How General Motors Bucked the Patriarchy  

Mary Barra introduces the 2013 Buick Encore.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The appointment of Mary Barra to serve as CEO of General Motors is being hailed as a milestone for women in business. Female CEOs of big companies are still very rare, no woman has led a major auto firm in any country, and car firms like General Motors sort of punch above their weight in terms of public awareness since their branding is everywhere. And it’s worth saying that this isn’t just a one-off at GM. Behind Barra is a Board of Directors that’s “only” 71 percent male, and will be merely 66 percent male when Barra takes her predecessor’s board seat.*

This is in a world, mind you, where 83.4 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are held by men and it’s virtually unheard-of to have a majority-female board. And GM is doing the right thing, businesswise. Firms with gender-diverse boards perform better, according to a range of studies.

And it’s good to drill down into who these women on the GM board are and see what lessons can be learned. We’ve got:

  • Kathryn Marinello, CEO of Stream Global Services.
  • Patricia Russo, former CEO of Alcatel-Lucent.
  • Carol Stephenson, dean of the business school at the University of Western Ontario.
  • Cynthia Telles, director of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute Spanish-Speaking Psychosocial Clinic and a former member of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners.

Which is to say that they’re like any group of corporate board members. A semi-random agglomeration of noteworthy and accomplished people, who neither individually nor collectively fit any particularly clear concept of who is qualified to be on the board of an automobile company. That’s what makes firms’ failure to find women to serve on boards so egregious. It’s an aspect of corporate life in which you have extremely broad discretion to pluck anyone you like and add them to the team. So if you care—even a little bit—about the idea of diversity at high levels of the company, you’ll make sure to build diversity into the board. And yet a huge number of firms don’t, because they don’t care.

*Correction, Dec. 11, 2013: This post originally stated that GM’s Board of Directors is 64 percent male, and will be 55 percent male when Mary Barra joins it. This post also misstated that Kathryn Marinello is the former CEO of Stream Global Services. In addition, this post misspelled Carol Stephenson’s last name. Also, this post misstated that Cynthia Telles is a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.