GM Hits Diversity Milestone with Board Appointment

Half company's board is now women.

by on Jun.08, 2016

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra is the most visible component of change in the male-dominated culture that used to exist at the automaker.

In an industry with a long history of being unfriendly to women, General Motors has passed what amounts to a unique and historic milestone.

Six of the 12 seats on General Motors board of directors are now occupied by women. One of the women directors is Mary Barra, who in 2013 was chosen by the board to become GM’s first female to serve as the top executive.

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The gender balance on the board was reached this week at GM’s annual shareholders meeting in Detroit when Jane Mendillo, the former head of Harvard University’s Management Co., which is responsible for investing the university’s endowment, replaced Steve Girsky on the GM board.

The appointments of six female directors followed GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, which shattered many of the traditions that had developed at GM during the past century. Kathryn V. Marinello, Patricia Russo and Carol M. Stephenson all joined the board in 2009. Barra, Linda R. Gooden and now Mendillo have been added since the bankruptcy.

Despite the troubles during the past decade and loss of market share, GM has long been considered one the major bellwether companies in the United States, serving as a model for other companies throughout the economy. It has traditionally been a pioneer in many areas, from the use of scientific research to the identification of high potential employees, and its organization and practices have studied extensively by outsiders.

Barra has insisted during the years that she dislikes the phrase “corporate culture.” Nevertheless, the change at the top of the company represent a major shift for a century-old company that up until only fairly recently was a male-dominated club where the company’s internal rhythms were established by engineers and factory managers, who were almost always exclusively male. The insular nature of GM’s culture left the company struggling to communicate with female customers.

Led by Barra, half of GM's board is now female: A marked change from 2009 when the company emerged from bankruptcy.

(GM favors autonomous vehicles with driver controls in place. For more, Click Here.)

The situation began to change in earnest at GM in the 1990s as more women entered the company’s professional ranks. Early on in her career, Barra was sent by GM to obtain an MBA from Stanford University’s prestigious business school. She was also given an assignment in China as GM launched its operations in the country and served as an aide to then-GM Chairman and CEO Jack Smith and then-GM vice chairman Harry Pearce.

Barra, however, wasn’t alone. Other female executives also have moved up through the ranks to lead product teams and manage factories. Even Rev. Jesse Jackson, long a critic of carmakers, said during an appearance at the shareholders meeting that he could not help but be impressed by the diversity in the ranks of GM’s management and professional staff.

GM and to a lesser extent Ford Motor Co., where women now hold dozens of key management positions throughout the company, are something of an exception in the global automotive industry.

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Senior management at Asian automakers, with the lone exception of the Renault-Nissan alliance, which has promoted women to a number of key positions, remain exclusive male-only clubs. Toyota’s efforts to elevate a woman from the United State to a top executive position ended in disaster last summer when Julie Hamp was arrested in Japan under circumstances that have never been fully explained by anyone at Toyota.

In Europe, where new regulations from the European Union and specific laws in Germany place pressure on companies, such as Daimler AG, to promote women to top management positions and Supervisory Boards, top executives complain about the lack of “qualified” women candidates.

Daimler, however, is hardly the worst offender. Volkswagen AG, according to women formerly employed by the company, has a history and an internal culture of sexism that has limited opportunities for women. Even as VW raced to replace executives tainted by the unfolding emission-cheating scandal, few moved into positions of greater responsibility inside the company.

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Barra, acknowledging a point raised by Rev. Jackson, said wider diversity that draws on talented individuals from all kinds of backgrounds strengthens companies such as GM. “There is a war for talent,” she noted during the shareholders meeting.

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