At 59, General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra doesn’t worry about childcare for her own children, but it is likely earlier in her career the needs of her two children intersected with her business responsibilities as a woman rising the corporate ladder. She sees how it can influence her workforce. It is an issue for American women, whether they operate in blue collar, white collar, nonprofit, or corporate positions. The only difference is that women further up the ladder have more money to manage these challenges.
Particularly now during the Pandemic, as school and childcare options are spotty at best, women are feeling the pinch. Men are too, but since we haven’t as yet evened up the home workload in most households, many women are feeling the pinch more than their spouses.
Barra has led the largest American auto manufacturer since 2014. Like other business leaders, she faces tremendous COVID-19 challenges. She responded by trimming unproductive business lines, like the European and Indian markets, and bet large on electric vehicles, playing catch up with a $27 billion investment over the next five years.
She follows the pattern of many other American female CEOs. Barra joined GM early and stayed. She learned the business from the ground up. Her father, a car buff and 39-year die-maker for GM, stoked her interest in automobiles.
At 18 she became the closest thing to a legacy at GM, interning with the GM Institute (now Kettering University). Berra went on to Stanford University for an MBA to build the academic foundation for her next 15 positions at GM, including Executive Vice President Global Product Development, Purchasing, Global Human Resources, Global Manufacturing Engineering, and Supply Chain. She took the time to learn the business from her father’s garage up, gaining the respect from all sectors of the company and earning a seat on the Business Roundtable.
The Pandemic has stolen the time women need to repeat her success across other industries. Rising to become a CEO is the last thing on most women’s minds today. They want to be able to accomplish their job often from the dining room table, to feed the family and see to it their children are educated and receive excellent care. Completing the housework to manage their home becomes a bone of contention that can sour their relationship with a spouse or partner and go to the bottom of the pile of priorities.
As a result of this pressure on working women, more than 600,000 have thrown in the towel during the Pandemic—they just cannot stretch themselves across the work at home, online education for their kids, and balancing essential cooking and cleaning. Some women without family to help them, struggle to find affordable care for their children while doing jobs outside the home that are essential to their communities–cleaning, caring for others old and young, running buses and subways, removing trash, delivering products ordered online. They’ve quit. Not because they can afford to, but because they can’t endure the mental and physical pressure.
America’s Budget Director in the Biden Administration and Former Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen, discussed the impact this loss of workers has on the U.S. economy in The Economist, May 2020: “The History of Women’s Work and Wages and How it has Created Success for Us All.” “This is squandering a resource,” Yellen noted. “And a substantial loss to the productive capacity of an economy at a time when the aging of the population and weak productivity growth are already weighing on economic growth.”
Yellen points out the economy’s need for people to do these jobs, whether women find a comfortable role that fits their current needs and responsibilities, or whether they eventually move up the line to utilize their strengths. This is how we build wealth and a productive economy.
Women do not automatically jump from front-line worker to CEO. Years of experience working through the chairs, as you see Bara did, precede a move to the C-suite. Today there are 36 other women in American companies who, like Barra, have risen to lead corporations. For every female CEO in America there are 24.2 male CEOs, according to Forbes.
The lack of women at what business refers to as Level 2 and Level 3 positions, creates a dirth of talent from which to groom and then select female executives prepared to ascend. Other areas of leadership exist, but CEOs are the roles that open a path for others to follow. These are the women on whose shoulders the next generation of leaders will stand. Roles that when completed with finesse show that leadership traits exist across the gender line.
Then there’s the broader issue of “who will handle the very important aspects of life” once women achieve equal participation in the workforce. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote this as an issue to be solved in her epilogue for the 1965 Report on the Status of Women, a commission created by John F. Kennedy.
She noted the growing division between the advancement of educated women and the poverty and stagnation of the women who work for them. Striving to create a community that values the contributions of all, limits the opportunities of none, and offers prosperity without prejudice, will define any lasting renewal of American democracy today.
Next week we will look at the unique capabilities that women bring to the workplace. What will America miss if we cannot find ways to address the complex balancing act women perform at work and at home in ways that may lure many of these women back to work? An end to the Pandemic will be a start, but it may not completely solve the problem.