A woman warned GM about warming. Men didn’t listen

By Maxine Joselow | 10/28/2020 07:20 AM EDT

A General Motors scientist who did pioneering research on climate change in the 1960s faced pervasive sexism by male colleagues who largely dismissed her work.

The General Motors Technical Center is pictured in 1956 in Warren, Mich. The facility housed the company's climate researchers beginning in the 1960s.

The General Motors Technical Center is pictured in 1956 in Warren, Mich. The facility housed the company's climate researchers beginning in the 1960s. JT Vintage/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Second story of an investigation.

A General Motors scientist who conducted pioneering research on climate change in the 1960s says she faced sexism that made it difficult to do her job.

Ruth Reck’s allegations raise questions about whether GM executives dismissed or downplayed her findings on global warming because of her gender.


Reck joined GM Research Laboratories in Warren, Mich., in 1965 and soon began studying the effects of car emissions on the climate, E&E News reported as part of a monthslong investigation (Climatewire, Oct. 26).

As the first female scientist in the lab, she encountered an environment in which male co-workers evaluated her body rather than her brains.

"I had a very difficult time working at GM in general. They told me I was a distraction because I was a shapely woman. I don’t want to go into detail, but it was really hard. Really, unbelievably embarrassing," Reck recalled in one of several phone interviews with E&E News.

The lab was located inside the GM Technical Center, which had been designed by the noted Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Its walls were made almost entirely of glass.

"There was glass everywhere. You could see everyone everywhere," Reck said. "And the men, I was told I distracted them. You could just tell that their eyes were on you all the time."

In response, GM constructed a makeshift wall around Reck’s workspace so passing colleagues couldn’t peer inside.

Ruth Reck. Photo credit: Ruth Reck/Facebook
Ruth Reck. | Ruth Reck/Facebook

"They built something so that people couldn’t see me — some kind of a wall or something — when people walked down the hallway," she said. "They put me in a position where I wouldn’t be seen by the men."

It was inside this cocoon that Reck conducted groundbreaking research on aerosols, or particles that can come from cars and factories. She found that aerosols caused "heating of the atmosphere near the poles," and her work was published in several peer-reviewed scientific journals, including Science and Atmospheric Environment.

During this time, a male vice president took several women at GM out to lunch. Reck was the only woman in the group with a Ph.D. The rest were secretaries.

That experience preceded meetings with three high-level executives at GM — all men — who doubted Reck’s conclusions on global warming.

In response to questions about Reck’s allegations, GM spokesman Jim Cain said the automaker today is committed to diversity and inclusion.

"As you can imagine, there is no practical way to respond to Ruth Reck’s experiences other than to take her at her word and underscore that what she describes is antithetical to the company’s values today," Cain said.

"General Motors is acutely aware of its responsibility and opportunity to use our scale and resources to drive a better, more inclusive future for all," he added.

CO2 and the CEOs

Throughout the 1970s, Reck researched the effects of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Her work offered strong evidence that CO2 heated the planet and could trigger dire consequences on Earth, such as melting ice sheets and sea-level rise.

Despite her expertise, Reck was passed over for the opportunity to lead GM’s task force on global warming in 1989. That distinction went to Joseph "Joe" Colucci, an engineer who specialized in automotive fuels and lubricants — and who had not published any papers on climate change in peer-reviewed journals.

Led by Colucci, the task force drafted and released a report on the technologies needed to address global warming. Reck was never asked to review the document.

Ruth Reck yearbook. Photo credit: Minnesota State University, Mankato
Ruth Annette Gabriel Reck (second row, left) was one of the only women in her class to study chemistry at Minnesota State University, Mankato. | Minnesota State University, Mankato

"What really bothered me was … things were written down and reports published, and I never saw them before they were published," she said.

In a 2017 memoir titled "Special Memories of My Career at General Motors," Colucci recounted how the automaker convened the task force to investigate the "science of global warming."

He also described how he was reprimanded for making a sexist comment about the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) by Betsy Ancker-Johnson, GM’s vice president of environmental activities staff and the first female vice president in the U.S. auto industry.

"I sent a note to the GM management. It said, ‘We went through the mating dance with WSPA, but were unable to consummate the relationship.’ The note was easily understood, and received praise from all but one GM Exec. Dr. Betsy Ancker-Johnson, VP, Environmental Activities, chastised me for my ‘sexist’ comments," Colucci wrote.

Despite being excluded from the task force, Reck was asked to present her findings on climate change to three top executives at GM’s corporate headquarters in Detroit: James "Jimmy" Johnston, a vice president of government relations; Roger Bonham Smith, who became chairman and CEO of GM in 1981; and Robert "Bob" Stempel, who succeeded Smith in 1990.

The two CEOs reacted with skepticism.

"I know in my heart of hearts what some of those people at GM were thinking. And they were questioning climate change. No doubt about that," Reck said.

"I was not. And I knew because I was using equations and I was doing the calculations correctly. And I always found it frustrating when you’d look at their faces after what you’d said … and you could see they were not responding the way you’d hope they would," she added.

After learning from Reck that CO2 emissions from car tailpipes warmed the planet, the CEOs largely declined to alter GM’s business model and lobbying practices in response. Both Smith and Stempel presided over periods in which the automaker invested in gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs while fighting fuel economy regulations that would have made those vehicles cleaner.

At first, Johnston appeared to take a keen interest in Reck’s research, and the two forged an unusual friendship. But in 1989, he orchestrated GM’s involvement in the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group that opposed actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the George H.W. Bush administration, said Marina von Neumann Whitman, who was GM’s vice president and group executive for public affairs at the time.

