One Of The First Female Auto Execs Explains Why Making Mary Barra CEO Of GM Is Brilliant

Marina WhitmanMarina v.N. WhitmanDr. Marina von Neumann Whitman

General Motors announced this morning that Mary Barra, its head of product,
will succeed Dan Akerson as CEO, making her the first woman to take charge of an automaker.

It’s clear that while the industry is still dominated by male leadership, women have made progress over the past few decades, says Dr. Marina von Neumann Whitman.

In the 1980s, Whitman was vice president and group executive of Public Affairs for GM.

That made her the highest-ranking female in the industry at the time — the Mary Barra of 30 years ago.

The women didn’t know each other during their mutual years at GM; Whitman said that when she left about 20 years ago, Barra was junior enough that they wouldn’t have interacted. But Whitman “really couldn’t be more delighted” by her selection, she said in an interview. (They’ve since met, but don’t know one another well.)

The choice of a woman shows GM “is pioneering again,” she said in an interview with Business Insider, explaining that when she and two other women were given high-ranking positions, “GM really was at that time ahead of the other auto companies.”

The upside of Barra’s selection over tough competitors goes beyond gender, Whitman argued. Barra is a GM insider, “one of us.” Barra started there when she was 18 and worked her way up from a job inspecting fender panels. That’s an encouraging change from bringing in outsiders to take charge. Current CEO Dan Akerson, for example, came from private equity management firm The Carlyle Group.

Dr. Marina von Neumann WhitmanYouTube ScreenshotDr. Marina von Neumann Whitman

Asked if the lack of women in the industry can be attributed to the lack of female engineers, Whitman pointed out that automaker CEOs usually come from the finance side of the business, a pattern Barra has broken.

She is “only the second engineer who’s made it to the top of GM” in the post-World War II era, Whitman said. (The other was Bob Stempel, who was fired in 1992 after a two year stint.)

Whitman is now a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and professor of business administration at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business Administration, at the University of Michigan.

She hesitated to say Barra’s promotion will help women in the industry, noting “it’s gotta do some good,” if only to give women a “goal to strive for.”

But she’s sure it will help General Motors. In two years heading up product development, Barra has overseen the launches of a bunch of terrific cars, and sales have risen accordingly.

“They’ve got good design,” Whitman said, “and they’re learning where the world is going.”

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