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Why So Many Top “Car Guys” are Actually Women

Why So Many Top “Car Guys” are Actually Women

by Dan Akerson
Chairman and CEO, General Motors Company

Dan Akerson at General Motors headquarters in Detroit, Michigan Tuesday, August 31, 2010. Akerson takes over as CEO of General Motors Company on Wednesday, September 1, 2010, replacing current CEO Ed Whitacre, who is stepping down. (Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors)
General Motors Vice President Global Quality and U.S. Customer Experiences Alicia Boler-Davis Thursday, July 12, 2012 at the GM Global Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors)

One of the most satisfying aspects of working in the American auto industry today is to see the way all three Michigan-based companies are turning out hit products, generating strong profits and putting thousands of people back to work. It’s something that we in Detroit always knew was possible, and it’s something the rest of America can be rightly proud of.

We have certainly come a long way. It wasn’t too long ago that President Obama wondered out loud, “Why can’t Detroit make a Corolla?” Well, GM, Ford and Chrysler each responded by making something even better. Chevrolet has the Cruze, Ford has the Focus and Dodge has the Dart. They are all fine vehicles, and hometown cheerleading aside, they are among the very best cars you can buy from anyone anywhere.

Now we need to be equally forceful in addressing another increasingly outmoded perception about the car business: that it’s a hidebound industry where women struggle to succeed.

GM alone employs 33,560 women globally and we are one of the largest employers of women engineers in the world.

Indeed, many top “car guys” at GM are actually women, including the very talented leaders of our global product development organization (Mary Barra), our global quality and customer experience team (Alicia Boler – Davis), our global purchasing organization (Grace Lieblein) and many more functions that are critical to our success.

The formula for having women assume leadership roles at GM is simple: first, attract highly-motivated, highly-qualified women.

In our case, this generally means those who are well-educated in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math. (The United States actually faces a shortage of men and women with such backgrounds, which is why GM has dedicated millions of dollars in scholarships to help boost STEM graduates with an emphasis on female students).

Next, give them challenging work, reward success equitably and promote for future potential. If you get this equation right, women will naturally rise to leadership positions.

In advancing people, I’ve tried to follow a piece of advice that my friend, retired IBM CEO Lou Gerstner, Jr., gave me early in my tenure at GM. He advised me to identify optimists with experience and a competitive streak and promote them, and it’s worked out pretty well for everybody – men and women alike.

When you consider the aggressive growth plans our European and Asian competitors have announced, we’d be crazy not to do everything we can to put the strongest team we can muster on the field. This brings me back to the perception gap we must attack.

If auto companies want to win the global war for talent – and that’s certainly our objective at GM – we have to convince the best and brightest people everywhere in the world that our companies offer the best opportunities for professional advancement.

This puts a premium on diversity and inclusiveness in every aspect, and the success of so many women at GM (and at other automotive companies) proves you can rise to the top of any discipline, from design and engineering to finance and purchasing, within the auto industry.

Research also shows that women make more and more of the car buying decisions these days. They are a critical component of our customer base, and so it only makes good sense that they should take a leading role in design, building and selling the world’s best vehicles.

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