In the driver’s seat
After earning an aeronautical engineering degree from Ohio State, Lara Harrington ’90 found her calling—developing fuel-efficient, aerodynamic vehicles at Honda R&D Americas, Inc. in Raymond, Ohio.
She became Honda’s first female chief engineer in North America and most recently led the development of the all-new 2019 Honda Passport. Harrington is proud of her trailblazer status at the company and hopes it shows other women—especially girls—that they too can have a successful, rewarding career as an automotive engineer.
Recently, while mentoring a group of young girls interested in STEM careers, Harrington went around the room asking about interests. “Very few mentioned engineering and none said automotive engineer,” Harrington said. “As one put it, ‘People think I’m weird if I try to work on a car.’”
As a child growing up in Dayton, Harrington began learning about vehicle mechanics from her father, an engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base who enjoyed working on cars. She started as an eager assistant, fetching tools and dropped nuts and bolts, and eventually did everything from cleaning carburetors to changing brakes and timing belts.
“This interest in mechanical things, working with my hands and also having an ability towards problem-solving, that combination definitely affected my academic as well as my professional career choices,” Harrington said.
When she began studying aeronautical engineering at Ohio State, Harrington recalls being one of only two women out of approximately 50 students in her group.
“Ohio State gave me technical capability, but as important, they gave me the confidence to be a successful woman in what is a male-dominated field,” Harrington said. “The faculty were extremely encouraging, I always felt like I was part of a team.”
After graduation, Harrington moved west to join the engineering team at Boeing, but soon missed Ohio. “I came back east and that’s where I really discovered my passion for developing efficient vehicle body structures. I’ve been with Honda for 28 years now and I’ve loved it.”
Since joining Honda in 1992, Harrington has worked on more than a dozen projects, beginning with the 1994 Accord Wagon, one of the few U.S.-built products Honda exported to Japan. She also held leadership positions contributing to the 1997 Acura CL, 1998 Honda Accord Coupe, 2001 Acura MDX and the 2003 Honda Pilot.
Among her many accolades, Harrington was recognized as one of the “100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry” by Automotive News in 2015 and received the Ohio State College of Engineering’s Distinguished Alumna Award in 2016.
Her focus recently has been on Honda's light truck platform. She steered the development of the 2018 and 2019 Honda Ridgeline, and refreshed 2019 Honda Pilot. As chief engineer and project leader for the new 2019 Passport sport utility vehicle, Harrington managed a team of associates from development, manufacturing, purchasing and sales who created a new vehicle that is distinct from both the smaller, CR-V and the larger, family-focused Pilot.
“This was an especially exciting program because we were capturing a new customer, a young, rugged, male customer,” Harrington explained. “A lot of great ideas, hard work and passion went into the development of the product. I’m so proud of the team and the success that it has received in the market.”
As one of Honda’s highest-ranking female engineers in North America, Harrington actively promotes opportunities for young women in engineering. According to the Society of Women Engineers, only 13 percent of working engineers are women. Harrington hopes more women will enter the field, something she sees as beneficial both to women seeking fulfilling careers and the employers who hire them.
“My experience is that women often ask very different questions and they bring unique perspectives to the table,” Harrington said. “They tend to focus on user-interface, on societal consequences and trends. It’s important to get diverse viewpoints into the product.”
The drive to get women engineers behind the wheel in the automotive industry and elsewhere begins at home, Harrington shared on LinkedIn, by exposing girls to STEM-related activities like working in the garage.
She also recommends that young women entering the field build their confidence by taking advantage of any opportunity to gain hands-on experience.
“I always suggest that achieving confidence is done through achieving competence in your area of expertise,” Harrington said. “Certainly in engineering, having competence goes a very long way in gaining respect and gaining confidence.”
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org