Mary Barra, the CEO and chairman of General Motors, believes that one way to build up more women leaders in the auto industry is to reach teenage girls who are interested in math and science. To that end, GM is investing in a new partnership with Girls Who Code, a nationwide after-school program that supports girls’ interest in STEM programs. Barra says the $250,000 grant is only the beginning to supporting the nonprofit organization that provides free after-school programs in schools, universities, and communities centers.
Barra, the first woman to lead a car company and one of 22 women to run a Fortune 500 company, is not an executive who shies away from addressing the problem. She has called for a host of initiatives that GM participates in to encourage diverse hiring practices and to promote women up through the leadership ranks. But first qualified women have to apply for technical positions.
“But what’s so important with Girls Who Code is to build that pipeline even before they get to high school to take the college programs that create more coding engineers,” Barra said.
Between the ages of 13 to 17, the number of girls interested in pursuing study in math and sciences tends to decline, which means their likelihood of pursuing a tech career decreases, Girls who Code founder Reshma Saujani told The Verge an interview.
I met with Barra and Saujani at GM headquarters in Detroit during the North American International Show. “Our goal is to reach 100,000 girls next year and all of them are going to be exposed to the work we’re doing with GM and the amazing women I’ve met at GM, including Mary,” Saujani said.
In order to keep up with the lightning pace of innovation happening in the car industry, more coding talent is needed across the board. “All the statistics say there’s going to be a shortage. We need to have a workforce that matches where the car industry is going,” Barra said. “Tens of millions lines of codes are in a vehicle and it’s only increasing, and there’s an increasing gender gap. The number of women engineers is not growing.”
Like every technological field, it’s a disheartening and hypocritical fact that women are sorely underrepresented. It’s true at tech companies and it’s true in the car industry. Women hold less than 20 percent of senior level positions at car companies, according to Catalyst, an organization that studies workplace inclusion. It’s a number which is roughly on par with the percentage of women working at tech companies. Women represent only one-quarter of jobs in the auto industry.
And simply hiring women employees is not enough. Under Barra’s leadership, GM has launched several mentoring programs to encourage women to move up the ranks in the company. She gathers female senior executives on a quarterly basis to find new strategies to grow their numbers and also brings male leaders into the mentoring process. The sheer size of GM’s workforce allows for employees to plan for life changes, like an assignment that requires less travel when they are getting ready to start families or taking care of aging family members.
While car companies have not traditionally appealed to coders, a large legacy company offer advantages to young women entering the tech workforce that a startup does not, Saujani said. “They want to work at places where they are going to be supported. Where there’s a lot of women there and at a company like GM that have been around for a long time,” she said. The buzz about change in the auto industry is also helping to attract the interest of Girls Who Code members. “They’re curious about the innovation and they’re curious to know where it’s moving and where it’s going.”
The promise of social change is another way Girls Who Code appeals to teenage girls. “They are passionate about climate change and the impact that these new generation of cars are going to have on the environment,” Saujani said. “Seventy-four percent of high school girls want to pick a career that’s about changing the world.” The program will have national legs and GM’s 40 manufacturing facilities will serve as ways to connect with students on the local level. To launch the program a group of about 30 Girls Who Code members from Southeast Michigan visited GM and spent the day meeting with its top female executives, including Barra.
For Barra, the Girls Who Code program has personal resonance. Unlike some car company CEOs, she studied engineering. “My brother and I were the first in our family that went to college. Both of my parents encouraged us in math and science and that encouragement pushed us.”
While all may not pursue careers in coding or at GM, Barra said that there are other life lessons to be learned through diligent STEM study — like what it means to fail. “So much of a STEM background and coding is logical problem solving, and in most of business that’s what we’re doing day and day out. It gives you the foundation to do just that.”
GM and other car companies stand to benefit from having women making high-level decisions. More women in the US have driver’s licenses than men and women make over 80 percent of household purchase decisions. If auto industry executives are smart about their strategy for future innovation, they will make a concerted effort to reach its most critical customer base to keep up with the times — women.