As General Motors chief executive Mary Barra comes up on her two-year anniversary leading the company, she said one of the biggest things she’s learned is how important it is to other people that she’s a woman.
“I think I missed it early on,” Barra said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo Autos. She’s come to understand that some people need role models who they can identify with to help them see a path to success, a concept she said was foreign to her at first.
Barra made global headlines in December 2013 when she was named the first woman CEO of General Motors. During early interviews, she subtly deflected questions about her experience as a woman, stating repeatedly that she never felt different at GM, a company she joined when she was just 18 years old. She was a part of a team, she told journalists again and again, and her gender was nothing special.
Mary Barra’s first press scrum at the 2014 Detroit auto show.
But now, Barra realizes that what she accepts as normal is revolutionary and inspiring for others. Recently at a GM town hall meeting, an engineer came up to her and thanked her for being in her role because it meant his 1-year-old daughter would never live in a world where having a woman CEO of an automaker would be considered newsworthy.
She didn’t understand why people found her gender such a noteworthy part of her job. Barra’s father was a die maker at GM’s Pontiac division, and he let her tinker around in his shop when she was a girl. She never thought there was anything unusual about being a woman in the male-dominated industry.
“I never want to get a job because I’m female,” she said. “I want to get it because I earned it and I deserve it … Whether my hair is going to be blue or purple, people should be judged on how well they do the job and deliver results and whether they do it the right way. That’s how I like to be judged, most people are like that.”
Early in her tenure at GM, the spotlight moved off her gender and into a more serious issue: Revelations that GM was selling cars with faulty ignition switches that could shut the car, and its airbags, down. The problem was linked to more than 130 deaths, sparking Congressional inquiries, NHTSA investigations and eventually a corporate settlement with federal prosecutors. Barra fired roughly a dozen executives and ordered sweeping changes in how the company handles safety defects. The debacle costs: $4.1 billion, and 30 million vehicles recalled.
In the middle of the crisis, Matt Lauer scored a Today Show interview with Barra and wondered aloud if she was picked because she was a woman and could put a “softer” face on the recall issue. He said: “Some people are speculating that you also got this job as a woman and as a mom, because people at General Motors knew this company was in for a very tough time — and that as a woman and a mom, you can present a softer face and softer image for this company as it goes through this horrible episode. Does it make sense or does it make you bristle?”
To her credit, Barra did not get up and walk out on the interview, which some people may have been tempted to do. Nor did she get up and walk out on the next question, which involved asking her if she could handle being both a mom and a CEO.
Barra and United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams
Barra says the novelty of her gender seems to have worn off. In the past two years, she has focused most of the attention about her gender into one of her own passions: Promoting science and technology studies for girls and boys. She sees a major shortage of workers with science skills coming up through schools. Her Facebook page shows she is an advocate with STEM groups aimed at women, like the Let Girls Learn program through the Peace Corps, but she also focuses on both genders.
And two years into her tenure, GM’s financial health has rarely been stronger. Record profits in North America have offset weaknesses elsewhere; consumers are paying more than $32,000 for every new GM vehicle, and the company’s newest models, from the Chevy Colorado, Camaro and Malibu to Cadillac ATS, have been critically praised.
In a recent LinkedIn post, Barra gave some good, modern-day female executive advice to a STEM student who asked what she should do to handle the world of Information Technology, which is male dominated.
“Start by assuming goodness – that men and women will be treated the same,” Barra said. “However, accept nothing less than being treated well. If you’re not, then deal with it.”