Johnston "felt his major obligation was to ‘protect the product plan.’ And he was the one that got General Motors into the Global Climate Coalition," said Whitman, who is now a professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

After leaving GM, Johnston joined the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank whose scholars have said concern about climate change is overblown. While at AEI, he published a book titled "Driving America: Your Car, Your Government, Your Choice" that argued the science was not settled on "whether the climate is warming and, if so, whether the warming is the result of human activity."

‘Voices just haven’t been heard’

Mary Barra. Photo credit: Michael Beholder/Photo Archive/Flickr
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, is overseeing a car company that has begun manufacturing electric vehicles. | Michael Beholder/Photo Archive/Flickr

It’s unclear whether sexism played a role in the CEOs’ decisions to doubt Reck’s conclusions on climate change. Sexist attitudes and intentions are difficult to prove, and her conclusions posed an inconvenient truth about their profit-making strategy.

What is clear is that their reactions were part of a broader pattern of women in the auto industry feeling underrepresented and dismissed by their male counterparts — a pattern that persists today.

In 1988, the Associated Press reported that women constituted less than 2% of executives in the U.S. auto industry.

"It’s certainly been a man’s domain for many years," Jeanne Beyer, then the vice president for market research and planning at GM, told the AP at the time, noting that women had only started choosing careers in the auto industry in the prior 10 to 15 years.

Almost three decades later, an Automotive News survey of nearly 900 women found that misogyny was pervasive in the U.S. auto industry. Forty-three percent of respondents said they believed they had been passed over for promotions because of their gender. More than half — 55% — reported receiving unwelcome comments on their appearance.

Many respondents pointed to Mary Barra’s appointment in 2014 as CEO of GM — and the first female CEO of a major automaker — as a breakthrough moment for women in the industry. But they said it didn’t diminish the discrimination they faced on a daily basis.

"Everything I’ve heard from women in the industry is that it is really bad. It is still not your most woke industry. And it’s still very common to be the only woman in a room," Sharon Silke Carty, who helped conduct the survey, said in an interview with E&E News.

"I think the industry has lost a lot of talented women who opt to go other places because it’s too hard. And I think women’s voices just haven’t been heard the way that male voices have been heard," said Carty, who is now editor-in-chief of Car and Driver, an automotive magazine whose pages have oozed with masculine imagery since its creation in 1955.

Mary Beth Vander Schaaf, a managing editor at Automotive News who also helped administer the survey, said she thinks the industry has made some strides toward gender equality.

Vander Schaaf noted that Automotive News has conducted a poll every five years of 100 leading women in the North American auto industry. This year’s results — which are set to be published next month — will reveal that respondents believe the industry has made progress on pay equity.

On a personal note, Vander Schaaf said she felt inspired by Barra’s ascendence to the top of GM.

"The appointment of Mary Barra as CEO was historic. For me, it was like when John Lennon was killed or the Challenger exploded. I remember where I was when I heard the news. It was that big a deal," she said.

‘Enraging and heartbreaking’

Eunice Newton Foote. Photo credit: Drawing by Carlyn Iverson, NOAA Climate.gov
Eunice Newton Foote made early discoveries in the mid-1800s about atmospheric gases and rising temperatures. She didn’t receive credit for her work for over a century. | Drawing by Carlyn Iverson, NOAA Climate.gov

Women have been overlooked in the field of climate science, as well.

Eunice Newton Foote, the first woman in climate science, posited in 1856 that CO2 affected the Earth’s temperature. But the Irish physicist John Tyndall widely gets credit for the theory, which he suggested three years later, wrote Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson in their recent book "All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis."

"We have to wonder if Eunice Newton Foote ever found herself remarking, as so many women have: ‘I literally just said that, dude,’" Johnson and Wilkinson wrote in the book, which serves as a call to action for women to become leaders in the climate activism movement.

In an interview with E&E News, Wilkinson said many female climate scientists who are active today have had experiences similar to the one endured by Foote.

Wilkinson — who serves as vice president at Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help the world reduce greenhouse gas emissions — pointed to a 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on female scientists who authored U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments.

The study found that while some female authors had a positive experience, others felt they were "poorly represented and heard" on the powerful scientific body.

"This would be frustrating in any field," Wilkinson said. "But it is especially enraging and heartbreaking when it is a field that has such a critical role to play in a livable future."

Wilkinson said she asks herself "What if?" in relation to Foote, Reck and other climate scientists whose work could have been used to exert a greater influence on reining in heat-trapping emissions.

"The ‘what ifs’ are gutting," she said. "What if Foote had had the resources and the platform that John Tyndall had? What might she have accomplished? What might Ruth Reck have been able to influence? And the truth is we don’t know."

Cain, the GM spokesman, noted that the automaker recently announced it would aspire "to be the most inclusive company in the world" following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.

As part of that goal, Barra committed to establishing an Inclusion Advisory Board that would consult with GM’s senior leadership about racism and other forms of discrimination.

After 27 years at GM, Reck left the automaker in 1992 to become head of the global climate change program at Argonne National Laboratory. She was the first female senior scientist at Argonne who hadn’t been recommended by her husband.

Now 88 years old and retired, Reck identifies as a feminist and believes gender equality — in addition to climate change — represents a defining issue of the century.

"I’m a feminist, and that changes how I think about things. There were women who were not feminists and disagreed with me, thinking men deserved higher pay because they brought more to the scene. I did not think that," Reck said in a follow-up text message to E&E News.

"I believe God intended us to be how we are," she added. "There’s no reason we should be criticized for how we are. I am proud to be female. The men should be professional enough to act in a grown-up way."