The remaining weeks of 2013 have seen two amazing developments. First is a "first"--a female CEO of a major American automobile company. Second is a remarkable "save" by Twitter in the appointment of Marjorie Scardino to the board, after debuting its IPO with no women on the board or in the C-suite! Ms. Scardino, a former CEO of Pearson, plc-- a successful British publishing conglomerate, is a home run and, hopefully, the beginning of the end of the "Animal House" image of Silicon Valley.
Mary Barra, the new CEO and board member of General Motors, is 51 years old, having worked her way up through the ranks for 33 years, beginning as an engineer. Like many current super successful women of her generation, focusing on an engineering career back in the 1980s was an unusual choice for women. Navigating it involved not only learning very valuable operational skills, but also how to get along in a male-dominated environment. Both have served women very well in the business world.
There are currently four women on the board, and Barra will make five. According to research by the Wellesley College Center for Women, three women on a corporate board constitute a "critical mass" in terms of being "heard" and having significant influence. With five out of a 15-member board, GM has moved far beyond that goal.
The career pathways to the GM board of the four other women, who joined the "new" company after the government bailout in 2008, reflect those described in The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors.
In fact, one of them, Dr. Cynthia Telles, is profiled in the book. As Director of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, she is an example of the academic pathway to corporate boards, as is Carol Stephenson, the dean of the business school at the University of Western Ontario. Patricia Russo is a former CEO of Alcatel-Lucent, and Kathyrn Marinello is a sitting CEO of Stream Global Services--CEOs being the first choice of boards everywhere.
Ten of the 58 women public company board members interviewed for The Board Game majored in engineering, science or math. It has proven to be a remarkable spring- board to career mobility--a major factor in the contemporary push to expose girls to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in elementary schools.
The daughter of a GM tool-and-die maker, Ms. Barra's engineering prowess is a key to her success, allowing her broad operational experience, which she built on to exhibit managerial competence as VP of Global Manufacturing and Engineering, then SVP of Global Product Development in charge of the design, engineering, program management and quality of all GM vehicles. Along the way she rounded out her skill set with a stint as VP Global Human Resources where, among other things, she relaxed the uptight, ancient dress code!
She exemplifies the value of advice from corporate directors in The Board Game. They all recommend women get broad experience in all aspects of their businesses to be viewed as a viable candidate for the top job and a corporate board seat.
It's not incidental that GM has a VP of Diversity, who started out in the mailroom about the same time Ms. Barra joined GM. This company-wide focus on the careers of women and minorities has obviously pair off!
It may seem a no-brainer to put a woman in charge of a car company when women buy more than half the new cars in America, influence 85% of all automobile purchases and spend $200 billion a year on new cars and servicing, but it's taken over 100 years!!
I say, girls, let's all buy GM cars from now on to show our appreciation.