my teeth almost to the gums over this.