When I turned to my internet news source today, I was delighted to see the first headline on my page talking about the first female CEO of General Motors (GM) being named. So, being from the Motor City (ahem, Detroit, MI), I would be remiss if I did not write about it.
Starting in January, Mary Barra will take over from the current GM CEO, Dan Akerson, to lead one of the top auto makers in the country, if not the world. Her career started as a plant engineer on the GM factory floor in 1980. Soon enough, she moved up the male-dominated ranks of the motor industry by obtaining an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, working as an executive assistant for a former GM CEO, and more recently, acting as senior vice president for global product development for the company.
I was very excited to read about Mary Barra and her journey through the management division of GM mainly because it was similar to that of many hard-working successful women. And it provides a great example of how women can navigate through an industry that was formerly dominated by men. However, after mentioning this story to a friend of mine, he asked me one question that I never thought about myself: Is this a small step to the US maybe finally being ready for a woman president?
That was a difficult question to answer. I want to believe that yes, this is a great leap to dissolve gender inequality, however, it seemed more like a stepping stone rather than a leap. Afterall, this was 2013, and we are NOW just talking about a CEO for the Big Auto 3? Yes, Mary Barra is a high-ranking female executive. She has personally experienced and led positive changes in the male-dominated automobile industry culture. But because this industry has been an integral part of US culture for the better part of a century, many will likely first see how Barra fares before they pass judgment on women in leadership roles.
Many other countries have had great women leaders, as my friend reminded me. But how much more will women have to do before the whole “frail female” stereotype has been dissolved? Many had criticized the decision Marissa Mayer, the president and CEO of Yahoo, made to return to work so soon after giving birth last year because a mother should spend that time bonding with her newborn child. Here she was trying to abolish this stereotype and be responsible as the president of her company, but the media was trying to fit her into a gender-specific role. This only highlights the fact that in order to fully accept women into high-ranking executive and leadership roles, we must change the culture’s perception on women in business, science, and in other areas of society.
Women still have a long way to go before being fully accepted as leaders in American culture, but women like Mary Barra help make it possible even one step at a time. Her journey (and others) are great examples of how to overcome obstacles and help to pave the way for female officials, even for the next female POTUS.
*Thanks to Ishan Mahapatra for the great idea!