First Woman Engineer to Lead General Motors

Mary Barra named CEO of carmaker

19 December 2013

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Congratulations to Mary Barra, who earlier this month was named the next chief executive of the world’s second-largest carmaker. She starts her new job in January. She currently is vice president of global manufacturing engineering in charge of engineering, design, and quality control. Barra began working for GM in 1980 as an 18-year old student. She needed money to help pay for tuition to General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), in Flint, Mich., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Forbes named Barra the 35th most powerful executive in its most recent ranking.

According to a Forbes article about how Barra will lead GM, as vice president, she cut an entire layer of management, giving chief engineers more responsibility for product cost, quality, and competitiveness. “Mary went into an organization that was in chaos and brought order,” says GM’s current CEO Dan Akerson, calling her “one of the most gifted executives I’ve met in my career.”

While Barra’s promotion is a milestone in an industry dominated by men, only four percent of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies are women, up from less than one percent in 2002. Barra joins just a handful of other women who have been appointed CEO in recent years. Ursula M. Burns is in her fifth year as head of Xerox and Virginia M. Rometty has led IBM since 2012. Both women spent their entire careers at their companies and both hold engineering degrees. Meg Whitman has been CEO of Hewlett Packard since 2011, while Marilyn Hewson became CEO of the defense company Lockheed Martin earlier this year. Marissa Mayer took the top spot at Yahoo in 2012 after 13 years with Google.

These companies appear to be ahead of newer ones like those in Silicon Valley when it comes to promoting women to top management spots. For example, among Twitter’s 13-person management team, only two are women. Facebook’s four-person management team consists of one woman, and there’s only one woman among Google’s management team of 13.

Less than 15 percent of executive positions at the biggest companies in America are held by women, according to the nonprofit research group Catalyst, in its annual study of women in executive positions. This is the eighth year in a row that the numbers remain the same.

“It’s hard to believe that at the end of 2013 we still see more than a few all-male corporate boards and leadership teams,” says Ilene H. Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst. “We know this is not a supply problem. There are plenty of qualified women ready for board and top executive positions, as some companies have proven. It’s important and it’s not hard.”

To find qualified women engineers for their management team or boards, high-tech companies need only to check the IEEE Fellows list. On it are more than 300 women who have contributed in an important way to the advancement or application of engineering, science, or technology and have provided significant value to society.

Some might point to Barra’s technical background as evidence that women holding degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, the so-called STEM fields, are making inroads into the executive suite, but there’s still a long way to go. To build support for women to become leaders in STEM fields, the IEEE Women in Engineering group is holding its International Leadership Conference from 1 to 3 May, in San Francisco. Its theme is Lead Beyond: Developing Inspirational Women Who Change the World. This mini-MBA aims to help women in technology advance their careers and develop leadership skills through four tracks: empowerment (skills to help women advance in their careers), inspiration (presentations/skills to inspire women to achieve their goals), enjoyment (work/life balance, reducing stress, enjoying life) and engagement (hands-on skills development workshops).

Hopefully more high-tech companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, will soon recognize it makes sense to have women engineers in executive and board roles.

“Diverse business leadership and governance are correlated with stronger business performance, employee engagement, and innovation,” Lang says. “Shareholders beware: a company with no women at the top is missing one of the biggest opportunities in the marketplace today.”

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