Pioneers reflect on the meaning of Barra's promotion

Jamie LaReau is a reporter for Automotive News.Jamie LaReau is a reporter for Automotive News.
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In 1975, Maureen Kempston Darkes was the only woman executive in the General Motors’ executive dining room. Her peers were all men.

“That was not a pleasant feeling,” Kempston Darkes said today. “There were times you wanted to shake your head and say, ‘What am I doing in this industry?’”

But Kempston Darkes persevered.

She retired as GM’s highest ranking female executive in 2009. At the time, she was group vice president of GM and president of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East division.

Today’s news that GM had named Mary Barra as its new CEO, effective Jan. 15, thrilled Kempston Darkes. Barra will replace retiring CEO Dan Akerson, making her the first female CEO of an automaker in the global automotive industry.

‘Moment of pride’

“It is a huge moment of pride for me,” Kempston Darkes told me this morning.

Many industry leaders who know Barra say she has earned the job. But I give GM credit for naming her to the role and not recruiting from outside the company.

Barra has been active in pro-business women’s groups for years. She served on the Inforum Center for Leadership Board of Directors in 2010-12. Inforum is a business association focused on accelerating women’s careers. Inforum leaders said the news of Barra’s promotion is indicative of a new world ahead.

“Today will forever change how the industry and, the tremendous opportunities it offers, are viewed by the world,” said Terry Barclay, CEO of Inforum in Detroit. “It really sends a strong message to future talent that it’s a brand new day in the industry.”

I could not agree more.

Paving the way

I knew Kempston Darkes and other GM female executives when I covered the company from 2005 through 2009. Through those relationships, I learned how these women helped pave the way for women of my generation to enter the workforce. And my struggles in a male-dominated industry were nothing compared to the road they traveled.

“I wouldn’t tell you for a moment it’s been easy, because it hasn’t,” said Kempston Darkes.

Consider former GM executive Lori Queen. She spent 34 years at GM, breaking down barriers for women. She was GM’s vehicle line executive for small and mid-sized trucks when she retired in 2009.

Queen once recalled a time early in her career when her managers mandated that she call a security guard to escort her each time she needed to use the bathroom. That was because the route to the restrooms required her to walk past several male employees.

‘Awesome move’

Queen said she never imagined a day when a woman would be running the company.

“It’s an awesome move for women in the industry, for Mary and for GM,” Queen wrote in an email.

Many other female peers and friends reacted in shock and awe to the Barra news, never having believed a woman would run GM one day.

“With 30 years in the auto industry, including much of it covering General Motors, I never thought I’d see in my career lifetime a woman head an auto company, much less General Motors,” Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com in suburban Detroit, said in an email response to a query.

Glass ceiling

Connie Hogan, former Director of the GM Foundation, added, “For those of us who came along in the 1980s and 1990s, we have certainly seen much progress in ‘cracking the glass ceiling.’ And as someone who was hired as the first female intern on the GM finance staff when I was still at Notre Dame, well, you can imagine how it makes me feel to see how far women have advanced in the automotive industry.”

Had someone asked Kempston Darkes in 1975 about the possibility of a woman running GM, she said she would have replied, “It’s never going to happen.”

But, she added, “Isn’t it great to see the industry progress?”

Yes, but it also feels like it’s overdue. After all, statistics show that women make or influence nearly 80 percent of all vehicle purchase decisions.

Since we largely support the industry, it seems only logical that we also help run it.

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter

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