New GM boss Barra can help revive ‘car culture’

Virginia Postrel

With its appointment of Mary Barra to succeed Daniel Akerson as chief executive officer, General Motors brings to a half dozen the number of major U.S. corporations headed by women. Barra, who started at the company in 1980 while a student at the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), represents both continuity and change. Thirty years ago, few would have imagined that a woman would so quickly rise to head such a historically macho company, but several important factors worked in Barra’s favor.

1) The Daddy Factor: Commenting earlier this year on how attitudes had changed during her three decades at GM, Barra said, “You started to see an enlightening. And with some people, they’d even say, ‘My daughter just graduated from college and I want her to have these opportunities.’ “

My own father, who spent his career as an engineer in large industrial companies in the South, has often observed that breaking down corporate barriers was easier for women than for blacks because white male executives could see their daughters in female employees. That daddy factor seems to have helped Barra, the daughter of a GM die-maker. In fact, Akerson described announcing her promotion to CEO as “almost like watching your daughter graduate from college.”

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2) The Crisis Factor: A disconcerting number of the women promoted to head large public companies get the job only when the companies are struggling. Think of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard Co. or Marissa Mayer and Carol Bartz at Yahoo Inc. Barra’s appointment comes a day after the U.S. Treasury sold its remaining stock in the company, but even with that divestiture, GM remains “Government Motors” to many Americans – a loser company and symbol of crony capitalism. The company faces plenty of challenges abroad as well. Just last week it said it would stop selling Chevrolets in Europe, where its money-losing Opel and Vauxhall brands do better. As a GM lifer, Barra understands the company’s often-dysfunctional bureaucracy, but that doesn’t mean she can – or will – change it. “Good luck to her; it’s an unenviable job,” said a commenter on the auto enthusiast website Truth About Cars.

3) The “Car Gal” Factor: Back in September, Akerson made news by telling a women’s leadership conference, “the Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys. Someday, there will be a Detroit Three that’s run by a car gal. I actually believe that.”

Barra’s appointment fulfills his prophecy. And it’s important that Akerson, a former telecom executive, wasn’t just talking about gender. He was predicting the return to industry leadership of someone steeped in car culture. Barra may be more customer-focused and low-key than the stereotypical car guys of the past, but she’s also an engineer who loves automobiles and most recently headed product development. As a prominent female CEO, she’ll attract attention no man would garner, allowing her to make the case for cars in a media culture more likely to celebrate bicycles and mass transit or to report that Americans are falling out of love with the automobile. Barra’s appointment came just two days after thousands of fans thronged to the memorial for Fast & Furious star Paul Walker, who was killed in an auto accident Nov. 30. The movie franchise’s phenomenal global success – its most recent installment grossed more than $788 million worldwide – is a reminder that, despite the naysayers, the car culture remains powerfully alluring.

Virginia Postrel is a columnist for Bloomberg View, a division of The Washington Post-Bloomberg News Service.  

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