If the future is a woman, as the slogan says, then the future has arrived at General Motors. For the past five years that Mary Barra, 57, has been named the first female director of a major automaker, she has also been appointed president. Among his potential successors, at least one is also a woman. And, according to decisions to be made later this month, GM's board of directors could only become the third in the overall S & P 500 to have a majority of women.
Advocates of gender equality and corporate diversity observe Barra's mandate with cautious optimism. She has the greatest notoriety among a small but growing class of female CEOs, joined April 15 by Best Buy's Corie Barry.
The glass ceiling is always a reality. women only manage about 5% of large companies. The same goes for the glass cliff, the phenomenon in which women are exploited to run only the already faltering businesses.
Even in a stable environment, boards of directors are generally quicker than men to dismiss a woman leader at the first sign of turbulence. Maybe that could be called the glass mat.
Nevertheless, Barra – along with Barry, Duke Energy's Lynn Good, Anthem Inc.'s Gail Boudreaux, and Lockheed Martin, Northrup Gruman and General Dynamics – could create the critical mass needed to attract more women to the top ladder. of the company and support them once they arrive there.
"Being the CEO is an extremely difficult and lonely position," said Connie Matsui, chairman of the board of biotech company Halozyme Therapeutics Inc., one of the few companies with a female chief executive of the company. leadership and a woman leader. "For some women who found themselves in crisis, I wondered if they were tired of a network. This is another type of community that could be developed: helping these women persevere. "
The automotive industry is still predominantly male. But Barra is distinguished herself and GM, for other reasons. She was willing to make unpopular choices, let the plants idle and suppress white-collar jobs in order to focus on future technology, even if the company remains profitable. The acquisition of GM's start-up Cruise Automation in 2015 promises to be better every day. And although it has been regularly criticized by President Donald Trump, the company's employees respect it, said Rebecca Lindland, a long-time automotive analyst in Detroit and founder of Rebeccadrives.com.
Wall Street was also optimistic. According to Bloomberg data, a majority of the 28 analysts who follow the company award it a purchase, and only one has recommended selling GM shares.
Rod Lache, an American auto analyst and the number one investor in the US for six years, expressed confidence in January. "To the extent that investing in a company is largely the responsibility of the company's management team, this company stands out clearly," he told the Wolfe Research conference in Detroit.
Six of GM's 13 directors are women; Of the remaining seven men, three have reached the mandatory retirement age of 72, including Principal Tim Solso. The board could extend their term or choose to replace it. Depending on what they decide, it could switch to a majority woman for the first time.
GM will not comment on the future of the directors until the next proxy, which will unveil the list. The company usually files its proxy at the end of April, before an annual meeting in June and a formal vote to select a new group of board members.
Women still represent less than 25% of the directors of large companies. Michelle Ryan, a professor at Exeter University who coined the term "glass cliff," says that councils dominated by men might be more willing to give a second chance or benefit of the doubt to other male leaders. According to data from Spencer Stuart, among the 64 executives who resigned from the S & P 500 companies under pressure from 2010 to 2018, 13% were women, more than double their share in the leadership population.
Karen Zaderej, CEO of Axogen Inc., could change the power dynamic if more and more women join the management of companies. His all-male board appointed Amy McBride-Wendell as Senior Director last year. According to Zaderej, having another woman at the table and assuming a leadership role has strengthened her position on certain topics within society, including repair and nerve protection.
But it's more than solidarity, says Zaderej. As in the automotive sector, more than 80% of healthcare decisions are made by women. While the board was debating whether Axogen should consider breast reconstruction activities after cancer treatment, the duo was able to give a broader picture of women's perspectives on the subject. The councils "recognize that it really needs that woman's voice to be present in the council to make sure to think about your business from the consumer's point of view," Zaderej said.
Only Viacom and CBS have a majority of women directors among the S & P 500 companies. Best Buy will join this shortlist when Barry is appointed in June. But another half dozen is divided equally, while nearly 25 are a shy woman of parity or even majority.
"I really think we're about to reach another level of stepping stone," said Anne Doyle, former Ford executive and author of "Powering Up: How American Women Become Leaders." the next wave to really land those very big global CEO positions. "
It was Barra's former boss, Dan Akerson, who presided over a woman's rise to run a major automaker. "One day there will be a Detroit Three run by a car. I really believe that, "said Akerson in a 2013 speech to members of Inforum, a nonprofit organization based in Michigan that advocates promoting women in the C-suite category. Barra was then the product manager for GM.
And when Barra became CEO? "You could have spilled me down with a feather," said Terry Barclay, CEO of Inforum. "I did not think I would live to make it happen."
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Story by Jeff Green with contributions from David Welch.