Ford (TANNEN MAURY / Bloomberg News)
Dan Akerson recently said at an industry conference, “Someday, there’ll be a Detroit Three [automaker] that’s run by a car gal.”
And while the number of women capable of becoming chief executive of a U.S. automaker has been growing steadily over the last several years, the remark by the current CEO of General Motors brought the question front and center: Which “car gal,” and when?
The answer depends on a number of factors, including the historically male domination of management in the car industry, the continuing focus of the business on engineering and finance, how robust the ranks of female executives really are, the readiness of current male heirs apparent to assume the helm of each company, how extensively the auto business continues to evolve into an information-technology business — and who, exactly, is picking the next generation of CEOs.
“There is no real hindrance today for a woman to become a CEO of a Big Three company, just as seen in many large companies,” said David Cole, former head of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, and a long-time student of the upper echelon of industry management as the son of 1960s GM President Ed Cole. “But in an industry with the complexity of autos, there just are not many women in the queue.”’
Taking all that into account, the most likely first female CEO of an auto company is Mary Barra, GM’s chief product development officer. A 33-year veteran of the company, she has risen through engineering and run an assembly plant as well as served as head of human resources. Some knowledgeable sources at GM say that Akerson actually would like to see her succeed him. Barra already was the 35th most-powerful woman in the world this year, up from No. 41 in 2012, in a ranking by Forbes magazine.
Or the first CEO of a Big Three automaker could be Barb Samardzich. The 23-year Ford hand was vice president of powertrain engineering when she left for Ford of Europe in 2011, and she was just promoted to chief operating officer there. Samardzich is considered a shoo-in to become CEO of that crucial part of Ford, giving her the kind of prominent global experience that can be a crucial advantage for a car industry chief.
The general glass ceiling to the CEO job in top American corporations was broken long ago by pioneers such as Katharine Graham, an heir who became head of the Washington Post Co. in 1972, and Meg Whitman, who helped build eBay into an Internet giant before running for governor of California three years ago. Now about 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women.
But that ceiling is much thicker in the auto industry than in many others. There may have been a time when the barrier seemed unbreachable as the result of overt or implicit sexism, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. The fact that a “car gal” hasn’t yet ascended to the top stems from other systemic factors that nonetheless underscore the difference between the auto business and others —and could still keep Barra, Samardzich and other internal female candidates out of CEO jobs indefinitely.
The biggest hindrance remains how long it has taken for leadership styles in the auto industry to change in general from hierarchical, the traditional male-run construct, to collaborative, where women generally perform better. Plus, Ford hasn’t pushed as hard as GM for a diverse upper echelon.
Chrysler’s macho culture isn’t seen as harboring a particular woman who could succeed CEO Sergio Marchionne, And there don’t appear to be prospects anytime soon for a female CEO — even heading just U.S. operations — at any of the Japanese, Korean or German-owned brands operating in America. Some in the industry predict a Chinese automaker will be the first run by a woman.
The second obstacle is the relatively meager supply of creditable female executives in the top-management pipeline, compared with men. Engineering, manufacturing and finance remain the three most important backgrounds to suggest overall leadership potential in the industry, and those are “paths that just haven’t been historically taken by women,” said Aleksandra Miziolek, director of the auto industry group at Dykema Gossett, the big Detroit law firm. And arguably, none of the candidate women have a background as well-rounded as the top men.
Third, many capable female executives and managers were lost to Detroit in the great shakeout of 2009. Meanwhile, carmakers remain as vulnerable as other companies to the greater tendency of women to leave the workforce for family or other personal reasons.
Fourth, the men who are the next presumed CEOs of Ford and GM won’t be eager to fall victim to business history. At Ford, Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields is CEO Alan Mulally’s choice to succeed him, and it’ll likely be within a year or so. Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, is widely presumed to be the top contender to succeed Akerson, who is 64 years old and is expected to retire in a couple of years. Reuss actually vied to take over as CEO when Ed Whitacre retired in 2010. Vice Chairman Stephen Girsky and Chief Financial Officer Daniel Ammann also are in the mix at GM.
Yet another possibility facing the women now muscling up the ladders at Ford and GM is that an outsider could leapfrog them, and all the other obstacles, to become the auto industry’s first female chief. After all, Mulally remains a persistently rumored candidate to take over as CEO of Microsoft as the digital-era pioneer struggles to compete with Apple in the new age. If he could take his manufacturing background and attempt to transform the sclerotic brainchild of Bill Gates just as Mulally overhauled the faltering Blue Oval, maybe the first woman to run one of the Big Three could parachute in from outside as well.
Certainly the car business has become highly digital. Perhaps a woman with a strong IT background could come in and run GM or Ford. IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, for example, began her career at the General Motors Institute. Maybe she’ll return someday.
But Cole discounted that possibility, pointing to Akerson’s performance as Exhibit No. 1. The former telecom and private-equity chief’s lack of deep auto industry background has hurt him in running GM, Cole argued. And anyone else — female or male — coming in from outside to run one of the Big Three could be similarly handicapped. The GM board itself lacks the depth of industry experience that many would prefer.
In the meantime, many are working to advance the possibilities that a woman someday could run GM, Ford or Chrysler. Programs to boost girls and young women in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math —disciplines, for instance, are considered key.
“There should be,” Miziolek said, “somebody in the next generation coming up.”
Women to watch
Here are 10 of the women at General Motors and Ford with the best chances of becoming CEO:
Mary Barra: Product development chief for GM, considered one of four feasible successors to current CEO Dan Akerson.
Alicia Boler-Davis: Fast-rising overseer of recent GM quality improvements. Highest-ranking female minority executive at company.
Lucy Clark Dougherty: GM’s vice president and general counsel also has vast federal government experience.
Elena Ford: Scion recently promoted to highest-ever position for Ford female. Now in charge of important dealer-relations arena.
N. Joy Falotico: Executive vice president of marketing and sales for Ford Motor Credit.
Nancy Gioia: Heads Ford’s au courant global electrification program and has strong engineering background.
Melissa Howell: Recently named head of global human resources, a 23-year GM vet. But has no experience outside HR and labor relations.
Grace Lieblein: GM’s new vice president of global purchasing and supply chain.
Barb Samardzich: New COO of Ford of Europe, heir apparent to become European CEO.
Diana Tremblay: Vice president of global business services for GM and formerly head of North American manufacturing.