The Real Significance of Mary Barra

The numbers of female CEOs are still bad, but the corporate culture has changed

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Mike Cassese / Reuters

Mary Barra speaks during the final press preview day for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, January 10, 2012.

“At least we don’t have office parties in strip clubs any more,” mused a college friend of mine over a recent end-of-year lunch. She entered a bank training program in the 1980s; we were chatting about the progress women have made in the financial sector. Back then, she said, female bankers or traders could expect – regularly –  to fend off sexual harassment and  inappropriate comments from male colleagues. Now, she reflected, much of the animal-house culture has dissipated.

A couple of days later, my friend emailed me: “Well, now we have a female CEO of General Motors!”–a reference, of course, to Mary Barra, recently chosen as the first woman to head an American car company.

(MORE: It’s a Man’s World, and It Always Will Be)

It was an exciting announcement, and yet even with Barra’s appointment came reminders that women should not be too heartened. Around the time of the GM announcement, Catalyst released a survey showing that the percentage of women in executive and board positions at Fortune 500 companies has not changed in nearly a decade.

The cautionary notes and context are all warranted, but I’d argue that Barra’s appointment is important; and that it’s not as anomalous as it’s being made to sound.

And it’s not just about Barra – there’s reason, despite the dire statistics on women’s c-suite participation, to be optimistic about our egalitarian trajectory.  This, my college friend and I agreed, has been a year with some significant victories for women.  And increasingly, what’s important is not to decry women’s lack of progress, but to painstakingly examine why women are succeeding in some realms more than in others.

(MORESorry, Camille Paglia: Feminism Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Men)

Let’s start with Mary Barra. Her appointment can be interpreted as Detroit waking up to the facts: The American car industry is an expression of women’s lives much more than it’s an outlet for any kind of rugged, testosterone-fueled, drag-racing, off-roading, high-octane masculine ethos. For all of the male mystique surrounding America’s car culture, the fact is that more women have drivers’ licenses than men: a NBC Universal Poll several years ago found that women purchase 60 percent of all new cars and influence 85 percent of all car purchases. Steve McQueen has ceded the road to Thelma and Louise – or rather, to the harried working mother. We like to think of the American automobile as an iconic symbol of our love for speed and freedom. In reality, it’s a means of schlepping kids on errands, commuting, and transporting groceries and soccer equipment while leading work conference calls on your hands-free cellular device. In that sense, the question is not why GM appointed a woman but why other companies have not: the American woman is the face of the modern American car industry.

Barra joins a group of women executives that—whatever the studies show—intuitively feels increasingly substantial and high-profile. Women now head three of the six major defense contractors. We have Meg Whitman in charge at Hewlett-Packard; Virginia Rometty at IBM and Ursula Burns at Xerox. Janet Yellen’s nomination this year as chair of the Federal Reserve was a watershed. With Christine Lagarde at the helm of the IMF, women are now in charge of global finance, driving and regulating the very culture my classmate and others once found so hostile.

There are other positive signs, some of which have been insufficiently heralded. Nancy Gibbs became the first female editor of Time Magazine, America’s iconic newsweekly.  Jill Abramson’s historic appointment as executive editor of the The New York Times occurred in 2011, but more recently a quieter but in some ways equally important first was accomplished: The New York Times’ masthead achieved gender parity. Of the top ten names in that small-type testament to big-league journalistic power, five are female. Having women assign news stories makes a difference in so many ways: The past year also saw that newspaper’s reporter Jodi Kantor writing on Harvard Business School’s efforts to make its culture more friendly to female students, and, more recently, co-authoring a front-page article on the striking rise in the number of women bankers with stay-at-home husbands. That these trends are reported on the newspaper of record’s front page, along with NSA surveillance and Barack Obama’s approval ratings, shows that women’s leadership and treatment in the workplace is no longer a niche or marginalized topic. Oh, and let it not be forgotten that 2013 saw the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which immediately took its place on the best-seller list.

All of which makes it even more striking – and shameful – that Twitter, the tech world’s latest favorite IPO, couldn’t manage to find a single woman for its board of directors—until public outcry forced it to grudgingly appoint one, count them: one. While women like Barra have been assiduously working their way up the management hierarchies of some of our manufacturing giants, the younger, newer companies of Silicon Valley–led by boy-men with huge, early wealth–have managed to exclude women in a way that suggests the need for eternal vigilance. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer get a lot of deserved attention, but don’t let that fool you into thinking techland is a nirvana of gender equality.

Back in more Old School realms, more women than ever leaned in as U.S. Senators in 2013, with an unprecedented nine women leading committees, including the mighty Budget and the equally powerful Appropriations.  As New America fellow Alexandra Starr has pointed out, women’s path to political leadership is changing. Once, women got their start in politics through volunteer and community-service positions, or as daughters and spouses and widows of male politicians. But now their path to leadership more closely resembles men’s – they may work as high-profile prosecutors, or be mentored by powerful politicians.

The past year also saw the anniversaries of some major pieces of federal legislation protecting women workers– the twentieth anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act , and the 75th Anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act. (Thanks to Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families for pointing that out to me.) For all of those pieces of legislation, women workers should be grateful. And, on a personal note, I should add that 2013 was the year I acquired my first female top boss in more than 20 years, when Anne-Marie Slaughter became the president of the New America Foundation. We did not hold the party in a strip club.

MOREReal Woman (and Men) Might Just Get Paid Family Leave. Finally.