General Motors Co.’s decision to name Mary Barra -- trained as an engineer -- as chief executive officer extends the ranks of women with prowess in science and technology at the highest levels of corporate America.
Barra, 51, joins about 20 women, a third with science backgrounds, who now run U.S. companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. Among the women are Ursula Burns at Xerox Corp., Virginia Rometty at International Business Machines Corp. and Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo Inc. A decade ago, women of all backgrounds were CEOs of only nine companies in the index.
“It’s not too late to buy your daughter a truck for the holidays,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied CEOs. “It’s going to inspire and motivate women and girls. There are a lot of women who have been steered away from engineering and science.”
Barra, who started her career at GM as a plant engineer at the Pontiac Motor Division more than 30 years ago, will become the first female CEO of a global automaker. She will succeed Dan Akerson, who turned 65 in October and whose wife was recently diagnosed with cancer.
The rise of executives in the corner office with science and technology backgrounds echoes recent gains for women in those fields. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in September that women made up 26 percent of science, technology, engineering and math jobs in 2011. Women have the biggest representation in math, responsible for almost half of all workers, up from 15 percent in 1970. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 31 percent of graduate students are women, as are 45 percent of undergraduates.
Executives like Barra, with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or math, have an advantage at a time when technology is driving so many companies, Xerox CEO Burns, who studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, said in an interview in July.
“Problem solving, discipline, turning complexity into simplicity, managing by fact, valuing contributions from others -- all these are attributes of successful engineers and, I believe, successful leaders,” Burns said at the time.
IBM’s Rometty has a degree in mechanical engineering and computer science. PepsiCo’s Nooyi has a degree in chemistry. DuPont Co. CEO Ellen Kullman studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate. Yahoo! Inc.’s Marissa Mayer is a computer science graduate, and Sherilyn McCoy, CEO of Avon Products, studied textile chemistry in college and earned an M.S. in chemical engineering.
Lockheed Martin Corp. CEO Marillyn Hewson joined the defense contractor in 1983 as a senior industrial engineer.
“There’s some kind of tipping point that’s happening,” said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and a board member at Microsoft Corp. and Broadcom Corp. “When you start to have a bunch of these happening, all of the sudden it starts to make organizations think about the fact that they could do this too. There have been waves. Now the auto industry cracked, the defense industry cracked, and with IBM, the tech industry has been cracked.”
Barra began with GM in 1980 as a student at General Motors Institute (since renamed Kettering University) in Flint, Michigan. With a scholarship from GM, she later got an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“This is an incredible breakthrough, and Barra is the real deal,” Jeff Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, said in an interview. “We have an unprecedented pattern of mainstream women engineers getting top jobs. These are women driving up through a male-dominated hierarchy to achieve.”
Barra was promoted to head of product development in early 2011, less than six months after Akerson became CEO. She is responsible for the design and quality of all GM cars and trucks.
“I wasn’t sure I would ever see this -- a woman heading this large, iconic U.S. company, which has a rather masculine image and has engineering in its DNA,” said Barbara Hackman Franklin, a director at Aetna Inc. who led the first White House effort to recruit women for high-level jobs as a staff assistant in 1971 to President Richard Nixon.
While hailed, Barra’s promotion highlights that women still trail men by a wide gap, holding only about 5 percent of CEO jobs and 18 percent of director positions in the S&P 500, according to executive recruiter Spencer Stuart Inc. The 22 women CEOs as of the last proxy season were the most ever, Spencer Stuart said in its 2013 report. Since then, women CEOs at Dun & Bradstreet Corp. and Xylem have been replaced by men.
None of the largest Wall Street banks are run by women. Karen Peetz is president of Bank of New York Mellon Corp., and Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have women chief financial officers.
“We are not anywhere near parity yet,” Franklin said. “Quite often women run into a buzz saw of competition or silent resistance in middle management and can never get to the top ranks.”
Still, more women are rising through the ranks to senior executive spots. The number of women serving as chief financial officer increased 35 percent at big U.S. companies in the past year, to 54, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Rankings. The CFO job was a stepping stone to the corner office for some current CEOs, including Gannett Co.’s Gracia Martore and PepsiCo’s Nooyi.
At Facebook Inc., Sheryl Sandberg holds the No. 2 spot as chief operating officer. At Intel Corp., Renee James was named president and No. 2 to the CEO earlier this year. As General Electric Co.’s chief marketing officer, Beth Comstock is one of the top executives at the world’s largest maker of jet engines, and Rosalind Brewer is executive vice president of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and president of Sam’s Club.
Clara Shih, who joined the board of Starbucks Corp. at the end of 2011, is an example of a growing group of women entrepreneurs working their way up the ranks.
Shih, with a computer science and economics degree from Stanford University, is a protege of Facebook’s Sandberg and the co-founder of social media company Hearsay Social Inc., which lets banks and insurers make sales through Twitter Inc., Facebook and LinkedIn Corp.
Another example is Selina Lo, a computer science major from the University of California at Berkeley who founded and runs Ruckus Wireless Inc., which filed a $100 million initial public offering last year. Jayshree Ullal, hired from Cisco Systems Inc. in 2008, is president and CEO of Arista Networks Inc., which offers cloud-networking services.
Female-run companies in the S&P 500 already boast boardrooms with almost twice as many women as male-run firms.
“When companies have women in top management, they are often performing better and more likely have women on boards,” said Susan Stautberg, co-founder of Women Corporate Directors in New York, which promotes women membership on boards. “We’re beginning to break loose, but nothing is a straight line up. You’ve got women in the pipeline.”
The likelihood of women rising through corporate ranks depends on the commitment of the top boss, said Tom Falk, CEO of Kimberly-Clark Corp. Nearly 27 percent of Kimberly-Clark’s executives now are women, including four of Falk’s 10 direct reports.
“It’s not about fairness, it’s about having the best team,” he said. “If you’re in front of a room of 100 people and choose from just half the room, you won’t have as good a team as someone choosing from the entire room.”
Jody Greenstone Miller, CEO of Los Angeles-based Business Talent Group and a director at TRW Automotive Holdings Corp., said Barra’s appointment is a “wake-up call” for male executives at companies that still lack female leaders.
“She has a record that gives her credibility, and a lot of male executives that do business with GM are going to have to deal with her,” Miller said.
GM’s outgoing CEO Akerson has stressed his support for promoting women. He telegraphed the promotion in September when he predicted a “car gal” will eventually run one of the three largest U.S.-based automakers.
“Mary was not picked because of her gender,” Akerson said yesterday on a conference call. “Mary is one of the most gifted executives I’ve met in my career. She was picked for her talent, not for her gender, not for political correctness.”