New General Motors CEO sets benchmark for women in technology

By Andrew Horton

Last September, CEO of General Motors Dan Akerson did some foreshadowing. He stated at a Detroit conference on leadership that, “The Detroit Three are all run by non-car guys. Someday, there will be a Detroit Three that’s run by a car gal.” 

The board of GM announced on Tuesday that product chief Mary Barra will replace Akerson who is retiring in January. This will make Barra the first woman to ever lead one of the Big Three U.S. automakers, and will make her one of the highest-profile female CEOs in the world.

This is a significant achievement as the U.S. auto industry has been notoriously dominated by males. 

Barra began at GM as an 18-year-old co-op student, pursuing an electrical engineering degree at what is now Kettering University (formerly the General Motors Institute). Quickly moving up the ranks of GM and earning an MBA from Stanford, she has become a tremendous example of the potential that women have to impact technology.

Granted, this is certainly not anything new. Other prominent female technologists include Ginni Rometty of IBM, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! and Ursula Burns of Xerox. However, the club is still relatively small. Barra’s accomplishment represents a benchmark in how far women have come, but also can serve as inspiration for future achievement.  

There is still a tremendous gender gap within the fields of science, math and engineering. 

For instance, women only represent 18 percent of the engineering student body at the University of Illinois, the Daily Illini reported in November. Overall, in 2011, women only accounted for about 18 percent of all engineering bachelor degrees awarded in the United States, according to a study by the American Society for Engineering Education

The future economic success of the American economy requires that we can harness the power that women can bring to the table. The trouble is that American STEM education tends to resemble a leaky pipeline or a sex-based filter, which removes women along the way to STEM careers. 

This is not a problem that your average plumber can fix. It’s not that women can’t handle the coursework, it’s that they are often deterred by certain societal stereotypes. 

Civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Angela Bielefeldt, told PBS in an interview, “Women tend to leave engineering with higher grade point averages than the men … but they perceive that their technical skills are sometimes different. And they’re not different, in reality.”

She went on to say that men are often quick to delegate more menial tasks to women in group work, and can end up easily dominating the group if the women are not assertive enough to push back. 

These behaviors can lead women to feel isolated, and cause them to leave the STEM fields. Thus, the troubling cycle continues in which women are deterred from succeeding in technology because a disappointing amount of history depicts them doing so. 

This is why we need to hear more success stories like that of Mary Barra, to inspire women to stay the course even if it may seem that the odds are stacked against them.

There have been many initiatives aimed at trying to keep women in the STEM fields — targeting girls when they are young, trying to highlight the aspects of science and engineering that are glamorous (such as promoting creativity and impacting society), and even the intriguing idea of introducing a female statue to accompany “Grainger Bob” on the Illinois Engineering Quad (though this idea remains quite controversial). 

While there is no simple solution to this problem, part of it should certainly be highlighting role models like Mary Barra for excelling with a STEM education. Making celebrities of these individuals could be an important step in ingraining the notion in our youth that when it comes to technology, girls can play with the big boys.

Andrew is a junior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]