General Motors (GM), America’s iconic automaker, has been one to stick to tradition, in typical Detroit fashion. Yet, it broke new ground recently when it announced the appointment of Mary Barra as its CEO – the first woman to head one of the world’s largest automakers.
GM probably was one of the last male dominated bastions to include a woman in its ranks but Barra is no stranger to automaking. She has been overseeing GM’s global vehicle development and it was during her watch, that the giant automaker released some of its strongest brands yet, according to auto experts.
In a statement to media, Barra said that with the current portfolio of cars and trucks combined with GM’s strongest financial performance in recent history, it was exciting times to be at GM. “I’m honoured to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed,” she added.
Although women account for over half of all new vehicles sold, Detroit has never found it easy to appoint a woman to head a major carmaker business. Granted that many women do hold senior positions within American automaker companies but no one has yet made it to being at the top. The same goes for major Japanese and European automakers, according to industry analysts.
Maybe there is something macho about heading an automaker – one has yet to hear of a car designed to be feminine and appealing to an all-female audience. Listen to most communications messages from automakers and what you will hear will be vehicles built to last, rugged and tough on the roads. Maybe that is how the industry works but given the number of women buying cars whether here in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, methinks something needs to change here.
Industry experts point out that Barra is more of a bred-in-Detroit executive who has long roots at GM – her father was a GM employee for 39 years. She herself drove a Chevy as her first car when she went to the then GM Institute to obtain her degree in electrical engineering.
Starting as an 18-year-old student back in 1980, Barra rose through the ranks – first in engineering and production, going up from managing the vast Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to being appointed in charge of the company’s human relations department although human relations is viewed by most women’s rights activists as a ‘corporate ghetto’ for women executives.
A GM kid
Barra has been able to perform exceedingly well in all areas – something that has enabled GM to recognize her beyond the being just a woman part. This is territory which is common for most powerful women – they are no longer mere female employees, they have entered the bigger picture that is essentially gender-less and is based more on performance and ability to get things done.In addition, Mary Barra is credited streamlining GM’s prodigious bureaucracy; a skill, it is said, has served her well. Being a GM kid, she is said to understand and able to comprehend the company’s needs as it enters a new era altogether.Mary Barra is not shy of the publicity she has attracted as the first female CEO in Detroit. She had been there before – she was the first woman to be appointed to oversee development at GM, yet another big step for the virile auto town.
In an interview with a Detroit TV station, she said, “I don’t know that I’m a ‘car gal’ but I know I love cars and trucks.” There’s nothing there to raise eyebrows. Plenty of women love the chrome and silver of the automobiles.Compared to some of GM’s flamboyant CEOs of the past, such as the famous ‘car lover’ Bob Lutz whose motto was ‘often wrong never in doubt’, many are of the view that Barra would adapt a pragmatic, low key approach which would serve GM well.
In an interview with Fortune last year, Barra said, “The day they say I’m doing it because Mary Barra told me to, is the day I lose.” She clearly knows what can go wrong and what has gone wrong at the historic automaker. If anyone can put GM on a stronger performance track, industry analysts like to believe that it is a ‘car girl’ who has grown up on the streets of the auto city.
(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at email@example.com)