Mary Barra, A WOMAN, has just been named successor to GM CEO Dan Akerson as he plans to retire this January. Barra is not only the first woman to lead one of the U.S. big three – GM, Ford and Chrysler – but she’s also the only woman to lead an auto company worldwide. And this woman is clearly a qualified choice, defying any arguments naysayers may have about her gender playing a preeminent role in her appointment. She is currently the Senior Vice President of Global Operations and has been working in the auto industry for more than 30 years in both engineering and managerial positions. She is defying strict gender roles all over the place.
It’s not really a big surprise that the first woman appointed as CEO at an auto company took place at GM before other companies. GM leads the pack in gender equality, which has helped them be able to attract and maintain talented women like Barra. With 4 out of 14 of their board members and 25% of their corporate officers being women, GM is nearly at the 30% Solution point that is purported to be required to create gender balanced leadership. This is important not only for undoing gender discrimination, but it may also be good business practice. McKinsey has shown in their 2007 report Women Matter and their subsequent research project of the same name that having a more gender diverse workplace can improve company performance.
The news of Barra’s appointment comes just one day after it was announced that GM has bought back all their shares from the federal government after the government bailed them out in 2009. Although Akerson is leaving for personal reasons unrelated to the bailout and buyback, what does the timing of the two announcements mean? The buyback was ambiguous or negative news, reminding us of GM’s previous troubles and the government taking a loss through buying shares and selling them back, so the announcement of a new CEO may be to bolster stocks on the market since Barra’s appointment can be seen as largely positive. So not only do we get some more women on top, but it’s also a good sign of turning tides that appointment women to head giant corporations is timed in order to improve their market status.
This news comes on the heels of women making strides in government and international banking all over the place in the past year or so. Sometimes women’s rise to the top is predicated on the failure of men, like Christine Lagarde taking over the IMF after shamed Dominic Strauss-Kahn stepped down or the general increase of women in congress as our predominantly male congress fails at everything. But Barra represents a case of a woman rising to the top without it being in contradiction to men, just because she really is the obvious choice. I’m hoping the momentum continues so we can stop attributing women’s successes to the men who have failed before them.
And always, when one or a few women break through the glass ceiling, I like to remind people of what Ruth Bader Ginsberg once said about the representation of women in the Supreme Court. “I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]? And I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
P.S. With a woman as the head of GM, I’m expecting the Barbie Corvette of my childhood dreams will soon be a reality.