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Give Mary Barra a Break: Leave Gender Politics Out of the GM Scandal

3 minute read

At the risk of sounding like a GM apologist—which I am definitely not, see here—I have to say that I was disappointed in the political grandstanding of many of the Congress members who grilled CEO Mary Barra over GM’s faulty ignition switch scandal which has resulted in a number of deaths and accidents. In particular, I found Senator Barbara Boxer’s statement that she was “very disappointed, really, woman to woman” in Barra dismaying.

There’s no question that GM’s performance has been concerning. The evidence presented in the hearings over the last couple of days made it clear that the company knew about problems with the ignition switch and made a decision not to do a recall or change the part prior to rolling out vehicles. Whether this was a cynical decision made by some malevolent bean-counter, or simply the result of a company that was, as Barra put it, full of “silos” that didn’t talk to one another, remains to be seen. Much hinges on the results of the federal investigation into the matter.

Until then, though, could we please leave gender politics out of the discussion? Not only is there no evidence that Barra knew anything at all about the issue, I hate hearing comments like the one Boxer made, which make it seem like Barra has some special, higher calling as a woman leader. That sort of comment is just as sexist as the opposite sort that might have been made in the days of Old Detroit. For my money, Barra has performed admirably in a tough situation, being reasonably transparent, saying she doesn’t know things when that’s actually the case (imagine – a corporate leader being straight and frank!), and generally setting a standard for crisis management.

Of course, if we find out in the course of the investigation that she knew something about the problem or was in any way part of the culture of secrecy and bean-counting that seemed to characterize the old GM, I’ll be eating my words. ( I doubt that will be the case; the company probably wouldn’t have put her front and center of the scandal even prior to the Congressional hearings if she did.) But if that turns out not to be the case, I’m wondering if she may become the model for a new kind of post financial crisis CEO. Prior to 2008, we had a decade of celebrity CEOs. After 2009, America’s corporate leaders just wanted to keep their heads down and stay on script. Now, Barra is front-and-center, acting not like a talking head or a corporate drone, but a real person. If she manages to bring her company out of this crisis, and create a new corporate culture for GM, Boxer may be the one eating her words.

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