GM’s New CEO: This Model Has Titanium Features

Mary Barra, CEO-General MotorsThe woman in the photo at the right has big titanium ovaries — not malleable brass or rusting iron. Do I know Mary Barra personally to attest to this fact? No. But I have a pretty damned good idea where GM’s new CEO has been, and it takes a pretty tough set of specifications to survive the road she’s traveled.

Like her I grew up in the I-75 corridor in Michigan, where much of the automotive industry’s OEM facilities and Tiers 1 through 3 suppliers could be found. Like her father, my father worked in the automotive business; if her household was like mine, there were copies of Car and Driver, Road & Track, machinist, tool-and-die, and metalforming magazines cluttering coffee tables or in dad’s man-cave. The smell of machine oil and the grit of metal chips are familiar, as are an ever-present collection of safety glasses, hearing protection, and greasy jumpsuits. Picture a garage like that in Clint Eastwood’s movie Gran Torino; I’ll lay good money her dad probably spent a lot of his free time between shifts in a home shop like that, and where she might have been found as well if he needed a hand or she needed a tool to fix something.

It was in her blood, I’m sure; I’ll bet she could taste it. I’m pretty certain this is why she went into engineering, and likely why she went to that particular private engineering school.

After working for a couple years as a high school engineering co-op student I had been accepted at the same school, but I went a different road, preferring business and then-nascent computing technology over engineering. My daughter, though, is at that school now. She could taste it, too; we have pictures of her at age nine, wearing safety glasses, proudly holding her first aluminum machined part. She’s the first person her dad asks for help when working on the cars at home.

I wish now I’d taken pictures of her the time she was so damned mad at her brother and his friend for accidentally breaking the sibling-shared PlayStation 2 console. She ripped it down, diagnosed it using internet research, fixed and reassembled it on her own in an afternoon.

Driven to identify and solve the problem — that’s what it takes to choose engineering as a career, particularly if you are a woman.

Sure, men too must be driven to pursue the same field, but they don’t face the hurdles that women faced then or even now, 30 years after General Motors’ new CEO first started college at the former General Motors Institute. Nobody ever questions a boy’s right to pursue engineering, or a man’s right to practice that discipline. Nobody ever questions the gender of a man with an engineering degree when he makes it to the pinnacle of the corporate ladder.

My daughter still faces a rash of crap; she’s had to put up with it all through K-12 education, and it continues into college. Some of the gender bias crap is probably unconscious stupidity. The dean of one engineering discipline said, “The girls probably aren’t interested in this,” when leading a tour group of prospective students through an automotive design lab — for the second time that day, mind you, with students studying non-automotive related engineering. That male dean was probably clueless about his comment’s impact, let alone that ALL of the students regardless of gender had enough of that particular lab and wanted to see something more of the school. When asked, his senior-year student assistant brushed off the situation by saying that “girls want to go into electrical engineering anyhow, that’s where most of them are.” Another idiot; what a way to promote this school to female students, or persuade them to seek his own preferred field, mechanical engineering. This kind of stupidity didn’t end once school started, either. It was much, much worse when Barra was in school.

What both my daughter and Barra have had in common, though, was an awareness of what was happening in manufacturing that comes with being raised in and around it, and growing up in it as students. There are things adults do in front of engineering students that they don’t do in front of each other providing additional education. Smart students see these things and take note of future opportunities revealed. (I know I saw a LOT of waste as a co-op student doing scut work — great places for cost reduction.) There was a lot of room for learning and for improvement coming up through the ranks, provided one could survive the persistent sexist bullshit. Having grown up in households hearing shoptalk, then immersed in on-the-job training through co-operative education, Barra and my daughter have been better prepared than most young women going into science and technology fields, and they’re already rare as it is.

When media outlets say Mary Barra is a “retro choice” because she is an inside hire, I can tell you that’s bullshit. It’s damned hard to be a run-of-the-mill insider when one is a rare specimen. When Barra first went to engineering school she was one-in-eight (or greater) females-to-males in engineering curriculum; not all of those females who graduated went on to work at General Motors, either. The odds haven’t improved much in 30 years; my daughter is part of the one-in-five ratio of female-to-male students. Today even fewer women at what is now Kettering University go on to work at General Motors. It’s simply not a retro choice at all to hire a woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, let alone one with an engineering degree.

