In the Auto Industry, Harley Earl was First to Create Better Paying Jobs for Women
Many women have struggled in the world of big business to find encouraging male role models they could truly identify with over the last half century. Well, when inequality reigned during the 1950s, along came a giant "advocate of women's rights in the auto industry", as stated in the Women Designers Plot Style Revolution newspaper article featured further down.
Harley Earl was proactive in combating sexual discrimination and went way out on a limb creating the first prominent all-female design team in America's mid-twentieth century business world. Another article below titled Designing Women, demonstrates the bold new direction Detroit's auto world was supposed to go in, "I believe the future for qualified women automotive designers is virtually unlimited. In fact, I think that in three or four years women will be designing entire automobiles" said Harley Earl.
But, just as Harley's longtime friend and business associate made painfully clear to a reporter in 1951, "The price of progress is trouble!" said Charles E. Wilson, who after being president of GM served as U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1953 to 1957 under President Eisenhower.
This GM promotional film, at left, has Harley Earl saying something highly controversial, “Women will soon be designing entire cars.” Even though practically all male car designers balked, GM’s top leaders steadfastly stood behind Harley pushing his innovative/visionary idea forward on women and men working peaceably together for the first time. Certainly, it was the way of starting to tackle the "equality" issue...sooner rather than later.
Once GM's leading artist-engineer (over the decades since H.J. Earl passed away, he went through the engineering dept. at Stanford University) Harley Earl saw the future and put women designers alongside his "all-male" car designers, you could just sit back and watch the feathers fly, but the end results quickly proved to be groundbreaking, controversial and extremely successful. Mr. Earl's establishing a new "think equal" team concept inside the Styling Section division at GM, the world's largest industrial design studio, was strictly geared to turn out winning car designs by the millions to fly off all GM's assembly lines going into the 1960s and beyond. Read the unbiased 2016 article below showing how Harley's successor, William Mitchell, chose instead to nix the visionary idea.
This March, 2016 news article, The Story Behind GM's Celebrated Damsels of Design reports, "Unfortunately, the Damsels' tenure at GM only lasted a few years, coming to an abrupt end when Earl retired after the 1958 exhibition. His successor, Bill Mitchell, was less than enthusiastic about working with female designers, and most of the women scattered to other jobs in design."
With GM's other all-male leaders of finance and engineering fully backing and supporting Mitchell's about-face decree, the movement of women gaining further traction in Detroit's auto business world stopped dead in its tracks. This would turn out to have far-reaching consequences considering this was America's biggest "cash cow" industry and employed more people than any other business sector.
What does this mean today? Early on, in the mid-twentieth century, Harley laid the early foundation to help women obtain the same legal, economic, vocational, educational, and social rights as men. More evidence is shown below and provides a poignant reminder that a major inflection point took place inside GM going into the calendar year of 1959 whereby, afterwards, a truly unhappy story began to unfold concerning women entering not only the GM workforce, at all levels, but most other American companies, too. Why? At the time, other top companies viewed General Motors as a prototypical role model company having been the business leader and so successful for so long.
Here's another story on this topic from the Automotive News in 2011 quoting GM Design's Susan Skarsgard about this controversial matter and Susan says, among other things, "After Earl left, those women weren't really valued....It's not a happy story."
By the turn of the 21st Century, the story-line on some of America's first all-female car designers was languishing in obscurity and that's when Richard Earl began increasing awareness, on the internet, at www.carofthecentury.com in 2003 about some of GM's unique Designing Women team members and their unparalleled cutting-edge designs being key to this company's market success.
Most of the first professional women designers that came to GM truly appreciated Harley Earl (in the late-1990s, Richard interviewed many of GM's first women designers). Important to note, there is no evidence that anything similar was happening in any other large industry during the mid-20th Century around grooming women to start climbing up the ladder later on. This was a starting point that gave women a beach head which to rally from in the world of big business.
Syndicated newspaper articles were reporting on this hot new trend and circulated around the country showing how Harley Earl was an early pioneer of the women's lib movement. It was extremely unprecedented for the time; nobody else was getting the word out there allowing women to have new power to stand up for equality. Women all over the US were empowered and eager to take on the challenge, and the results were amazing! Hence, this one man and his GM team gave women everywhere in America a "beachhead" to rally forward on this new social issue.
Let's recap, from the late 1920s up until the end of the 50s when Mr. Earl retired, GM was the Apple of its Day. He and the other top leaders did something remarkable during their tenure--using "change and modernity" to cement this company at the top of the business world.
After which, the reins were handed to the younger up-and-coming generation of GM male leaders that, starting in the early 1960s, charted an entirely new course to go in for the world's largest company and that's when Mr. Earl's expansion program of swiftly advancing women car designers up the ladder was canceled. Once the healthy competition between the sexes was eliminated in the most important design department in the world, GM's new leaders shot themselves in the foot.
Why is Richard Earl so dedicated to revealing the truth behind a top leadership success story (this story goes way beyond design innovator Harley Earl, GM and the nation's auto industry) of the 20th Century? Richard says, "for the future generations of Americans, that's why. This overall story isn't so much about the past, it's really all about the future success of America's auto industry, i.e., the world's automotive capital has been in Detroit for over a century now and naturally I want to see it stays this way for a long time to come!"