Thrive in a Male-dominated Workplace: Elizabeth Baron's Secrets to Success

Elizabeth Baron knows what it's like to succeed as a woman in a man's world. She's worked in the male-dominated auto industry for almost 25 years, and knows women's voices can sometimes be drowned out.

"Sometimes just being a woman and having that different perspective, and a little softer touch or tone, you can get really ignored and talked over."

Elizabeth Baron works at Ford Motor Company designing virtual reality systems

Elizabeth, who creates virtual reality programs to improve car safety and design at The Ford Motor Company, says the key to being heard has less to do with talking louder and more to do with perseverance.

"If they talk over me, I'll say it again, and then I'll say it again. I'm very persistent and I keep going until I can get either a discussion of why not, or let's go that way."

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That perseverance has paid off big time for the chirpy mother of four, whose children range in age from 7 to 19. Based in Saline, Michigan, Elizabeth now runs Ford's Immersive Virtual Environment (iVE) lab, a state-of-the-art facility she helped create that uses sophisticated virtual reality technology to enable designers and engineers to fully experience a vehicle before it is ever built.

When we caught up in Santa Monica, California, I got to step inside her virtual world and was amazed with how lifelike the experience was.

Kathryn Eisman drives into the virtual world

"The CAVE is a room where images are projected in stereo onto three walls and the ceiling to generate real-time, virtual vehicle interiors and exteriors at actual scale. When you look around, you can see virtually everything inside and outside of the vehicle. We set up key dimensions - steering wheel, gas, brake, center stack, etc. - and then we put the virtual world around that physical model. Instead of being in a room, you're actually sitting in a representation of the vehicle. You can touch and feel most everything, but what you're looking at is digital."

Elizabeth began her career at Ford in 1988 developing software, and shared one of her secrets to success was learning to trust her "core values".

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When she first started out like many women with "perfectionist" tendencies, she would wait until her ideas were completely hashed out, until every kink had been ironed out, before presenting them to her team. With experience, she learnt that true innovation came by following a hunch, by combining information with educated guess-work, and then committing to figuring the rest out along the way.

"If you really believe it's the right way, you don't have to have 100% of the solution. You have to have a faith that it's true, and you also have to have data that supports what you're doing, but you don't have to say that this is totally bulletproof."

It was that "hunch" that led her to virtual reality, and the idea that the same technology that was revolutionizing the film industry, might be just as revolutionary in the car manufacturing process.

Like so many big ideas, Elizabeth's started small. First, convincing her bosses to give her idea a shot and then using the tiny amount of capital she was given to create a makeshift workshop.

Today, Ford's iVE lab is so advanced and well renowned that she recently received a call from NASA's visualization lab asking for a tour of Ford's facility. "The chance to collaborate with them and share ideas was so exciting," exclaimed Baron.

After the visit to Ford's iVE lab, Baron was invited to the Kennedy Space Center to see their virtual technology. "We found out what we shared in common and what we could learn from each other."

While at Cape Canaveral, Baron had an opportunity to see the space shuttle Discovery preparing for launch. "I even had a chance to take a peek inside the shuttle. It was just phenomenal!"

What's also phenomenal is the fact that Elizabeth not only uses her imagination to create cars before they can go into production, but she had to use that same power of visualization to imagine her dream job before that too could become a reality.

"When people ask how I got such a cool job, I tell them that I created it, and Ford supported me. Virtual reality didn't exist when I hired in at Ford more than 20 years ago. The virtual reality team kept pushing the envelope until we were able to figure it out."