Henry Ford was quoted as saying, ‘If I’d ask what people wanted, they would have said faster horses’, to best illustrate the automotive industry’s reputation for spurring innovation while anticipating drivers’ wishes (and often missing, miserably).

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and we decided to celebrate by putting a spotlight on 10 remarkable women who are pivotal to innovation and disruption of our industry. From JLR’s Elizabeth Hill, to the late Sabine Schmitz, race driver Danica Patrick, Ford’s Linda Zhang, Bertha Benz, to Angela Zepeda, these trailblazers broke and continue to break barriers and inspire the next generation of female leaders in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Linda Zhang – Ford

Linda Zhang has been an engineer with Ford for more than 25 years, and is the Chief Engineer for Ford’s 1st big bet into EV – the F-150 Lightning. To meet its net-zero-emissions goals under the Paris Agreement, the U.S. needs to almost completely phase out gasoline-powered vehicles by 2050 – yet at the current pace, the US will reach just under 60% by 2050. To accelerate the process, car makers as Ford and GM will have to convince consumers that EVs, even pick-up trucks, are just as good, if not better. “There was a lot of skepticism around whether EV trucks can be tough,” Zhang says. In 2021, Zhang appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, following the massively successful launch of the Ford F-150 Lightning, which even President Biden was impressed by, during a test drive that year.

Elizabeth Hill – Jaguar Land Rover

Elizabeth Hill, the Chief Engineer at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), leads the company’s “continual learning” process, gathering insights from customers and existing vehicles to inform future product development. She also highlights the need to attract more women to engineering careers and praises JLR’s successful efforts in increasing the number of female apprentices.

Sabine Schmitz (deceased) – Top Gear

Sabine Schmitz, known as the ‘Queen of Nürburgring‘, was a German professional racing driver and a beloved host of Top Gear. In 2016, Schmitz joined the Top Gear team as a co-presenter for series 23, 24, and 25, alongside Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris, Rory Reid, Eddie Jordan, and The Stig. Sadly, Schmitz passed away on March 17, 2021, after a battle with cancer. Shortly after, the Nurburgring renamed Turn 1, becoming Sabine Schmitz Kurve, to honor her at the start of every lap taken at a circuit that is, without doubt, hers.

Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz (1849 – 1944), wife of Carl Benz, played a decisive part in the development of the vehicle as we know it today. Bertha supported her husband as best she could and firmly believed in the future of the automobile. In 1886, when Carl invented the automobile and was about to register it as a patent, it was Bertha who got behind the wheel, with their two sons, and drove the horseless carriage for 106 km, from Mannheim to Pforzheim.

Charlie Christina Martin – Race Car Driver

Charlie Christina Martin was the first transgender racing driver to finish the 24-hour Le Mans race around the legendary Nurburgring track in Germany. Martin is the great-granddaughter of engineer Percy Martin, and is a part-owner of the machine tool company that he founded in 1921. Charlie has raced successfully in GT cars and prototypes, driving in the Ginetta GT5 Challenge, Michelin Le Mans Cup (LMP3), VLN / N24 (BMW) and ADAC GT4. In 2021 she finished 3rd overall in class driving a Praga R1 in the Britcar Endurance Championship, in 2022 she finished 2nd in the North American Lamborghini Cup, and fourth in class at the World Finals (Portimao).

Marry Barra – General Motors

Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, is a true visionary in the automotive industry. Under her leadership, GM has embraced electric and autonomous vehicles, pushing the boundaries of innovation. Barra’s commitment to sustainability and diversity has earned her recognition as one of the most influential leaders in the industry.

Danica Patrick – Race Driver

Danica Patrick is one of the most successful women in the history of American open-wheel car racing—her victory in the 2008 Indy Japan 300 is the only win by a woman in an IndyCar Series race. Danica was the first women to secure a Pole position in NASCAR Cup Series, holds the most starts, laps led, and top-tens in NASCAR Cup Series, and one of only 14 drivers (men and women) to have led both Indy 500 and Daytona 500. In 1998 she moved by herself to England to advance her racing career and resided in the Buckinghamshire town of Milton Keynes. Danica has inspired many young girls’ interest in motorsports, leading them to race competitively, and has been called a trailblazer for women in auto racing, and commentators agree her achievements have broken the gender barrier in an industry that is overwhelmingly male.

Britta Seeger – Mercedez-Benz Cars

Britta Seeger is a member of the Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz Group AG since 2017, responsible for Mercedes-Benz Cars Marketing & Sales. Seeger joined Mercedes-Benz AG in 1989 and held multiple management positions at the company, across three continents.

Angela Zepeda – Hyundai

Angela Zepeda, the Chief Marketing Officer of Hyundai Motor America, has been named to the prestigious Forbes Entrepreneurial 50 CMOs and awarded the Adweek Marketing Vanguard Award for 2023. Recognized for her exceptional leadership, creativity, and innovation, Zepeda has played a crucial role in elevating Hyundai’s position in North America, offering fierce competition to Tesla and US car makers in both the ICE and EV segments.

Jutta Kleinschmidt – Dakar Rally Winner

Jutta Kleinschmidt is a German offroad racing driver, best known for her numerous showings in the Paris Dakar Rally, and notably for having won the event in 2001, becoming the first woman driver to win the race and the only German to win the car category. In 1988 she took part in her first Paris-Dakar rally on a motorbike, while in 2001 she became the first woman to win the world’s toughest desert rally, driving a Mitsubishi Pajero for more than 10,000 km. In 2013, Kleinschmidt was named an FIM Legend for her motorcycling achievements.

Read more about IWD 2024 and the Inspire Inclusion theme.