Elizabeth Krear was just beginning her career at Chrysler when the Detroit automaker decided to cease production of its Jeep Comanche truck in 1992.
Now, both Krear and Jeep are forever entwined: Krear oversaw the engineering team behind the all-new 2020 Gladiator ($35,545), Jeep's long-awaited return to the truck segment.
Krear, a mechanical engineer, is no stranger to trucks: she was responsible for the interior of the 1994 Dodge Ram and was the lead engineer for the Ram 1500. Her entire 30-year career at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) has focused on vehicles that very few women drive.
The automotive sector has been making strides in recent years to hire more women in leadership positions but it's still an industry where men dominate the decision-making. Krear said she had few female engineering peers in the beginning and "in most cases I was the only woman at the table."
Being the only woman, however, never put the brakes on her career.
"This industry has so much opportunity," she said. "The automobile is the No. 1 consumer good. I wanted to work in the auto industry from day one."
Krear, a board member of FCA's Women's Alliance, a group that helps employees network and find mentors, has seen the number of female employees at FCA steadily grow in the last decade. She estimates that women make up 30% to 40% of the Gladiator team, including La Shirl Turner, who, as head of advanced color and materials design at FCA, was responsible for the exterior paint, wheels, trim, headliner and carpet on the Gladiator. Ram also employed women in key roles, Krear noted.
"We had a pretty strong representation of women," she said. "The work dynamic is just amazing. You feel more like a family. You get to know each other ... we make the best decisions for the product."
Recruiting female engineers
Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, told ABC News the Big 3 automakers in the U.S. -- General Motors, Ford and FCA -- have "definitely made a commitment to recruit women."
Still, fewer than one in five engineers in automotive are female, Horting said. Women account for 27% of the domestic auto manufacturing workforce compared to about 47% of the overall labor force, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
"Women have the same skills as men," Horting said. "I hear from women engineers that they love being able to contribute to an industry that impacts so many. It's good business for all automakers to hire women."
Having more women role models in automotive would encourage young females to apply for jobs traditionally held by men, according to Cindy Schipani, a business law professor at the University of Michigan.
"There has been a shortage of engineers and companies have needed to step up recruiting efforts across the board," she told ABC News by email. "There are studies that point to the importance of diversity for improving decision-making. In addition, businesses in general, are becoming more aware of issues of unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion decisions and may be trying to address these issues. Awareness is the first step. I also think that Mary Barra's leadership at GM, with her background in engineering, serves as a terrific role model for women engineers, and may influence the career choices of some women."
A recent "Women at the Wheel" study conducted by Deloitte and Automotive News found the percentage of women who aspire to senior executive positions in automotive has fallen from 82% in 2015 to 41% in 2018. Moreover, the study said the industry is perceived as doing the least to attract and retain women.
Krear said her years of hard work and determination, including going back to school for her Executive MBA as a full-time mother and engineer, have rubbed off on her two adult children. Her 22-year-old daughter now plans to pursue a career in another male-centered profession: investment banking. With 30 years of experience and two master's degrees, Krear can prepare her daughter for what to expect as a minority in the workplace.
"When you're the only woman in the room, you kind of second-guess yourself," she said. "I would tell her to be herself. When you are comfortable, people around you are comfortable as well. Don't be afraid to offer input, and when you do -- be confident and trust yourself. If you don't nobody else will."
Women are 'big influence'
Hiring more female Jeep employees is important, Krear said. But so is getting women to become lifelong fans of the brand.
Krear, who drives a truck every day, engineered the Gladiator so it would appeal to men and women equally.
"We also spent a lot of time tuning the ride so it rides like an SUV," she said. "The back seat folds down and it's all one-hand operation. You could be holding your baby, or a cup of coffee, or your puppy in your left hand and you can get to everything behind the rear seat."
She went on, "The women are just in love with it. They see it and think it's the coolest thing on the road. They want to know what it is."
According to a 2014 analysis by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, women influence 80% of the car buying decisions. Jim Morrison, head of the Jeep brand, said management constantly solicits the opinions of female customers.
"We spend a lot of time paying attention to ladies," he told ABC News. "They're a big influence on the purchase and ownership. We make sure we get lots of input from customers."
Jeep sold 16,132 Gladiators in the third-quarter, bringing the year-to-date total to 23,384.
"Sales have been good," said Morrison. "We're still building inventory and we had our best month in August."
Pushing the Gladiator to its limits
Less than 15% of Jeep owners take their vehicles off-roading, according to Morrison. But Morrison and Krear wanted to prove that the Gladiator -- just like popular Wrangler SUV -- can crush, clobber and dominate any off-road obstacle.
The Jeep team and a small group of journalists, including this ABC News reporter, set out on the notorious 22-mile Rubicon Trail in September, one of America's most ferocious and grueling off-roading courses.
"The sounds of scraping might freak some people out but we take our Jeep vehicles to the extreme," said Morrison. "If you're not paying attention you're stuck or rolling off a cliff."
The Gladiator Rubicons overpowered the massive boulders and rocks that were scattered throughout the unrelenting trek.
There was screeching (from both the inexperienced journalists and skid plates below the Gladiator's belly), intense moments of articulation and occasional body-slams when maneuvering the truck around the rugged terrain.
Under Krear's direction, the 3.6-liter, V-6 engine Gladiator was built to be lightweight, stiff and durable with advanced all-wheel drive systems. It can haul a payload of 1,600 pounds with its five-link suspension system. A front-facing trail camera helps drivers to avoid sticky situations and a longer wheelbase and frame enables better weight distribution.
"We wanted the Gladiator to be best in our segment -- an absolute reputable truck," Krear said.
Krear, who skillfully handled the trail in a manual Gladiator, said trucks are part of her DNA. Engineering a sports car? Not in her future.
"I love trucks and Jeeps," she said. "It's about being able to go anywhere and do anything."