Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: Of GM, and Women In Power

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Those who follow trends in development have no doubt heard of the myriad benefits associated with empowering women. In theory, women tend to be more socially conscious / accountable, long-term thinkers than men. Many conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs in developing countries give cash exclusively to women, believing they will use the money in more constructive ways.

From the UNDP website:

Equality between men and women is more than a matter of social justice – it’s a fundamental human right. But gender equality also makes good economic sense. When women have equal access to education, and go on to participate fully in business and economic decision-making, they are a key driving force against poverty. Women with equal rights are better educated, healthier, and have greater access to land, jobs and financial resources. Their increased earning power in turn raises household incomes. By enhancing women’s control over decision-making in the household, gender equality also translates into better prospects and greater well-being of children, reducing poverty of future generations.

Some fast facts about women in power (for a more “macro” picture, check out the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII), which weighs traditional Human Development Index (HDI) scores for gender equality, offering a side by side comparison):

Public Sector:

  • 20.9 per cent of national parliamentarians were female as of 1 July 2013, an increase from 11.6 per cent in 1995
  • As of June 2013, 8 women served as Head of State and 13 served as Head of Government.
  • Globally, there are 37 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of July 2013

“More women in politics does not correlate with lower levels of corruption, as is often assumed. Rather, democratic and transparent politics is correlated with low levels of corruption, and the two create an enabling environment for more women to participate”UN Women

Private Sector:

General Motor’s new CEO Marry Barra has handled GM’s recent safety issues / vehicle recall with the remorse and accountability we should demand from all people in power:

General Motors Co announced new recalls of 1.5 million vehicles on Monday and in a virtually unprecedented public admission by a GM chief executive, Mary Barra acknowledged the company fell short in catching faulty ignition switches linked to 12 deaths.

“Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened,” she told employees in a video message posted online. Barra said the company is changing how it handles defect investigations and recalls.

In the last two months, GM has recalled more than 3.1 million vehicles in the United States and other markets.

Barra previously apologized for GM’s failure to catch the faulty ignition switches sooner. In Monday’s video, she said GM is “conducting an intense review of our internal processes and will have more developments to announce as we move forward.”

GM said the new recalls resulted from Barra’s push for a comprehensive internal safety review following the ignition-switch recall.

“I asked our team to redouble our efforts on our pending product reviews, bring them forward and resolve them quickly,” Barra said in a statement on Monday.

On Friday, the automaker was hit with what appeared to be the first U.S. class action related to the ignition-switch recall, as customers claimed their vehicles lost value because of the ignition switch problems. The proposed class action was filed in a Texas federal court. Other plaintiffs’ lawyers say they are preparing to file similar cases in the coming days.

To be sure, Miss Barra’s admissions of wrongdoing do not come solely out of the kindness of her heart. There has been considerable negative publicity surrounding GM in recent weeks, most notably concerning the 12 people who died due to ignition related issues (another study found that 303 people died due to airbag malfunctions in GM vehicles, which the company has yet to address). In addition to class action lawsuits, GM is facing a criminal investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice.

There can be no denying that GM was negligent in its internal processes. I think most people expected the typical corporate response: an announcement of “regret”, a recall, and silence until the legal process played out.

However, Miss Barra has gone above and beyond what we have come to expect from people in power; a presentence admission of wrongdoing and pledge to change internal processes is a breath of fresh air. Such accountability requires courage and long-term thinking, but is ultimately much more beneficial for all parties involved.

The cynic could say that GM is simply in damage control mode, or that perhaps they brought in Miss Barra because they saw this oncoming shit-storm. Somehow, despite the issues I cover, I am not a cynic; perhaps I a fool or a Pollyanna. I believe that since the future is yet unwritten, there is a chance for people power and social justice to prevail over the forces of greed. In fact, I see trends in governance and technology making this an inevitable (if not slow moving) shift.

As the UN Women quote above highlights, having women as symbolic placeholders does not itself create change. While high ranking positions are the most visible and make the decisions with the greatest social impact, gender inequality must be addressed from the ground up, starting with the world’s most vulnerable women. Breaking power imbalances is relative; for some it is holding a top position in the public or private sector, for others it is enjoying basic human rights they currently do not enjoy.

The push for greater gender equality should also catalyze self-reflection of future male leaders; if men want to hold positions of power in the future, they would be wise to embrace more long-term, socially conscious / accountable outlooks.

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