Was Mary Barra Set Up to Take the Fall at GM?

Last week, newly minted GM CEO Mary Barra withstood a battering from a Congressional committee over GM’s recent recall of 2.6 million vehicles. Per Allan Stamm of Deadline Detroit, they demanded to know why “GM didn’t react to signs dating back to 2001 that Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar vehicles had faulty ignitions” since “13 deaths and 32 crashes have been linked to the defect.”  As the public face of GM and its first female CEO, various news outlets pondered whether a woman was being set up to take the fall at the beleaguered company.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Forbes’ Micheline Maynard likewise asked whether Barra was being “thrown under the bus,” but answered no to that question, stating that any Chief Executive would have to answer for the actions of his or her company. We are in agreement that there should be no double standard either in preventing a woman from rising to the top or in assuming the same responsibilities as a man once there. However, Maynard’s argument sidesteps a few uncomfortable questions.

Maynard posits that former Chairman and CEO Ted Akerson was not “ducking out of the way, using Barra as a shield without her knowledge of what was about to occur,” but only resigned because his wife is being treated for Stage 4 lung cancer. Maynard states:

“On Tuesday (during Congressional hearings), Barra said that to the best of her knowledge, Akerson was not aware of the situation that has led GM to recall 2.6 million vehicles, and announce a $750 million first quarter charge.

She told a House committee that she first heard there was a problem with the Chevrolet Cobalt in December, while GM’s senior management was apprised of the full matter on Jan. 31, when the company announced its initial recall of Chevrolet, Saturn and Pontiac vehicles.

Likewise, it would take an extremely cynical point of view to believe that the GM board, which must approve the appointment of a chief executive, would be in some kind of cahoots with Akerson to allow him to set up Barra in this fashion.

Suggesting that Barra was deliberately made a victim is not only sexist, but it ignores one of the fundamental tenets of leadership. Senior executives have to be ready, at any time, to deal with crises. That’s why they are given responsibility, and why they are paid accordingly.”

Since Barra is the first women appointed CEO of an automotive company – and made big headlines for the accomplishment – and given that there are very few female senior executives serving at any automotive concern, sexism may go along with the territory.

Further, it strains credulity that an automotive problem dating back to 2001 would have escaped the notice of its former Chief Executives until barely three months ago.

Of interest, Mr. Akerson has not retired, but has taken another position as Vice Chairman and Special Advisor to the Board of Directors of The Carlyle Group.

There is another matter that begs the sexism issue. Dan Akerson was both Chairmanand CEO. Tim Solso, formerly of Cummins, Inc., was just brought on as GM’s new Chairman. Mary Barra, who has worked for GM since 1980, a trained engineer, well-versed in every part of GM’s business, product design and development, also possessed of a Masters’ in Business Administration from Stanford, was not granted the same power and responsibilities as her predecessor. Apparently, this is the first time GM has split the two titles. Why is Barra not being entrusted with the whole shebang? Surely, a man would be.

Instead, she is now the public face of a company that stands to have significant legal and financial culpability.

Also conspicuous in her grilling before Congress was the tenor of the questioning. PerCBS, “Senator Boxer didn’t just question Barra’s leadership in her new role as CEO — she said she was disappointed in her “as a woman.””

Senator Boxer stated:

“I am very disappointed, really, as a woman to woman, I am very disappointed. Because the culture you are representing here today is a culture of the status quo.”

So Ms. Barra gets a double whammy. That GM is culpable for the travesty of their faulty cars is not in question and as CEO, Barra is responsible to lift the quality of the GM product and their profitability going forward or she’ll be ousted.  But why should Barra’s gender entitle her to be judged more harshly than if one of the men (who were at the helm when all of this occurred) were sitting before the esteemed Senator at the time of these hearings?

One could make the case that Senator Boxer was indicating she would “expect” such conduct of a man, but of a woman…no. That is a kind of reverse sexism, is it not? Furthermore, to accuse Ms. Barra of presiding over a “status quo”culture at GM when the woman is barely two months into her tenure is ridiculous and smacks of grandstanding.

As noted in Business Week, GM faces a long and challenging road on the way torestoring credibility. That is the challenge that Ms. Barra faces as well, although she stepped into this, ahem, job after the damage had already been done at departments she did not oversee.

Senator Claire McCaskill likewise blasted Barra for “GM’s culture of cover-up” but this criticism also belonged at the doorstep of Barra’s predecessors.

Rick Wagoner was Chairman and CEO of GM from 2000-2009 and stepped down at the request of the White House. Under his leadership the market valuation of GM went down 90%, costing the company $82 billion. He retired “with an exit package of over $10 million: $1.65 million in benefits per year for his first five years of retirement, $74,030 per year pension for the rest of his life, and a $2.6 million life insurance policy that can be cashed out at any time.” Has he been called to testify for something that arguably happened under his tenure? Mr. Akerson likewise has washed his hands.

Commenting on this debacle, one blogger noted that “Barra will get a golden parachute either way, so let’s not waste time feeling sorry for her.” A fair point. However the treatment of Ms. Barra “woman to woman” at these hearings and the method of her appointment at GM is important for reasons which have nothing to do with her personally.

Any time we hold a woman to a higher standard, we send the message that the bar for success in not being measuredly equally.

America still exists in a male-dominated corporate culture where women are challenged to find a foothold. This would not be the first time a woman had been thrust into a leadership position at times of trouble and then canned quickly if she cannot produce a quick turnaround.

It remains to be seen whether Barra can succeed where Akerson failed in changing the culture at GM. It is her responsibility to give her all in the attempt.

Whatever the results, you can bet that she won’t be granted the kind of time or leeway that a Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase has enjoyed, for example. He just got a 74% pay bump after his company was fined $20 billion bucks for wrongdoing that mostly happened on his watch.

Given Ms. Barra’s own testimony before Congress last week, it was not that GM was not aware of what was going on with their cars, but that the communication was faulty in one division not sharing information with another. So, with due respect to Ms. Maynard, to assume that no one in an executive position had any suspicions of what was about to hit Ms. Barra weeks after her promotion to CEO may be a bit naïve.

*Originally published on EPIC TIMES.  Reposted here, in full, with permission of the author.*


Anita Finlay is the bestselling author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin.  Sharing the untold story of Hillary’s 2008 campaign, Dirty Words exposes media sexism in a society not as evolved as advertised.  “The book tells it like it is for women aspiring to power.”  #1 on Amazon’s Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.

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