How Mary Barra Is Grabbing Respect for Women in the Auto Industry

Dan Akerson stepped down as GM's CEO to care for his ailing wife. He decided Barra would be the best person to fill his shoes.

Dan Akerson stepped down as GM’s CEO to care for his ailing wife. He decided Barra would be the best person to fill his shoes.

Earlier this week at the Detroit Auto Show, GM officially named Mary Barra as the company CEO, making her an instant celebrity. Immediately after the announcement, she was hounded by reporters looking for a comment.

“How does it feel to be the head of GM?”

“What are your plans for the future? Are you ready for the job?”

“How does it feel to be a woman?”

In her typical fashion, Barra remained calm and collected, simply stating that she was “humbled” by the announcement.

Looking at Barra’s demeanor during the event, it’d be hard to notice that anything out of the ordinary was happening. After all, this is something that she was born to do and something that she has been working for her entire life. Barra’s father worked as a die maker for Pontiac for 39 years, teaching his daughter the ins and outs of an automobile. In a recent New York Times interview, Barra says, “I had a basic understanding of the automobile industry and what the manufacturing world was like, just from the opportunity to spend time with [my father]- just talking, because he was a car buff.”

Her relationship with her father and the interest that he sparked in her influenced her decision to study electrical engineering, a field that she would eventually receive a master’s degree in from Stanford. During her entire education, Barra also worked at GM, rising up through the ranks and learning about every aspect of the company.

But with the announcement of Barra’s new position, there are still many doubters. Undoubtedly, this has to do with her being a woman. Articles like, “GM CEO Marry Barra: The Cameras Love Her. So Do Employees. But Will Investors?” are already planting unwarranted seeds in the public’s mind that the cut throat market won’t love her and that her femininity is only good for turning cameras and charming employees.

Of course, the irony of questions like this is: a company’s success has nothing to do with gender. After all, this company has always been run by men, and it was eventually run into the ground by them, too. Over the years, the question of gender has often come up with Barra. Much of this has to do with the male-dominated nature of the automotive industry. In an article released by CBC News, Tracy King- a regional manager for Porsche- says, “You’re having a hard time finding females, especially in the European brand. We have zero executive heads that are female.”

Mary Barra is the first CEO in GM's long history

Mary Barra is the first female CEO in GM’s long history

Like always, none of this seems to affect Barra. Instead, she focuses on the improving conditions and tries to stay humble; “I think there are more women in more senior roles than in 1980 when I started. But from my perspective, I don’t go into a room and take count. I want to be recognized for my contribution and for what I do. Yeah, there were probably times it was to my benefit, and there were probably times when it was not to my benefit. But that is true for everyone. There are always things that potentially impact how you are received. And I just don’t focus on it. I don’t focus on what you can’t control.”

In the upcoming years, GM has high ambitions. This year, they plan to release 15 (15!!!) new or refreshed vehicles here in the U.S. Also, GM has said that they hope to expand and improve divisions like Cadillac, which are pivotal to the company’s success. With such lofty goals, GM understood that they couldn’t take a chance in appointing their new CEO. That’s why they chose Barra, woman or not.

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