On the same day General Motors announced that it had chosen a woman to lead the company, fresh research showed the automaker’s new chief executive is still the exception rather than the rule.
Catalyst — a nonprofit research organization that studies women in leadership roles — released a report Tuesday that found women hold less than 15 percent of senior positions among the Fortune 500, a number that hasn’t significantly changed over the past four years.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer at Catalyst. “The advancement of women really isn’t hard; it just requires intentional focus and leadership.”
That reality may have been masked by a few big names who have recently ascended to top jobs in traditionally male-dominated industries.
Some of the tech industry’s biggest names are women — Ginni Rometty of IBM, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and Ursula Burns of Xerox. Three of the country’s largest defense contractors have women at the helm as well.
Add to that list Mary Barra, who will become the first woman to lead GM — or any major automaker, for that matter.
The auto industry has been unlocking slightly more doors to women over the past decade. In 2002, 11 percent of corporate officers in the industry were women, according to Catalyst research. Today, they make up 16 percent.
GM, in particular, is notable for having higher percentages of women in leadership than the average Fortune 500 company. A quarter of its corporate officers are women, even though women make up nearly 21 percent of overall workers in the auto industry, according to Catalyst.
Barra, who started as a factory intern and currently serves as executive vice president of product development, has spent her career at GM. Like IBM’s Rometty and Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson, Barra climbed the ladder within the same organization for three decades before becoming chief executive. In fact, more than one-third of the 23 female chief executives who will now lead Fortune 500 companies have done the same. Finding top male chief executives who are company “lifers” is far less common.
“Men are promoted based on potential,” Gillis said. “Women are promoted based on performance.” Because of this, Catalyst found, women actually tend to make more money by staying with the same employer than by switching jobs — while the opposite is true for men. Women who spend their careers at one company build relationships and credibility over time, Gillis said. And for some, as in the case of Barra, it can take 33 years to break up an organization’s old boy’s club and prove fit for its top job, Gillis added.
According to David Ulrich, an human resources expert and a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Barra’s appointment may signal the automaker’s willingness to change its organizational culture and its confidence in the talent and strategy it has in place. That may be important given that the company is only now emerging from its federal bailout. “It’s a symbol of opportunity as well as a signal of comfort,” Ulrich said.
One role Barra isn’t taking over, however, is that of chairman of the board. Though Dan Akerson currently serves as GM’s chief executive and chairman, those positions will be split. So Barra, though gaining a seat on the board, won’t lead it.
Catalyst’s new report, as it happens, could have predicted that. As with senior leadership roles, board seats have remained flat for women — with female directors making up less than 17 percent of Fortune 500 board members this year.
So does Barra’s appointment signal any real advances for women at the top?
“That’s something to celebrate,” Gillis said. “But frankly, we’ll really celebrate when we’re not counting the first woman in various industries.”