– Women in a Man’s World

May 7, 2012

For the past few decades, women have made far more advances in the business world. More and more, you will see a number of large corporations with women in high positions of power.

We recently found an interesting article posted in the Wall Street Journal about impact of women in the workforce, particularly those that are in industries that are typically deemed “male-dominated industries”, with an interview with General Motors Co.’s Chairman and CEO, Daniel F. Akerson.  The author of the article, Alan Murray, discusses with the head of GM about the contributions made by women directors, executives, managers and engineers in the reinventing of the automotive giant.

Here are some excerpts of their interview posted in the article.  You can also click here to read the full article on

ALAN MURRAY: Detroit, the auto industry, is probably one of the most male-dominated industries that you can imagine. You’ve made a concerted effort, as an outsider, to promote and bring in more women. Why?

DAN AKERSON: I don’t know if it was so much conscious as recognition of talent. You are somewhat a captive of your past. And I grew up in a home where my mom was really something. She had more of an impact on me than my dad, who I loved dearly. My mom was a real ambitious, talented, risk-oriented woman. She started working, when I was 11, outside the home. Started as a cashier at a Piggly Wiggly for 65 cents an hour, and she ended up being the assistant store manager. Had she not been a woman—and I don’t mean that in a bad way—she should have been the manager. The manager would even say that.

So, to me it’s not so much gender-based, it’s just capability. Four of 12 of our directors are women. Mary Barra [senior vice president, global product development] is one of the most gifted executives I’ve ever met. She was running HR but had come up through manufacturing and engineering. Ran plants. In a tradition-bound company like General Motors, the HR person was viewed as kind of the person behind the throne who would whisper and make the princes of the organization, which I just didn’t like. So now she’s the head of all product development globally.

MR. MURRAY: And that is sort of the ultimate car-guy job, right?

MR. AKERSON: Car gal.

MR. MURRAY: She must be the first car gal, right? I mean it’s sort of a job that’s infested with testosterone.

MR. AKERSON: Yeah, there’s a lot of that in Detroit. I would say that Mary is as good at seeing through the bureaucracy and the process and what’s important and what’s not. She works incredibly well with people.

MR. MURRAY: You got some criticism for that appointment.

MR. AKERSON: Yeah. I was surprised, quite frankly. I mean, because I wasn’t a car guy. But I almost think that being a car guy right now isn’t the best thing, because the car guys drove it over the edge.

When you think about it, [top women at GM now include] one of our executives that runs Chevrolet Europe; our third-biggest market, Brazil; the head of global manufacturing; the head of HR. I didn’t want women in traditional jobs that women are slotted in.

MR. MURRAY: Non-operating jobs.

MR. AKERSON: Yeah. Some of our biggest plants are run by women; 20% of our technical staff are women. We seek women with engineering degrees, because this is a complex and technically based company. So you have to start at the ground. And GM did that. They were a leader. For me it’s a great gift because you’re able to reap the benefits of so much investment.


MR. MURRAY: You said that we should have mentioned Mary Barra in our Wall Street Journal story about women who are headed for CEO jobs. Is she going to be the next CEO of General Motors?

MR. AKERSON: I don’t know. She is a candidate. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were. I think there are a number of qualified candidates.

MR. MURRAY: As you said, four of your 12 directors are women. Does that affect the culture for women within the organization?



MR. AKERSON: You always want to see people like you that are doing well, that you can see that have a shot at the top. And that goes along on gender lines and racial and ethnic lines.

MR. MURRAY: Do they put pressure on you to advance women?

MR. AKERSON: No. They don’t put pressure on me. I don’t know if I put pressure on myself. But we do talent reviews now. I try to review the top 50 executives over a two-day period. And we talk about—well, what if Mary quit or something happened, who would be his or her replacement? What are we doing to make sure we have a good pool?

MR. MURRAY: How many of the top 50 are women?

MR. AKERSON: Close to between 20% and 25%.


MR. MURRAY: You came in to the company three years ago, right after it came out of bankruptcy. With all the things GM had to worry about to just survive, how and why is it that you made this a priority?

MR. AKERSON: I wouldn’t say I made it a priority. It was, just to parse words, a “B” priority. “A” priority was to get the company under control. The company had to be reborn. And now we’re trying to reform a good company into a great company.

As a leader you have to articulate a vision of where you want to take the company. And—maybe this is a bias, I know I will be criticized for this—I think women have a higher emotional quotient and they deal with change, radical change. We had to change. We had to kind of craft a new governance model and dictate the cadence of how often we met to make sure we were looking at the right issues.

MR. MURRAY: If you look at the culture of the company and the culture of Detroit that you walked into, and you think about where you want the culture to be, on a scale from zero to 100, where are you now? Are you more than halfway there?

MR. AKERSON: No. We’re 20, 25. We have a long, long way to go, I think.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m curious if you have a business rationale for why you think gender diversity is important.

MR. AKERSON: Well, who are our customers? Women in our society control or influence 80% of the purchase decisions. I don’t know if that one’s true, but I’m real confident 60% of the purchase decisions on cars, automotives, are done by women.

So I think your employee base and your perspective should be somewhat if not precisely representative of your customer base. We want diversity—not only gender, but race and ethnicity—on the board as well, too.

This is a great article showing some of the changes and movement going on in the workplace with respect to how many companies are viewing the abilities and capabilities of women doing jobs previously only done by men.  It’s also key to know who your consumers are and who the decision-makers are.  Knowing that women may make up more than 50% of your potential consumers is important and knowing how having female executives in place to make different decisions for your company may be the difference between a successful versus an unsuccessful company.

This post is brought to you by the good folks at Dale Carnegie Training of Central & Southern New Jersey, leaders in the area of education and training of the nation’s leaders in the areas of team member engagement, customer service, leadership development, and sales and presentation training. We would love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter.


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