Time to end wastage of valuable human resource - women

Mary Barra's rise to CEO of General Motors is proof women can muscle in on male bastions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 5:28am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 5:28am

It is hard to exaggerate the significance of Mary Barra's appointment as chief executive of General Motors, the first woman to head a major automotive corporation. This industry is notoriously male dominated and senior female executives are even rarer than the two-stroke engines that once powered cars.

I spent much of my earlier career reporting on the auto industry and not once did I see a female executive in any operation on the three continents that I visited. Things must have changed because the whole atmosphere of the auto business was heavily macho. It was, for example, usual to see pornographic pictures of women adorning the production lines and up in the corporate offices women were mainly deployed serving drinks or working as secretaries.

In my naivety I once asked a German auto executive why his company did not have any female executives. He smirked and gave a reply best not repeated here. When I persisted he donned a serious look and came out with a string of reasons that even back then sounded hollow; things like: women wouldn't fit in and that old canard about women having "special problems". This kind of talk was widespread in those days.

So this is the background that Barra came from yet she managed to rise to the top. She does not, apparently, like to dwell on the obstacles but is content to focus on her 33-year track record in the industry. She could also add that she comes from an auto family and holds electrical engineering qualifications. But this sort of thing counted for little in the past and so, I suppose, we should celebrate the progress of even the most backward industries and note the enormous human resources they have been wasting.

Resistance to female chefs is strong and very hard to break down

Barra is not alone in bursting through that glass ceiling for women in companies that were bastions of male domination. Similar success has been achieved at DuPont, Lockheed Martin and IBM.

Yet progress has been agonisingly slow. In the United States women still only occupy 17 per cent of the seats on boards of Fortune 500 companies and hold an unimpressive 14.6 per cent of executive positions. The British government has set a target of having women occupy 25 per cent of board seats by the end of 2015, although goodness knows how this is going to be achieved.

According to the 30 Percent Club in Hong Kong, no more than 10 per cent of listed company boards are filled by female directors, while some 40 per cent of companies have no women directors at all. The overall figures for Asia as a whole are even more depressing. A McKinsey survey that found only 6 per cent of board seats were occupied by women.

Interestingly, while Hong Kong business has been frustratingly slow to recognise the waste of talent caused by excluding females, the government - backward in most other things - is something of a pioneer here. Even though a woman has never led the administration, a female is once again filling the number two position. Moreover as women have moved into senior government positions the amount of resistance has largely dissolved.

However, the kind of Neanderthal talk I used to hear from auto industry guys still litters the dialogue in certain Hong Kong industries. Embarrassingly, my own industry, the food and beverage sector, is notable among their number. This is most vividly seen in kitchens where resistance to female chefs is strong and, as I have found to my cost, very hard to break down.

Yet my company has a conscious policy of employing female managers, not out of some altruistic motive but on the basis of experience with their performance. I should add that middle-aged women have proved to be standouts for reliability and diligence.

In all other spheres of business life decisions about personnel and the deployment of resources are made on a more or less rational basis but this resistance to female managers is tenacious.

However, like other irrational taboos this one can be broken. Let me offer an example from my own line of business, concerning methods of service. When self-service cafeterias were introduced at the end of the 19th century, primarily in the United States, they were denounced as ridiculous and reminiscent of food service in places like prisons.

However, the demand for convenient, cheap meals grew without pause and critics were quickly silenced. Today self-service can be found in the swankiest places. Practically everyone has forgotten why there was ever a problem with this concept.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster