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Nilofer Merchant

December 16, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

Being A Woman Is The Least Interesting Thing About Mary Barra

A bestselling author on innovation and collaboration, a TED speaker, and a business leader with 20 years of experience, Nilofer Merchant challenges audiences to do more than just think differently—she asks them to act differently. Merchant has personally launched more than 100 products that, in total, have netted 18 billion dollars. Her leadership and business models encourage innovation and growth, and she collaborates with teams to create this enduring advantage. Nilofer recently took a look at the new CEO of GM, Mary Barra, for Time magazine:

Who could have imagined a woman being named CEO of a manufacturing-industry company? Today, for the first time in its 100-plus-year history, GM announced that Mary Barra would be the new CEO. Almost every headline you’ll see on the news will use the descriptor woman even though that refers to 51% of the population. And in truth, being a woman is the least interesting thing about her. Her most recent role was to run the $15 billion product-development division. After her 30-year career within the company, you could dub her the chief product officer. Her pedigree is flawless with a B.S. in electrical engineering and an M.B.A. from Stanford. She represents a very different type of leader, not just because she’s a woman, but because she wants to reinvent the firm. GM used to have a 10-page dress code. Who abolished it? Mary Barra. At the time, Barra said that “the key to unlocking innovation at GM is to trust the people to do the very best they can.”

But instead of honoring her design prowess, cultural turnaround, her long arc of commitment, or even her inherent geekiness, the focus will be on her gender. That’s because women still continue to hold far too few leadership roles: in Congress, women hold only 18% of the seats; just 17% of corporate-board roles; and just 23 of the Fortune 500 chief executive posts (counting Barra), a measly 4%. In the venture-capital world, women receive less than 3% of funding. This is not a pipeline problem. There are plenty of qualified women entering politics and business. The most telling fact to me is this one: when the movie industry wants to film a “general population scene,” that scene only includes 17% female. So even when the only qualification is to be female, women are still invisible.

Twenty years ago, management guru Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, wrote about gender inequalities in business. Recently, I asked him for his take on why the most powerful and influential companies in the U.S. have yet to make meaningful moves to advance women into top leadership positions.

He replied, “Why don’t companies ‘get it,’ circa 2013? Women are invariably their primary customers. I’ve run out of logical answers, so I’m left with only emotional responses such as ‘blind,’ ‘nuts,’ ‘impervious to the obvious.’ The research clearly demonstrates that, overall, women’s preferences for goods and services and the manner of the purchasing process differ significantly from that of men. What better, and, frankly, easier way to address this mammoth opportunity than to aim for/insist upon women’s representation, from junior engineer to board member, that more or less mirrors purchasing power. After 17 years of study, I remain as mystified as ever that something like my ‘solution’ is rarely in place. For God’s sake, to use the overused term, this ain’t rocket science.”

Of the Fortune 500, Catalyst points out that 50 companies still have zero women on the board. Interestingly enough, the now outgoing CEO of GM had something to say at this topic. “The rate of growth of women on boards is glacial. It’s simply unacceptable,” Daniel F. Akerson, CEO of General Motors, said to the audience at a recent gathering of the Women’s Forum of New York at the New York Stock Exchange.

Women drive cars. Women buy cars. Women sell cars. Ergo women run car companies. I dream of the day when her name and ideas make news, not the fact that she is a woman.

By Nilofer Merchant/Time