General Motors' Mary Barra part of new breed of woman tech executives

GM's new CEO indicative of new breed of female executives with technology backgrounds who are turning business world upside down

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 5:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 12:47pm

Mary Barra, who has been named the new CEO of General Motors, is the latest of a new breed of woman executives to reach the top corporate ranks with a background in science, technology, engineering or maths.

Trained as an engineer, Barra, 51, joins about 20 women, a third with science backgrounds, who now run US companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index. Among these women are Ursula Burns at Xerox, Virginia Rometty at IBM and Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo.

A decade ago, women of all backgrounds were CEOs of only nine companies in the index.

"It's not too late to buy your daughter a truck for the holidays," said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied chief executive officers. "It's going to inspire and motivate women and girls. Many of them have been steered away from engineering and science."

Such woman have an advantage at a time when technology is driving so many companies, says Xerox CEO Burns, who studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate.

"Problem solving, discipline, turning complexity into simplicity, managing by fact, valuing contributions from others - all these are attributes of successful engineers and, I believe, successful leaders," Burns says.

IBM's Rometty has a degree in mechanical engineering and computer science. PepsiCo's Nooyi has a chemistry degree. DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman studied mechanical engineering. Yahoo's Marissa Mayer is a computer science graduate, and Sherilyn McCoy, CEO of Avon Products, studied textile chemistry in college and earned an MS in chemical engineering. Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson joined the defence contractor in 1983 as a industrial engineer.

The rise of executives in the corner office with science and technology backgrounds echoes recent gains for women in those fields. The US Census Bureau says women made up 26 per cent of science, technology, engineering and maths jobs in 2011. They have the biggest representation in maths, responsible for about half of all workers, up from 15 per cent in 1970. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 31 per cent of graduates are women, as are 45 per cent of undergraduates.

"There's some kind of tipping point that's happening," says Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and a board member at Microsoft and Broadcom.

"When you start to have a bunch of these happening, all of the sudden it starts to make organisations think they could do this too. There have been waves. Now the auto industry cracked, the defence industry cracked, and with IBM, the tech industry has been cracked."

Barra began with GM in 1980 as a student at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, in the state of Michigan. With a scholarship from GM, she later got an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

"This is an incredible breakthrough, and Barra is the real deal," says Jeff Sonnenfeld, of the Yale School of Management. "We have an unprecedented pattern of mainstream women engineers getting top jobs. They are driving up through a male-dominated hierarchy to achieve."

Barra was promoted to head of product development in early 2011, less than six months after Akerson became CEO. She is responsible for the design and quality of all GM cars and trucks.

"I wasn't sure I would ever see this, a woman heading this large, iconic US company, which has a rather masculine image and has engineering in its DNA," says Barbara Hackman Franklin, who led the first White House effort to recruit women for high-level jobs in 1971.

Meanwhile, more women are rising through the ranks to senior executive spots. The number of women serving as chief financial officer increased by 35 per cent, to 54, at big US companies in the past year.

The CFO job was a stepping stone to the corner office for some current CEOs, including Gannett's Gracia Martore and PepsiCo's Nooyi.

At Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg holds the No 2 spot as chief operating officer. At Intel, Renee James was named president and No 2 to the CEO earlier this year. As General Electric's chief marketing officer, Beth Comstock is one of the top executives at the world's largest maker of jet engines, and Rosalind Brewer is executive vice-president of Wal-Mart Stores and president of Sam's Club.

Clara Shih, who joined the board of Starbucks at the end of 2011, is an example of a growing group of women entrepreneurs working their way up the ranks.

Shih, with a computer science and economics degree from Stanford University, is a protégéof Facebook's Sandberg and the co-founder of social media company Hearsay Social, which lets banks and insurers make sales through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Another example is Selina Lo, a computer science major from the University of California at Berkeley who founded and runs Ruckus Wireless, which filed a US$100 million initial public offering last year. Jayshree Ullal, hired from Cisco Systems in 2008, is president and CEO of Arista Networks, which offers cloud-networking services.