Last week's promotion of Mary Barra to chief executive of General Motors marked a major milestone of the first female CEO of a global automaker. What may be just as remarkable was how Barra made the climb: as a mechanical engineer, a field once all but closed to women in Detroit. Sixty years ago, the Motor City's most well-known female engineer was promoted for her looks into a television model rather than allowed to work in the field she'd chosen — and the forgotten history of Lucille Pieti, once dubbed "Chrysler's Most Beautiful Engineer," demonstrates what's changed, and what hasn't.
Pieti was a Detroit native who showed a flair for math and science in high school, and after graduating high school in 1944 signed up for engineering at nearby Wayne University (now Wayne State.) Pieti was popular — she was named Miss Wayne U her last year — but also harassed; male students would play pranks like painting her drill press pink, and engineering professors would suggest that "girls" who graduated would have promising careers as secretaries, if they didn't get hitched first. At 18, Pieti also began a co-op program with Chrysler, the traditional route for engineers to join the automaker which was poised to rebound in the years after World War II.
How rare was Pieti? When she graduated in 1950 with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, she was not just the only woman in a class of about 300 engineers, but perhaps the first woman to get that degree from the school. Two years later, a national survey found that 0.17 percent of the nation's engineering graduates were women; Pieti was literally one in a thousand. She told Parade magazine in 1954 that getting hired by her Chrysler boss even after six years of co-op work was a challenge, despite a labor shortage: "The toughest part was convincing him to see me and then to give me the job. The rest of the work was nothing that any woman couldn't handle as easily as a man."
But Chrysler, like most industrial companies of that era, had no plan to give Pieti or any other woman the same career opportunities as her male coworkers. Instead of traditional engineering assignments, Pieti was sent to the technical writing department, a ghetto for the few women in the field with no chance of advancement beyond marriage. And it was while doing internal presentations that her bosses came up with the idea of capitalizing on Pieti's beauty.
"If you think of a mechanical engineer as someone who sports greasy overalls and a colorful vocabulary, Lucille would be an educational experience for you. Modish and slender, she has a soft voice, come-hither hazel eyes and dainty white paws tipped with rosy nail polish." That was the women's editor of the Miami Daily News in 1953 ahead of Pieti coming to town with Chrysler's "New Worlds In Motion," a mini-auto show that Chrysler barnstormed around the country. Pieti was often a star attraction, tasked with explaining tech advancements in layman's terms while Chrysler touted the beauty of its single, twentysomething engineer to the press. (Among the cars she promoted: the Dodge LaFemme, a model the company said was made "By Special Appointment to Her Majesty... the American Woman.)
Pieti proved adept enough at working the crowds that Chrysler decided to raise her exposure further. In Apri 1954, Chrysler's Plymouth division signed on as sole sponsor of a new CBS sitcom, "That's My Boy." For commercials, the company moved Pieti to Hollywood, and had her perform live, televised versions of the talks she gave on the road to actors. As Edward Malone noted in his 2010 history, she stood in a garage set, wearing tailored white overalls, occasionally with grease streaked on her face for emphasis. Pieti's fame soared, and she made an impression in Hollywood: "If you're an example of what's being turned out in Detroit, I'm going back working on the assembly line," Groucho Marx said.
And while there's no records she ever turned down a Chrysler assignment, she rejected all offers to dump the engineering career she'd now been chasing for nearly a decade in return for a shot at stardom. "I’m just the slide rule type," she told a Detroit newspaper while staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. "Without the micrometers and the calipers and the tools of my trade I’d be a pretty lost girl.”
Here's where Hollywood would rewrite Pieti's narrative with her using her fame to make her dreams come true and stump the old-boy network. But Pieti's story was written by Detroit instead; when"That's My Boy" was cancelled in January 1955, Chrysler simply moved Pieti back to her writing job, with the additional tasks of answering customer complaint letters — work that she increasingly saw as a waste of her engineering talents. After getting engaged to her husband, petroleum engineer Jim Milne, Pieti quit Chrysler in September 1955. She got married, raised two children, and returned to engineering in 1977, this time for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. She died in 2011 at the age of 84.
Today, women make up a quarter of engineering, science and technology graduates, and Barra joins a growing list of women who've used their technical degrees as a stepping stone into the executive suites. Yet among automakers, Barra remains an exception; there's few other women in line for roles such as CEO; there's no other woman at another automaker who oversees vehicle development as Barra did for GM. The path ahead may not be as clear as it should be, but for today's young Lucille Pietis crafting a career in engineering, they have far more examples of how to avoid getting lost along the way.