General Motors Is Leading the Charge Toward Gender Equality in the Automotive Industry

With a female chief executive, gender parity among its board of directors, and strides toward equal pay, General Motors is leading the automotive industry toward equality.

The Detroit automaker, which recently named Dhivya Suryadevara to the chief financial officer role and Kimberly Brycz to head global human resources, has promoted women to four of its top 17 executive positions, a small proportion overall but significant for a major automaker. CEO Mary Barra and Alicia Boler-Davis, who leads global manufacturing, complete the corporate roster.

GM also bumped its board of directors to gender parity this month with the addition of a sixth woman, Jami Miscik, a former deputy director of intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency. The board now has six men and six women, the third time since April 2016 there’s been an even gender split.

The company’s emphasis on diversity is due in part to its 2009 bankruptcy filing and the opportunity it created to restructure corporate culture.

“With GM emerging from bankruptcy, Barra created an egalitarian shift across the company in terms of any employee being able to point out, or admit, problems,” said Tom Kolditz, a leadership professor at Rice University. “When employees share an equal responsibility for transparency and quality, a company can improve and do so with a focus on customers.”

Other automotive companies are likely to follow GM’s lead on diversity, Kolditz added. “GM has benefitted from seeing old problems in new ways.”

Overall, the industry is making gradual strides in promoting women to leadership roles.

Women hold five of Ford’s top 16 leadership positions but just two of FCA’s 23 top offices. Laura Schwab heads Aston Martin Americas, and Annette Winkler led Daimler AG’s Smart brand for eight years before stepping down last month.

GM “is currently the only company in the largest 20 in the United States” to have a female CEO and an equal number of women and men on its board of directors, according to the Equileap, a non-profit based in London and Amsterdam. Its recent Global Report on Gender Equality, which evaluated more than 3,000 companies worldwide for criteria including leadership, equal pay and work flexibility, ranked GM as the world’s top company for gender equality. L’Oreal, which took the top spot last year, fell to second place.

The study also named GM “one of just two global businesses” alongside Starhub, a Singapore-based telecommunications company, to advance pay equality across job classifications. It cited the automaker’s flexible hours and flexible work locations as well as corporate policies to counter sexual violence and improve supplier diversity.

However, achieving parity within the automotive industry requires integrating women into more operational roles, Kolditz said. “Chief operating officers and other operations roles continue to be male dominated, and this is important because chief financial officers, chief human resources officers and chief diversity officers do not contribute directly to the bottom line.”

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