Maureen Kempston Darkes' first car was a Chevrolet Camaro. Now, the 47-year-old lawyer is responsible for the plant that churns them out in Ste. Therese, Quebec, as well as General Motors of Canada Ltd.'s other operations.

Her appointment in 1994 to president of GM of Canada and GM vice president was a milestone on several counts. She holds the highest operating post ever achieved by a woman at GM. She's also GM of Canada's first woman president and one of only two female vice presidents at GM. In GM's history, only three other women have gained vice-presidential status.

Although Canada's light-vehicle market is tiny compared with the U.S., Ms. Darkes' post is anything but small potatoes. GM of Canada was that country's most profitable company in 1995, with C$1.39 billion net income on record revenues of C$29.7 billion. Besides the Camaro/Firebird plant, she heads 10 other assembly and component plants with about 37,000 employees.

Ms. Darkes is low-key about her achievements and doesn't believe her gender more than marginally affects the way she does her job.

"I think the issues are the same whether you're a male or a female in this position," she says. "It may well be that you might approach issues differently, because everyone has a different personal style." Ms. Darkes is up front about her manner: she's a firm believer in teamwork, but admits "I can be direct, "and I can be demanding."

Her automotive career began as a receptionist at a Ford dealership while attending the University of Toronto.

She joined GM of Canada's legal staff in, 1975 and became assistant counsel in 1979. She served on GM's legal staff in Detroit in 1979-'80 and headed the GM of Canada tax staff from 1980 to '84. In 1985, she left Canada again to work in the GM treasurer's office in New York for two years, and subsequently was GM of Canada's acting treasurer until her appointment as general director of public affairs in April 1987. She was appointed GM of Canada's vice president of corporate affairs in 1991 and elected to its board.

Since assuming the top job on July 1, 1994, Ms. Darkes has made the rounds to GM of Canada facilities and worked to establish a rapport with the dealer body. She's the first Canadian native to head GM of Canada since 1978, and her enthusiasm about GM products -- particularly those made in Canada -- is unbridled. Ms. Darkes has taken delivery of several fullsize pickup trucks, only to have them sold out from under her to zealous customers.

She and her husband, Toronto lawyer Larry Darkes, prefer the trucks because they can haul stuff to their cottage. They have no children, but Ms. Darkes admonishes those who try to keep women down by labeling those with families as being on the so-called "mommy track." She "rejects the notion of two classes of corporate women, only one destined for the top rungs," she says.

"We need to encourage the best and brightest to succeed in the corporate world as well as to provide sufficient flexibility to accommodate their needs on the parenting front," she says. "And that applies equally to women and men. Equity for all participants should be the goal."

Women in senior management positions need to create opportunities for women and other traditionally disadvantaged groups to fully succeed, she says. GM of Canada has a women's advisory committee, and a senior management team is looking at how to diversify the work force -- of which women make up about 11%. A formal mentoring program is being formed, and the company is considering at an alternative work arrangement program that would allow job-sharing and telecommuting.

"I very much believe that corporations need to create an environment where everyone can fully contribute," she says. "I think it's important that we create a culture within the company that no matter how similar or how different you are, you can really contribute to the fullest extent of your abilities. I think that in doing that, the more the inside of the company looks like the outside world, the better we will be in terms of understanding our customer and creating greater opportunity for everyone in our work force to fully contribute.

"When I look at it, this whole issue of balancing family and work is a tremendously important issue for all business today," she says. "I think it goes beyond being a woman's issue; it really is a people issue. I think there is much work to be done in creating greater flexibility for people. And that's why I am quite interested in different forms of work arrangements. that can assist people at different points in their careers."

Ms. Darkes believes there are "tremendous opportunities" for women in the auto industry. Even though women were less common when she began at GM in the mid-1970s, it wasn't always a bad thing.

"I think in many ways that helped me because there were a number of people who took a tremendous interest in me and in my career," she says. "On the other side of the equation, the fact that there have been few women in the auto industry over the years has tended to ensure that there has been a lack of a natural network. And I think that we've had to work hard to overcome that lack of networking."

In her case, that hard work clearly has paid off.

It doesn't take much searching to find women occupying influential appointments at General Motors Corp. Although former GM Treasurer Heidi Kunz jumped ship in December to become chief financial officer at ITT Industries Inc., several women remain in prominent roles.

Shirley Young

Among them is Shirley Young, 60, GM vice president for consumer market development. Ms. Young, who was born in Shanghai, was instrumental in helping GM clinch the recent deal with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. to build Buick Regals in China. A U.S. citizen, Ms. Young joined GM in 1988 after 25 years with Grey Advertising.

Maureen Midgley

Not all of GM's female leaders reside in the executive suites. Maureen E. Midgley is among a handful of women overseeing GM's plants. She was named plant manager at the electric vehicle (EV) facility in Lansing, MI, in September 1994. Before that she was a production area manager responsible for process engineering, maintenance, finance and quality in Saturn Corp.'s paint shop. Ms. Midgley's GM career began in 1983 at the Wentzville, MO, assembly plant, where she set up a microscopic identification catalog of the different types of dirt throughout the plant to assist the paint department in eliminating such particles.

Ms. Midgley also was one of the first chemical engineers GM hired as a floor supervisor. "The environment I'm in tends to be male-dominated, so people are often uncomfortable with the fact that I'm a woman. There have been people that, no matter what I did, (they) have said to my face and to other people that I had gotten the job because I'm a token."

Still, some of her male bosses expected a lot of her and helped her develop, Ms. Midgley says. "I have really had great people to work with and I have been given all of the opportunity I've been willing to take on," she says. "I don't feel like I've been hindered at all because I'm a woman, but that doesn't mean I don't run into ignorant people."

Ms. Midgley has several female co-workers, including Arianna Kalian, one of the EV's product engineers who holds patents on the vehicle. Ms. Kalian now works as a floor supervisor and manufacturing engineer at the EV plant.

Other women in crucial GM positions include:

* Cynthia Trudell was plant manager of the Wilmington, DE, Beretta/Corsica facility until mid-February when she was named president of Isuzu Bedford Corp. Vehicles Ltd., the GM and Isuzu joint venture company based in Luton, England. She joined GM in 1981 as a senior plant engineer with GM of Canada's Windsor, Ont., transmission plant. Other posts include chief engineer-advanced manufacturing processes for GM Powertrain Div. and plant manager of GM of Canada's St. Catharine's Engine Plant.

* Sharlene (Charly) A. Vickery recently was promoted to Pontiac-GMC Div. executive director of sales, service and marketing. She had been executive director of GM's corporate business support group since March 1995 and a corporate secretary since September 1992. Ms. Vickery jorned GM in 1967 at the former GM Assembly Div.

* Nancy E. Polis succeeds Ms. Vickery in the post of corporate secretary and also takes on the responsibility for GM Worldwide Travel Services. Previously, she was finance director for GM Corporate Affairs and Legal Staff.

* Anna Kretz is the only female vehicle line executive (VLE). Ms. Kretz, who has held numerous engineering positions at GM since 1972, is responsible for large cars. Several women hold brand manager positions including Katherine Benoit, Buick Park Avenue; Janet Eckhoff, Cadillac Deville; Rosalind Ward-Nelson, Geo Metro/Prizm/Tracker; Cheryl Catton, GMC Safari; and Lisa Baird, Pontiac Grand Am.