How a Woman Became the CEO of General Motors in 3 (Not-So-Easy) Steps

December 12, 2013


Mary Barra stands at a podium

Mary Barra; image by Fortune Live Media

This week, General Motors announced that Mary Barra is set to become the automaker’s first female CEO and thereby the first female chief executive officer of a major global automaker.

Someday this will not be news. Someday women will take the lead in all kinds of industries — film studios, technology companies, even on Wall Street — and no one will think to write a press release. But on a day when women make up just 13 percent of engineers (and, until now, zero percent of big auto CEOs), Mary Barra’s exciting promotion also throws some of these inequities in sharp relief.

With just 13 percent of her field occupied by other women, how exactly did Barra get to the top?

1. She started early.

It used to be that outright discrimination (to say nothing of insidious social norms) kept many girls from pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Before Title IX, women often weren’t allowed to participate in opportunities like advanced STEM courses and math and science clubs.

The effects of this gender prejudice linger today. Girls disappear from STEM fields early on, and once they’re off the STEM path, it can be difficult to get back on track.

Barra had both the opportunity and the drive to pursue STEM courses. “When I was in high school I loved science and math, so engineering or a math-type major seemed to be where I was headed,” Barra said in an interview with Fast Company.

2. She had access to higher education.

For successful women in engineering, the ability to access higher education — through scholarships, family support, or other means — is a must. Barra got a boost of confidence and financial support to pursue her education from a somewhat unusual place: her employer.

In 1980, GM’s Pontiac unit sponsored Barra’s application to the co-op program at the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), where Barra earned her bachelor’s in electrical engineering. Later on, GM continued to invest in Barra’s education, awarding her a scholarship to pursue a degree at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Way to go, GM.

3. She had support from mentors and role models.

Our 2010 report on women’s underrepresentation in STEM found that role models and mentors are key to encouraging women in these fields. Whether at home or work, Barra had both.

At home, she found a role model in her father, who worked as a diemaker for GM for 39 years.

“I had a basic understanding of the automobile industry and what the manufacturing world was like, just from the opportunity to spend time with him — just talking, because he was a car buff,” Barra told the New York Times.

At GM, an iconic company with a masculine image, Barra has seen the company evolve into a more welcoming place for women, who today play a role in every aspect of the business.

AAUW alumna Marina Whitman, one of the first women to serve as GM vice president, has also acknowledged that evolution. “One of my greatest frustrations at GM was we were never able to persuade top management that the world was changing rapidly and they needed to change to keep up with it,” Whitman said. According to the Times, she worked at GM from 1979 to 1992.

“I would say that through my career I’m very fortunate,” Barra said in her Times interview. “I have worked for a lot of really great leaders and mentors that I felt provided me, along with many of my peers — many of them women — opportunities.”


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1 Comment

  1. […] and bosses to recognize that they too need to reject sexist labeling and stereotypes. Women will continue breaking through the glass ceiling, but sexism isn’t over, and real barriers to equality in leadership for […]

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