If the future is feminine, as the slogan says, then the future has reached General Motors. In the five years since Mary Barra, 57, was named the first executive director of a major automaker, she has added the role of president. Among his possible successors, at least one is also a woman. And depending on the decisions that will be made later this month, the GM board could become the third of the S & P 500 to have a female majority.
Advocates of gender balance and corporate diversity are observing Barra's management with cautious optimism. She has the highest profile in a small but growing class of female CEOs, added to April 15 by Corie Barry of Best Buy.
The glass ceiling remains a reality; women direct only about 5 percent of large companies. The same happens with the crystal cliff, the phenomenon by which women are chosen to lead only those companies that are already staggering.
Even in a stable environment, most men's boards tend to be quicker to eliminate a leading woman at the first sign of turbulence. Maybe that could be called the glass carpet.
However, Barra, along with Barry, Lynn Good at Duke Energy, Gail Boudreaux at Anthem Inc. and the women who manage defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Northrup Gruman and General Dynamics, could create the critical mass needed for other women reach the top Corporate ladder and support them once they get there.
"Being the CEO is a tremendously challenging and lonely position," said Connie Matsui, who chairs the board of the biotechnology company Halozyme Therapeutics Inc., one of the few companies with a CEO and a female board leader. "For some women who were in a crisis situation, I wonder if they already had enough network. That's another kind of community that could be developed to help these women persevere. "
The automotive industry remains overwhelmingly masculine. But Barra has departed, and GM, apart for other reasons. It has been willing to make unpopular elections, inactive plants and cut white-collar jobs to shift the focus to future technology, even when the company remains profitable. GM's acquisition of the autonomous driving company Cruise Automation in 2015 looks better every day. And although he has received constant criticism from President Donald Trump, company employees respect him, said Rebecca Lindland, a Detroit auto analyst and founder of Rebeccadrives.com.
Wall Street has been equally optimistic. According to Bloomberg, most of the 28 analysts who follow the company rate it as a purchase, and only 1 recommended selling GM shares.
Rod Lache, the leading car analyst for US institutional investors UU For six consecutive years, he expressed confidence in January. "To the extent that investing in any company is heavily investing in the management team of the company, this company stands out clearly," he said at the Wolfe Research conference in Detroit.
Six of the 13 corporate directors of GM are women; Among the remaining seven men, three have reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 years, including the principal director, Tim Solso. The council could expand its terms or choose to replace them. Depending on what they decide, it could happen to a majority of women for the first time.
GM would not comment on the future of any director before the next power, which will reveal the board. The company normally presents its representative at the end of April, before an annual meeting in June and the formal vote to elect a new group of board members.
Women still represent less than 25 percent of the directors of the largest companies. Michelle Ryan, a professor at the University of Exeter who coined the term "crystal cliff," says that boards dominated by men may be more willing to give second chances or the benefit of the doubt to executives of other men. According to Spencer Stuart, among the 64 CEOs who gave up the S & P 500 companies under pressure from 2010 to 2018, 13 percent were women, more than double their share of the general CEO population.
The power dynamic could change as more women join the corporate leadership, said Karen Zaderej, CEO of Axogen Inc. Her board of all men otherwise named Amy McBride-Wendell as its principal director last year. Zaderej says that having another woman at the table, and in a leadership role, has helped reinforce his position on some issues in the company, which focuses on the repair and protection of the nerves.
But it's more than solidarity, says Zaderej. As with cars, women take more than 80 percent of health care decisions. When the board discussed whether Axogen should consider business related to breast reconstruction after cancer treatment, the duo was able to offer a broader view of women's views on the subject. The boards are "recognizing that you really need to have that woman's voice on the board to make sure you're thinking about your business from a consumer's perspective," Zaderej said.
Only Viacom and CBS have a majority of women managers among the companies in the S & P 500. Best Buy will join that short list when Barry is appointed in June. But another half dozen is divided equally, while around 25 are a woman shy of parity or even the majority.
"I really think we're on the verge of another springboard," said Anne Doyle, a former Ford executive and author of "Powering Up: How American Women Achievers Becomes a Leader." I think Mary Barra was one of the first in the next wave to really break those really big, superior and global CEO positions. "
It was Barra's former boss, Dan Akerson, who foreshadowed the rise of a woman to head a major automaker. "One day, there will be a Detroit Three that will be driven by a car dealership – in fact, I believe that," Akerson said in a speech in 2013 to members of Inforum, a nonprofit organization in Michigan that advocates the advancement of the women in the c-suite. "At that time, Barra was the GM product manager.
And when Barra became CEO? "You could have hit me with a pen," said Terry Barclay, CEO of Inforum. "I did not think I would live to see that happen."
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Jeff Green's story with contributions from David Welch.