With its appointment of Mary Barra to succeed Daniel Akerson as chief executive officer, General Motors brings to a half dozen the number of major U.S. corporations headed by women. Barra, who started at the company in 1980 while a student at the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), represents both continuity and change. Thirty years ago, few would have imagined that a woman would so quickly rise to head such a historically macho company, but several important factors worked in Barras favor.
1. The Daddy Factor: Commenting earlier this year on how attitudes had changed during her three decades at GM, Barra said, You started to see an enlightening. And with some people, theyd even say, My daughter just graduated from college, and I want her to have these opportunities.
My own father, who spent his career as an engineer in large industrial companies in the South, has often observed that breaking down corporate barriers was easier for women than for blacks because white male executives could see their daughters in female employees. That factor seems to have helped Barra, the daughter of a GM die-maker. In fact, Akerson described announcing her promotion to CEO as almost like watching your daughter graduate from college.
2. The Crisis Factor: A disconcerting number of the women promoted to head large public companies get the job only when the companies are struggling. Think of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard Co. or Marissa Mayer and Carol Bartz at Yahoo Inc. Barras appointment comes a day after the U.S. Treasury sold its remaining stock in the company, but even with that divestiture, GM remains Government Motors to many Americans – a loser company and symbol of crony capitalism. The company faces plenty of challenges abroad as well.
As a GM lifer, Barra understands the companys often-dysfunctional bureaucracy, but that doesnt mean she can – or will – change it. Good luck to her; its an unenviable job, said a commenter on the auto enthusiast website Truth About Cars.
3. The Car Gal Factor: Back in September, Akerson made news by telling a womens leadership conference, the Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys. Someday, there will be a Detroit Three thats run by a car gal. I actually believe that.
Barras appointment fulfills his prophecy. And its important that Akerson, a former telecom executive, wasnt just talking about gender. He was predicting the return to industry leadership of someone steeped in car culture. Barra may be more customer-focused and low-key than the stereotypical car guys of the past, but shes also an engineer who loves automobiles and most recently headed product development. As a prominent female CEO, shell attract attention no man would garner, allowing her to make the case for cars in a media culture more likely to celebrate bicycles and mass transit or to report that Americans are falling out of love with the automobile.
Her appointment also comes two days after thousands of fans thronged to the memorial for Fast & Furious star Paul Walker, who was killed in an auto accident Nov. 30. The movie franchises phenomenal global success is a reminder that, despite the naysayers, car culture remains powerfully alluring.