New Standards

Betsy Ancker-Johnson, the first woman vice president at General Motors, demanded the highest scientific standards and fostered innovations.
resident mechanic As a child, Betsy Ancker-Johnson said she spent more time taking apart her bicycle than riding it. Growing up in the Depression era, “we didn’t have a lot of new things,” she said. // Courtesy of Alamy
Resident Mechanic – As a child, Betsy Ancker-Johnson said she spent more time taking apart her bicycle than riding it. Growing up in the Depression era, “we didn’t have a lot of new things,” she said. // Courtesy of Alamy

Betsy Ancker-Johnson had much to learn upon joining General Motors as vice president for environmental activities in February of 1979. The distinguished physicist, 51 years old, had worked in academia, industry, and government while raising four children with her husband, Hal Johnson, a mathematician.

As a rare outsider joining the corporation at its famed Warren Technical Center, she was to look after a range of matters.

“I had line responsibility for the plants and a worldwide responsibility for emissions control,” Ancker-Johnson told science historian Orville Butler in 2008. “Water, soil, air, the whole shooting match — and, of course, we had horrendous problems.”

First, she had to learn what GM did. Given the use of a company plane for six months, she visited the Electro-Motive Division and operated a train. At the Terex Division, she drove an earthmover and “had a ball.” Stamping plants were another revelation: “Man alive, you just had no idea about the noise.”

Stamping presses are one thing, but the national press was another. Reporters wanted to write about the first woman vice president at the world’s biggest corporation. A member of the automaker’s public relations staff walked her through a series of “stupid” interviews and bore her complaints. Worst was the National Enquirer — or, as she expressed it, “that rag that’s at every supermarket checkout stand.” Questions about her marriage and family struck her as “outrageous.”

Seeing grease under her fingernails, Ancker-Johnson’s father used to kid, “We’ve been cheated. We didn’t get a little girl at all.” She fiddled with appliances and tinkered with bicycles. She was one of four physics majors at Wellesley College and the only female (and American) in the doctoral program at the University of Tübingen, in Germany. Her career path led through research and teaching positions at the University of California-Berkeley, RCA Corp., Boeing Co., and the University of Washington. She also was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for science and industry.

GM was the final stop. On her get-acquainted tour, she visited a Delco microchip factory, which shattered her stereotypes. GM was more high-tech than she thought. Aircraft and moon rockets had plenty of redundancy in electronic components, but cars were produced at low cost.

Credit for innovation would soon come her way. She started by insisting on succinct reports, declaring, “We’ve got to write this in English.” Meanwhile, she instituted the first local-area network in business use. Plant audits could now be done on laptops. It was quite a breakthrough, yet the efficiency was supposed to result in a 20-percent staff reduction. 

“The reality of having to reward success by firing people really was a tough proposition, you know,” Ancker-Johnson said. “That’s the real world, which I wish more people in Washington had to face. I didn’t have to lay off anybody, as it turned out, because our responsibilities grew so rapidly in that period.”

Among other missions was lobbying for a database of global technical standards. She encouraged her engineers’ innovative means of cleaning up EPA Superfund sites. Testifying before Congress on diesel emissions was also part of her job. So was battling Joan Claybrook, of the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency, about airbag use.

Ancker-Johnson retired at age 65, when “GM was in so much difficulty.” The environmental activities department was broken up and absorbed into others. She lived 38 more years, competing in international swimming events into her 80s. On July 2, 2020, she passed away in Austin, Texas. If her philosophy could be distilled into an essential remark, it may be what she told that “rag,” the Enquirer: “Aiming at excellence is absolutely essential.”