How GM CEO Mary Barra Plans to Get More Female Engineers

January 10, 2017, 8:10 PM UTC

Every 26 minutes General Motors fills a position for a STEM-related job. Chairman and CEO Mary Barra says she’s working towards a day when women make up half of those positions.

Barra wants the face of GM to look like the general population. And she believes Girls Who Code is one way to get there.

The automaker and Girls Who Code, the national non-profit aiming to close the gender gap in technology, announced a partnership Tuesday to increase access to computer science education and encourage more U.S. middle and high school girls to pursue technology and engineering degrees. GM is giving a $250,000 grant to expand GWC’s Clubs programs, which provide free after-school activities.

To kickoff the partnership, Barra and GWC founder and CEO Reshma Saujani hosted about 30 GWC students for activities focused on connectivity, electrification, autonomous, and future mobility solutions. The middle school girls spent the day at GM’s headquarters and its tech center in Warren, Mich., working with senior female executives at the company.

Girls spent Tuesday in various breakout groups working with Julia Steyn, head of urban mobility and the new Maven brand, Victoria McInnis, vice president of tax and audit, Pam Fletcher, who leads electrification work for GM, and Sheri Hickok, executive chief engineer for autonomous partnerships and fleets.

The GWC/GM partnership and kickoff event of all girls and women lay in stark contrast to the scene at the North American International Auto Show, which was being held a half mile away from the automaker’s headquarters. There, most of the press and the executives they spoke to are male.

Barra is driven by several factors. In an interview ahead of the GWC event, she talked about her own humble beginnings, a daughter of a die maker in Detroit and the first, along with her brother, to attend college.

As a female electrical engineer who rose through the ranks to earn the top position at one of the world’s largest automakers, she has a desire to mentor and help those like she was over the years.

But Barra also has GM’s future in mind. General Motors, along with other automakers and tech companies, are also competing for a shrinking number of qualified computer scientists and engineers.

“We’re finding talent, but we’re really competing for it,” Barra said, adding that the amount of women who are getting engineering degrees is not growing at the rate it should be, and in some years, it’s even gone down. “And you want the best and brightest.”

“What we find is General Motors is starting to create a leadership role as it relates to connectivity, autonomous and sharing,” she said. “We’re finding more and more people. Last year I think we had a 25% increase in the amount of people who came to to say ‘Hey I want to work at General Motors.’ We think that’s good. But we are worried overall that there will be shortage.”

There are 500,000 open jobs in computing right now, Saujani said, adding that last year there were about 40,000 computer science graduates in the U.S. Fewer than 10,000 of those graduates were women.

And the rates aren’t improving. In 1995, 37% of the computing workforce was female, according to GWC data. Today, it’s 24%, and in 10 years it will be 22%, Saujani said.

“At a time, when there’s such a rich conversation about computer science and it’s brought up in Obama’s State of the Union Address, you would think that the problem, in terms of gender, is actually getting better,” said Saujani. “But it’s getting worse. I think part of the reason why it’s getting worse is that we’re not focused enough on middle school girls.”

Targeting middle school girls, before they are discouraged by peers, society, or fear of being different for pursuing subjects like math or science, is the key.

“There’s a moment there where we can light that fire and have that fire continue,” Saujani said.

Saujani contends that the partnership with General Motors will show young women a path to a job many would prefer over some up-and-coming tech startup.

“When they think about a coder they think about a dude in a hoodie, sitting in a basement somewhere drinking a Red Bull, staring at a screen and hasn’t showered—not only do they not want to be him they don’t even want to be friends with him,” Saujani said. “You can’t be what you cannot see.”

Saujani said the image of the coder portrayed in TV shows and movies hasn’t helped. “The images you see on television don’t look like us,” she said. “I wanted to become a lawyer because I saw Kelly McGillis on The Accused. Grey’s Anatomy, LA Law, Ally McBeal all of these have inspired women to go into law. I think the opposite is happening in technology.”

Ultimately, having more female engineers at General Motors will help the company create a pipeline of talent headed towards senior executives and even board positions.

Until last month, nearly half of General Motors board of directors were female. But that isn’t the reality at other automakers or tech companies. For instance, one index created by theBoardlist found that as of June 30, just 6.8% of private tech companies’ and 10.2% of unicorn companies’ (valued at $1 billion or more) board seats are filled by women.

Part of GM’s strategy is to simply get more female engineers in the pipeline—which can’t be accomplished unless more young girls decide to pursue this field of study. Once a woman begins to rise within the company, she might be partnered with a mentor. Barra created a group of senior executive women at GM, who meet quarterly, to find ways to boost numbers in top positions.

“I love that saying you cannot be what you cannot see,” Barra said, adding that the group of 45 senior executives represent every function and area at GM. “We’re saying what are we going to do? How are we going to make this room not big enough (to hold us) five years from now?”

As CEO and Chairman of GM, Barra has the power to not only exact change within the organization she runs, but far beyond the company’s towering headquarters or its factories. “There’s so much a big company can do.”