Changing of the Guard in a Traditionally Male Industry

December 10, 2013 i THE NEW YORK TIMES

The announcement that Mary T. Barra will become the first female chief executive of General Motors is more than a human resources changeup. It’s a nod to the changing times.

Her appointment culminates a period when women in the auto industry have been taking over senior roles in traditionally male-dominated areas like purchasing, manufacturing and quality control.

Eight years ago, three of G.M.’s 54-person senior leadership group were women. Today, in a downsized company after its bankruptcy, six of G.M.’s top two dozen executives are women, including two of the company’s six senior vice presidents.

The other five top executives at the automaker are Victoria McInnis, chief tax officer; Anne Larin, corporate secretary; Melissa Howell, senior vice president for global human resources; Grace Lieblein, vice president for global purchasing; and Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice president for gobal customer experience and quality.

“It’s become more welcoming,” Ms. Barra said last month in an interview. “There are women in every aspect of the business.”

This generation of women started their careers in the late 1970s and 1980s — as Ms. Barra did at G.M. in 1980 — when they were often the only woman in a meeting. They recall navigating a balance between fitting in while keeping their own view.

“There just weren’t that many women in engineering or the leadership ranks,” said Ms. Lieblein in an interview in September. “Pretty quickly, I learned how to maneuver.”

“Before, I’d be the only woman in the room,” Ms. Lieblein said. “Today, sometimes there will be three people in a meeting, and we’ll all be women.”

G.M.’s female leaders say that they didn’t experience overt hostility while they rose through the ranks, but that the pressure to prove their qualifications was more intense than for their male counterparts.

“You spend so much of your career trying to demonstrate that you belong, that you deserve a seat at the table,” said Doneen McDowell, plant manager at G.M.’s Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.

Ms. Barra’s promotion will set an example for other women aspiring to leadership roles within the automotive industry, said Terry Barclay, chief executive and president of Inforum, Michigan’s largest women’s networking group.

“The ability of employees to look up at the top of the company and see people like themselves creates a sense of what’s possible and is a powerful motivator,” Ms. Barclay said. “Unless there’s a deliberate effort, we hire mini me’s. It gets expressed as, ‘Are they a good fit with our culture?’”

G.M. said that 21.8 percent of its director-level and senior executive roles were now filled by women, compared with 19 percent in 2004. But that belies the magnitude of the change, industry insiders said.

“The kind of change I see is not a 2 percent change,” Ms. Barclay said.

There’s a strong business case for including more women in decision-making positions, executives and analysts say, especially when women are making more than half of new car purchases.

“If this is viewed as a male, Midwestern company making cars and trucks that people won’t buy, that’s a problem,” Mark Reuss, who will become G.M.’s new head of global product development and purchasing, told reporters in August.

The culture shift within G.M.’s Renaissance Center headquarters is evident, Mr. Reuss said.

Instead of the old G.M. — a closed, inwardly focused culture that discouraged risk-taking — “the behavior is completely different,” he said. “People are actually relaxed enough to be creative and try things they wouldn’t normally try.”

Ms. Lieblein said she was the chief engineer on a team that developed G.M.’s larger crossover utility vehicles, the Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia, in 2007. She and the three other women on the team decided to leave a gap at the bottom of the left foot rest to make room in case the driver wore a high-heel shoe.

“It was a really simple thing, and it didn’t cost a lot of money,” she said.