For a woman to survive, succeed, and become a leader in overwhelmingly male-centric disciplines and workplaces, it takes the ability to hold one’s own and then some. They don’t teach this in engineering school, or business school for that matter. Young women either find understanding mentors, have a rich background in their field before entry, possess stupendous amounts of moxie to gut it out, or some combination of these to make it.

And a woman has to want it badly enough to put up with decades of crap beginning the first time a boy or an adult barricades a girl inside society’s pink ghetto, saying, “Girls don’t play with tools,” or years of “Get out of here, only boys can play this game,” or “Girls suck at math and science,” and “Boys don’t like brainiac girls,” only to face bullshit marginalization like “She’s a retro choice.”

A woman has to have some titanium ovaries.

And a titanium spine, too.

16 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    It breaks out in strange ways: my sister is a manufacturing technician at a precision-optics place. I took a more computer-oriented route (having found I couldn’t make the cut in engineering), and worked with engineers at a major gas utility. A lot of the classes were more like 1:20 female to male, but that was closer to 40 years ago, and I don’t regret taking them.

    (My mother sometimes wondered what she’d done to have two daughters who get lost in hardware stores. She married a born engineer: the first patent he was granted was one he applied for as a senior in college.)

  2. Rayne says:

    @P J Evans: Yeah, I always had a technical bent. The appropriate STEM-based career that I was suited for wasn’t yet in existence at the time I left high school. 1977 SAT test offered suggestions of careers based on test scores (I had a 99% English, 86% Math, as I recall) — suggested something between economics and nursing. Nursing, not medicine, because I was female. Argh. Pissed me right the hell off.

    Can you still get lost in hardware stores? I do — look for me in fasteners, insulation, or electronics. LOL

    Edit — 12:46 pm EST — I’m betting Valley Girl has something to add about women in STEM fields. Hope she’s lurking and pops in. ;-)

  3. der says:

    Good luck to her I say, with this hanging over her head:

    Of course she’ll be expected to get that all straightened out. Or else. Unlike these cheap fucks: Google’s executives have been getting cheap flights for their private planes due to a “misunderstanding” that led Google to buy fuel from from the US space agency Nasa at cut prices, according to a report from Nasa’s inspector general.

    Now the company may have to compensate Nasa,

    “May” have to, the “arrangement” was based on keeping and lending a “light attack jet” to NASA.

    Please Go Gault.

  4. allan says:

    Brava. And good luck to Barra. She’s going to need it –
    those business site headlines are already writing themselves.

  5. Teddy says:

    Thank you for your commentary on this development. I was excited to hear about this appointment, but I did wonder: would a man’s father’s career figure as prominently in his bio had he been appointed to the post? It’s almost as if GM felt the need to boast: “This little gal was born to the job!”

  6. lefty665 says:

    “girls want to go into electrical engineering anyhow, that’s where most of them are.” Yet another indicator that women are brighter than men:)

  7. Duncan Hare says:

    When my daughter was small I was remodeling our home. One day she cam into the kitchen with a toy in her hand, muttering to herself. I asked he what she was doing and she said “I’m fixing my toy,” and I asked is I could help.

    “No” she said. “I do it myself.”

    And so she has since.

  8. P J Evans says:

    Tools, garden, yeah. I recommend Dare to Repair. (Online: have you met Lee Valley?)

    I have two toolboxes, one of which originally held rockets or something similar (it’s a mil-spec box). I know the hacksaw frame and the caulking gun are in there, and the hand drill I wanted. Also a zillion or so screwdrivers and I don’t know what else. In the other one, and a bin, three or four hammers, a soldering iron, a tungsten-carbide rod saw, more screwdrivers, a couple of Vise-Grips, putty knives, a basin wrench…

  9. bloodypitchfork says:


    Madam Rayne said:
    quote:”Can you still get lost in hardware stores? I do — look for me in fasteners, insulation, or electronics. LOL” unquote

    SIR. Really? Fasteners?..insulation?..electronics.? I have a suggestion for you..SIR. With all due respect..SIR..

    you got to be fucking kidding me….
    I’m chronicle. And please emptywheel..and Madam..with all due respect here. I just couldn’t resist.

