Nick Bunkley
Nick Bunkley
Staff Reporter - Enterprise

The disappearing GM gender pay gap that wasn't

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In a shocking surprise to no one who was actually aware of the facts, General Motors did not really cut CEO Mary Barra's pay when it promoted her to CEO.

Nor is GM paying Barra significantly less than her male predecessor, as some media outlets recklessly claimed. In fact, Barra stands to make significantly more money than Dan Akerson did as chairman and CEO, GM revealed this week.

Barra, who earned $4.9 million last year as GM's head of product development, could make as much as $14.4 million this year, including $10 million in long-term incentives that had not been previously disclosed.

GM originally said it would divulge Barra's full compensation in April but instead did so this week "to correct misperceptions created by comparisons that used only a portion of Barra's overall compensation."

The misperceptions were mostly generated by two misleading stories from Fox Business, and a post by the liberal Web site ThinkProgress. As a result, criticism started raining down on GM from Republicans and Democrats alike, threatening to overshadow the positive publicity that it had been getting for putting a woman in the top job for the first time.

It also put GM in the odd position of trying to prove that it's being generous enough toward its CEO, the opposite of the complaints most companies hear from shareholders and employees.

Nearly a month ago, when GM first revealed a portion of Barra's pay in a regulatory filing, I pointed out that it was, in fact, only a portion of her total compensation, which I said would "almost certainly" be at least $10 million, putting her ahead of the roughly $9 million Akerson pulled down last year. CNN and Yahoo Autos later wrote similar pieces calling the criticism of GM premature, after Fox used Barra as a means to criticize President Obama, who mentioned her in his State of the Union speech.

"The White House's Misstep on GM's Pay Gap" blared the Feb. 3 headline on FoxBusiness.com. A week later, the same writer suggested that Barra had "broken through the glass ceiling, only to find herself in an iron cage."

(For the record, my criticism of Fox on this issue is not politically related but rather because bad journalism hurts the credibility of all journalists, just as shady auto dealers help damage the reputation of upstanding ones.)

The argument that Barra was getting paid less than Akerson based on incomplete data was as illogical as it would have been for the Ford family to give the coach of the Detroit Lions a contract extension halfway through last season, when the team was in first place. As it turned out, the critics of Barra's pay were only looking at 31 percent of her total compensation, and the Lions -- who suddenly remembered that they are the Lions -- lost six more games, missed the playoffs entirely and fired the coach.

GM should have put out all of the details on Barra's pay at once to avoid letting anyone make a controversy out of nothing. But that doesn't excuse the flood of half-baked stories, including a scolding from that bastion of American intellectualism, Cosmopolitan. Facebook and Twitter were filled with shame-on-GM posts from people appalled that the company would treat such a groundbreaking woman so shabbily.

We were probably hours away from a Kickstarter campaign to keep Barra's family from being homeless when GM finally stepped in Monday to reveal that tiny little missing detail: an extra $10 million.

As the final numbers reveal, the uproar was -- to borrow the word used by Cosmo, which at the end of its story recommended I read about "14 incredibly easy ways to smell great all the time" -- embarrassing.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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