BLOG / Women's History Month: Mary Barra

Women's History Month: Mary Barra

In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in order to call attention to the many contributions of women in society. Each week this March, we’re highlighting the lives of some of these great women in blog posts by some by of our notable employees who talk about women who inspired them. This week, Jess Perkins, Ph.D., our Director of Sustainability, spotlights General Motors CEO, Mary Barra, for her success in the business world.

As of this year, 25% of the seats in the United States Senate and 23.4% in the United States House of Representatives are held by women (Pew Research Center). Of the over 1,500 American colleges and universities surveyed by the American Council on Education, more than 30% have female presidents (American Council on Education). And according to Deloitte, women hold 22.5% of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies.

Most of these statistics have more than doubled in the past twenty years - and we hope the momentum continues - but one statistic remains stubbornly low: in 2018, only 4.8% of Fortune 500 companies had women as CEOs. To date, a total of only 60 women have held the title of CEO at a Fortune 500 company. In 1972, Katherine Graham was the first at The Washington Post, but only three other women held the CEO role in Fortune 500 companies during the rest of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. More than half of the total number of Fortune 500 female CEOs have been named to the position since 2010 (KDM Engineering), and I want to shed light on one of these women.

When Mary Barra became the CEO of General Motors (“GM”) in 2014, she was the first woman to become the leader of a major automaker. Today, she is still the only female CEO in an industry that is criticized for lack of gender-balance from top to bottom. While almost half of the US labor force is women, they only represent about one-quarter of the automotive workforce, and a majority of the top 20 companies in this industry do not have even a single woman on their executive teams (Catalyst). Mary is a clear exception and the example she sets can help to inspire others to advance in her industry. So how did she do it? I took a deeper look to see how she got there and what we can learn from her leadership.

Mary Barra first joined General Motors as an intern when she was 18. She’s what is called a “lifer,” in that her entire career has been spent working for one company. For college, she even attended General Motors Institute (now known as Kettering University).

Starting as an intern on the factory floor, she held several engineering and administrative roles during her early years with GM. She must have done something right because, after three years, General Motors sponsored her to attend Stanford University in pursuit of an MBA. After that, her career took off, as she moved up in the ranks, gaining experience in various parts of the organization. She held roles in manufacturing and engineering, including as manager of a plant with 3,400 employees, and also served as the aide to the former CEO Jack Smith, and as Director of Internal Communications.

More recently, Mary has navigated several challenging situations for General Motors. She was the Head of Global Human Resources during the company’s bankruptcy period from 2009 - 2011, and, in her first year as CEO, was called to testify before Congress about recalls and fatalities attributed to a faulty ignition switch in GM cars.

Flash forward to today, and GM is a very different company than when Mary Barra took the reins. She has shifted its focus onto technology, with GM developing the first electric car priced under $40,000 with a range of 200 miles (the Chevy Bolt EV) and moving into the automated driverless car space through several major acquisitions. The business shift has led to billions in profits and includes plans to release 20 new electric vehicles by 2023. In October 2018, Business Insider went so far as to say “A decade after the financial crisis, General Motors is led by the best management team it’s ever had and one of the best C-suites in all of business.” (Business Insider)

Aside from being smart, hard-working, and eager to take on challenges across all parts of the organization, what did Mary do differently? What was the special sauce that took her from being a successful businesswoman to the leader of one of the world’s largest organizations and a pioneer for women in the automotive industry and beyond?

I watched her commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 2014, shortly after she was named as CEO of General Motors. Her advice to the graduates said it all:

“Don’t be content to work around the edges of your profession. Don’t wait to be invited to important meetings or ask to work on crucial assignments. Instead, do what it takes to ensure that you’re in the middle of your business. Speak up. Volunteer. Show your enthusiasm. Knock on doors. As an employee, your enthusiasm will make your job more interesting and get you noticed. As a manager, your passion will inspire others to join your team and work as hard as you to accomplish great things.” (UM News)

Mary has already made her mark on history as the first female CEO in the automotive industry, and I have a feeling she’s just getting started.