  10. MP says:

    The times they are a changing… My daughter is 19 and a junior working toward an engineering degree. Among her generation, it is not at all unusual for a woman to pursue a STEM career. Actually its people like Barra that are making it possible.

  11. Rayne says:

    @Teddy: Probably not, but then he would merely have been one of many, not a first, background taken for granted. As a parent of a daughter pursuing a career in STEM field, I think that home environment is one of the key predictors of a girl’s success in STEM; she’s already seeing a connection between STEM and a role model in her life. This is not enough, though; the number of times I have had heart-to-heart talks with my daughter to help keep her plowing forward past societal pushback has been ridiculous (and I’m sure you can grok societal pushback on any minority group not straight/white/male). Never had to have them with my stepson until he struggled with calculus well into college. GM may see Barra as built-for-the-job — or rather, the media and analysts might — but there is some importance re Barra’s background with regard to helping young girls. If they don’t see STEM as a career through parents, they’ll need mentors.

    @Duncan Hare: Glad she has a family in which she felt comfortable fixing problems as they arose. Good for her, good on you.

    @P J Evans: LOL I’ll see your Lee Valley and raise you a GarrettWade .com and a McFeelys .com.

    I have a big, bright orange Black and Decker toolbox in which I keep my handclamps, hot glue gun, stovepipe wire, needlenose pliers, small screw drivers, finish gages, Xacto knives, and all my sewing detritus (needles, pins, cushion, most frequently used thread, nylon line, buttons, snaps, safety pins, scissors, rotary cutter, machine oil, etc.). Bloody sewing boxes just don’t do the trick like this B&D box. Biggest problem is keeping the family out of it; I hate it when they walk off with my screwdrivers and pliers. Needs a biometric lock, you know? Ditto for my two other tool boxes, am thinking about dipping all my tool handles in an obnoxious shade of pink to keep DH out of them.

    @bloodypitchfork: Ugh, that moron nomadbyfate needs not only to insulate inside walls with fiberglass (or blown-in insulation, whatever), but use acoustic foam.

    @MP: Groovy, we both have 19-year-old women in STEM! Though I disagree about the numbers of young women pursuing STEM–they’re still under 20% of college students in physics, computer science, and engineering programs. (This is why I support AAUW; their mission is equity in education. We’ll keep plugging at this until we see results resembling the increase of women in mathematics.)

  12. Jordan says:

    We should stop being surprised once women with “titanium parts” take new roles. A woman is now the boss of a car manufacturer. So what? I wish her much success.

  13. P. Lee says:

    A different take on the elevation of Mary Barra:

    The Unctuous Prick takes his leave and screws GM one last time.

    Barra, if you must know, was given the chief of Product Development title by Akerson even though that’s not the job she performed. The ex-HR Queen was plucked from near obscurity by Akerson and thrust into the role and given the title because Akerson openly said to anyone who would listen, anyone could run product. Yes, he said that. Repeatedly, too…Well, in fact, the dirty little secret is that Barra never ran product. Her strength was her knowledge of the GM system, and when Mark Reuss and the True Believers in product development were ready to launch a finished product into the system to get built, Barra was given the task of taking that product and making sure it was executed in the most efficient way possible. But did she actually perform as the head of Product Development? It never happened. Not even close, in fact.

  14. Rayne says:

    @Jordan: Who’s this “we”? Because until women actually realize parity in management let alone the top job, there’s a need to point out the continued inequity in the system. As a woman raising a daughter, I’ve got a vested interest in pointing out the lack of fairness. So does my stock portfolio, which might do better with more women at the helm. Ditto technology; you can be absolutely certain a sizable number of technology failures could be reduced with more a diverse workforce top-to-bottom analyzing products.

    @P. Lee: Yet another means of marginalizing a female manager. Why couldn’t Akerson find a guy to use this way, assuming this situation is legit? Not like there weren’t enough Peter Pans floating around.

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