They're running plants, designing cars and, well doing their thing. It started in the 1960s when corporations throughout America, including the U.S. Big Three, buckled to growing pressures and began electing women and minorities to their boards of directors. Today that's commonplace: GM has two women directors, Ford, two, and Chrysler, one.

Although a small number of women began making inroads at the corporate officer level not long after, they tended to be specialists hired from the outside, not home-grown.

To be sure, the gates still have not opened wide. There are a handful of female vice presidents, but none in the very highest echelons of the Big Three. That's almost certain to change as the ranks of women in increasingly responsible automotive jobs -- from marketing to manufacturing and engineering to finance -- continues to accelerate.

Based on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) figures, women have made significant inroads in the last decade. The percent of women categorized as "officials and managers" by the EEOC have doubled at Ford and Chrysler, and are up by more than 50% at GM since 1985. Parity, however, is not right around the comer: Women listed as "professionals" at the Big Three ranged from 21% to 24% in 1995 -- up from 1985's low of 12% at Chrysler and high of 20% at Ford (see Vital Signs, p. 16).

Women who've moved into key slots formerly considered the sole domain of men for the most part say that gender has been a factor in their professional careers, but not a significant or limiting factor.

To document the rise of women in the automotive industry, five Ward's staffers profile five fast-rising executtves -- one from each of the Big Three, Toyota Motor Corp. and Timken Co. They also check out other automotive women on the move. .

The Ward's team: Deebe Ferris, editor, Ward's Special Reports; Karey McCann, associate editor, Ward's Engine and Vehicle Technology Update; Tanya Gazdik, associate editor, Ward's Automotive Reports; Gwen Knapp, assistant editor, Ward's Automotive International; and Natalie Neff, editorial assistant, Ward's Auto World.