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."