Mary Barra is the first female CEO of GM (one of 26 female CEOs among all of the Fortune 500 companies). She's also the first woman to take on the CEO role at any major automotive company, ever. That's no small feat in an industry that's often described as an "all-boys club" and is still very clearly dominated by men. Despite the fact that women influence 80% of auto purchases, only 21% of the auto workforce consisted of women in 2013, according to Catalyst. And, that number drops down to 16% when it comes to executives and senior managers in the automotive industry.
So, how did Barra crack the glass ceiling? She worked her way up through the ranks (and over a dozen different positions) at GM, and then ultimately took over the company in a time of trouble, amidst ignition-switch recalls and legal issues, at the beginning of last year. Somehow, she pulled herself and the company through it all — armed with clear vision, a motto of "no more crappy cars," and an incredible decisiveness — and led the company to a record year in global sales. She also landed herself on Forbes' 2014 list of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” and the Time 100 list, and scored the number-two spot on Fortune's “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” list.
So, when Barra offers to share her wisdom, we listen up. And ask follow-up questions. And take notes. Ahead, we've got some of the best, most empowering advice every woman (whether you dream of becoming a CEO or something else altogether) should read.
What's the best work (or life) advice you've ever gotten?
"The best advice I ever received came from my parents, who encouraged me to work hard and pursue my early love of math. There is truth in the expression that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Another reason this was great advice is that it steered me toward a career in engineering at a time when few women were pursuing work in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields."
What's the single piece of advice you would want to give any young woman seeking out a career in STEM fields — the one thing you hope she truly hears and takes to heart?
"STEM education opens doors. It isn’t just for pragmatic and data-driven types. A background in STEM combined with creativity is a powerful force. Whether you want to be a journalist, a fashion designer, a pharmacist or lawyer, a background in STEM will only advance your career. Wondering how STEM could benefit an artistic field like fashion? Think about 3D printing, the creation of new textiles or clothing that uses software to improve people’s lives. STEM gives us tools for the ultimate in problem solving — something I believe is crucial in any career path."
What’s the worst standard career advice out there that you want women to stop believing?
"That you can’t have it all. Being dedicated to your work, to your family, and to yourself don't have to be mutually exclusive. I’ve been asked what do I do for fun — well, fun is going to my son’s football games and my daughter’s cross-country meets. Fun is talking with customers at our dealerships, test-driving the newest Cadillac on a track, or spending the day in one of our design centers reviewing future cars. For most of us, our professional and personal lives invariably intertwine. If you love what you do, the blending of personal and professional time seems less intrusive. Good companies and good leaders create environments where employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, whether it’s a young child or an ailing parent. If you want to do it all, you can. You just need to figure out what your 'all' is."
The campaign #banbossy was one of our favorite moments of 2014, reminding women that being assertive and aggressive is a powerful thing — and there shouldn't be a gendered value assigned to it. Do you have any advice for women who are trying to be assertive in a male-dominated space and being written off as bossy or "unlikeable"?
"Wherever you are in your career — your first position, or a manager, or even an executive — you have to be ready to stand up for yourself. But, it should be done in a firm but respectful way. Always remember, respect is earned. Learning to read the situation is also important. Most of all, never waver on integrity. If someone calls you bossy because you didn’t let them push you around, so be it."
For more inspiring advice, follow Barra on Twitter at @mtbarra.