Road to Power
Barra is most certainly a pioneer for women in business, but she's also a living lesson as to how far the right outlook, skills, and drive can take you in your career. Road to Power explores the talent and the mindset that got her all the way to the top. LAURA COLBY is a reporter at large for Bloomberg News in New York, covering women in the global economy and education. Prior to 2013, she was the managing editor of Bloomberg Markets , the monthly global finance magazine. Laura has also worked for The Wall Street Journal, Fortune , and the International Herald Tribune .
Road to Power
Just don't go there."
That was Mary Barra's advice when, in March 2012, she was asked at a meeting of Michigan's women in business organization, Inforum, 1 about whether she had experienced discrimination as a female manager during her career. Hard as that is to believe-coming from a rare woman engineer, who started on a factory floor at the age of 18 back in the early 1980s-Barra denied ever being held back by being female. "I never said, 'that happened to me because I'm a woman.'"
Like many women of her generation, Barra played down gender as her career advanced. And she rose through the ranks of General Motors, a company that caught on early to the idea that women make up not only a large portion of the potential workforce, but also a huge share of potential customers. Encouraging women to become leaders made business sense, executives told me over and over again, because women represent a large proportion of car buyers. GM's moves to include women didn't come in a vacuum, though: They followed a string of U.S. government actions that made the company take notice-including a discrimination lawsuit.
Pushed or not, GM has been more successful than most large companies at cultivating high-ranking women, especially starting with Barra's generation. Though the numbers of women on the board and in management still lag behind men, they are at least twice the average of other large publicly traded companies that make up the Standard & Poor's 500 index. Some 26 percent, or six of the 23 top corporate officers are women, and there's a cadre of female vice presidents behind them. That compares with 8 percent for the S&P 500 index companies. 2 There are four women on the company's 12-member board of directors, or 33 percent, versus an average of 18 percent for other S&P 500 companies.
GM, especially in 2014 after it was disclosed to have failed to recall millions of cars that had a potentially deadly defect for more than a decade, has been criticized time and again for its bureaucratic culture, where a focus on process can supersede common sense. Yet in reporting this book, one thing that has struck me is that the same obsession with systems and processes has had a big role in creating a cadre of women, including Barra, who are just now getting to the top.
GM executives began reaching out to women as early as the 1970s, as the women's liberation movement was changing the way workforces operated. The steps accelerated and became more concrete following the company's 1983 settlement of a decade-old employment discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under the landmark deal, reached while Mary Barra was a college student at what was then the General Motors Institute, GM agreed to set goals for the promotion of women and minorities and to report back to the EEOC on its progress. Managers were asked regularly where the women in their areas were, and were encouraged to seek out female talent.
Throughout her career, Barra had mentors both male and female who tried to make sure she got opportunities to grow and advance. Once she was designated a high-potential employee, she was rotated through different positions in the company, at times well beyond her comfort and skill level. By embracing those new challenges, Barra deepened her knowledge and skills and was able to become a better manager. She in turn helped other women, both informally and formally, including setting up an internal networking group for women at the company in the 1990s.
Barra went through a decades-long grooming process before ascending to the top. One of the most striking things about her career is how close she was to some of the most important inflection points in the company's history. Like an automotive Forrest Gump-but smarter-she was often just below the radar, not yet powerful enough to get noticed by outsiders.