The women, when they have appeared on television, have been poised, apologizing for gross misconduct in their establishments, promising investigations and makeovers of the sort that can alter personal reputations and institutional cultures.
Mary T. Barra. Julia Pierson. Deborah Lee James. Household names they are not. They have not been in the public eye long enough to be instantly recognizable. And something tells me they would prefer to remain that way — out of the spotlight while they get their arms around the institutions they lead. They still carry the sheen of “firsts,” or nearly so. In January, Barra became the first female chief executive of a major auto manufacturer, General Motors. Pierson was appointed director of the Secret Service in March last year, the first female head of the 148-year-old agency. James was confirmed as secretary of the Air Force in December, the second female ever to hold the position.
Each could write a chapter on baptism by fire. All three have inherited scandals that promise to test their mettle as transformers in distinctly male environments.
I have heard it suggested many times — and sometimes only half in jest — that the nature of the corporate world and politics would be entirely different, less cut-throat and scandal-ridden, if women ran the show and were less tolerant of a “boys will be boys” mentality.
That would be a social experiment worth waiting for. In the meantime, the Barras, Piersons and Jameses bear the burden of proving that women in charge can forge a leadership model that makes all the difference.
Barra is scheduled to present herself today and tomorrow at an inquisition, otherwise known as a congressional hearing. As we all have learned during the past several weeks, GM officials knew for about a decade that faulty ignition switches installed in several of their model lines between 2003 and 2011 were responsible for accidents in which at least a dozen people died. Car engines stalled, drivers lost control of their vehicles, airbags failed to deploy, and injuries, some fatal, followed.
But GM sat tight while the complaints rolled in from as early as 2004. News accounts say the company in 2005 nixed a proposed fix, citing the high cost of tooling and parts. Stack that against injuries and deaths. Unconscionable, you think? As of March, GM had issued recalls covering 2.6 million vehicles. “Penny wise” doesn’t begin to explain the failure of corporate integrity here.
Since the scandal broke, the company line has been about a new and much improved GM, post-bankruptcy, that is not the beast it once was. Perhaps Barra could explain just how the corporate culture has changed, how she and the new GM would make whole those who have been grievously harmed and what values would be her stamp on the company. How well she does all of these may well become part of the discussion whether women would bring a humanizing sensitivity, shall we say, to the profit-and-loss culture of business.
Almost immediately after she became secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James was confronted with a cheating scandal she has described as “a major failure of integrity.” In the course of investigating illegal drug use at Air Force bases, investigators stumbled last year on widespread cheating on proficiency tests at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Cadets of the 341st Missile Wing in training to service and launch intercontinental ballistic missiles were said to be sharing answers on tests.
The investigation report, released last month, implicated some 91 cadets at the base, some for cheating and some for not reporting the unethical conduct they knew was going on. The report said squadron leaders turned a blind eye to the cheating. Nine commanders have subsequently been fired, and the wing commander has been allowed to resign.
But that hardly resolves the challenge for Secretary James, who has acknowledged the missile sites suffer from “systemic problems,” low morale and limited paths to promotion. What blend of toughness and compassion is required to fix what ails the missile training program?
And then there is Director Pierson and a Secret Service that can’t seem to shake a booze problem. In 2012, 10 agents preparing for a presidential visit to Cartagena, Colombia, were sent back home after a hotel-room disagreement over paying prostitutes for their services. The embarrassment prompted new rules prohibiting agents on official trips from drinking alcohol 10 hours before going on duty. That didn’t stop a recent incident in Amsterdam, where an agent on an advance team for a presidential meeting was found passed out in a hotel corridor. He and two drinking buddies were sent home. What does a woman do?
For better or for worse, the women are in the hot seats and in the public eye. Would the world be different if women ran the whole show? The jury is watching and listening.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.