A historic rise, but barriers to women remain
Experts cite need for mentors, 'line' jobs
Hasenfratz: Barra may inspire others.
Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of powertrain parts supplier Linamar Corp. since 2002, knows firsthand what challenges Mary Barra will face as a female CEO at General Motors, and how to handle them.
Doubters "may have a preconception when you walk into the room," Hasenfratz, 47, says. "If you don't make it an issue, it goes away. I ignore what anyone is thinking. I don't really care. I know what I'm capable of, and we're here to do some business, so let's do it."
Barra, she adds, should have no problem. "She's come this far, so I'm sure she is capable of handling anything," Hasenfratz says.
Barra, 51, will be the first woman to run a global automaker and the 23rd woman heading a Fortune 500 company.
While Barra's appointment is historic, it does not necessarily mean women no longer face barriers, female executives at automotive companies say. For women to get a firm foothold in the industry's top executive ranks, they say, three things are needed:
1. More emphasis on encouraging girls to consider technical or engineering education.
2. Access to mentors once hired.
3. A chance to do jobs that impact the company's bottom line.
Barra started at GM in 1980 at age 18 as a plant engineer. A former colleague describes her as "pleasant, but tough." Barra also has had many mentors in her career, including former GM CEO Rick Wagoner, say two former GM executives who knew Barra for many years.
"It makes a huge difference for anyone to get the right opportunities," says one of those former executives, who declined to be named. "You have to be good, but you have to have the right exposure and assignments."
The former executive says GM is doing better at hiring women than it was a decade ago, "but as you can see from Mary's background, 30-plus years, it isn't going to happen overnight."
"Without someone powerful" as a mentor, the former executive says, "we are so outnumbered in the high-level management ranks, it will be tough for another decade."
Over the years, GM has had on-again, off-again formal and informal mentoring programs, the former executive says.
Linamar has an informal program in which managers select and coach people with talent, Hasenfratz says. Hasenfratz had many mentors at Linamar, she says, including her father, who started the company.
Stevens: "Line experiences"
But to be considered for CEO, women not only need a mentor, they must have "line experiences" or key jobs in manufacturing, sales, engineering and other areas that directly impact the company's bottom line, says Anne Stevens, former Ford Motor Co. COO of the Americas.
Other industries, such as aerospace and technology, have advanced women into key line positions faster than the auto industry has, says Stevens, 65, who left Ford in 2006. She is CEO of SA IT Services, an Atlanta information-technology services company.
Stevens does not expect other automotive and major industrial companies to rush to follow GM's lead.
"It's a matter of the pipeline being filled enough with women who could be considered for the position," she says. "For a while, women were advancing within the auto companies. Recently, I haven't seen as much progress."
Retired GM executive Maureen Kempston Darkes disagrees.
"It's been a gradual process bringing women in and rising up the ranks, but now you're seeing more today," says Kempston Darkes, GM's president of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East when she retired in 2009.
Hasenfratz encourages women to consider careers in the auto industry by exposing them to it at a young age. Linamar sponsors dinners for high school girls and summer camps at which seventh- and eighth-grade girls learn about careers in the skilled trades, science and technology.
"If we all get involved in that, we'll make big progress," she says.
Hasenfratz adds: "The appointment of Mary as CEO of GM will be very inspirational for women who are wondering, 'What do I want to do? I really like math and science. Hey, maybe I'll look at engineering. A woman engineer just got appointed to CEO of GM.'"
But Hasenfratz says that when a woman becomes CEO, gender issues recede in importance. "I don't think it's more challenging or less challenging to be a woman," she says. "It's a challenging job to lead a company, develop a vision and execute on that, period."
Sherri Welch of Crain's Detroit Business contributed to this report.
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