At last, the face of power is female

First, General Motors, next, the Federal Reserve. The glass ceiling in the US is not broken, but some big cracks are beginning to appear

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As the head of General Motors during the Second World War famously declared, “What’s good for America is good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Charles Erwin Wilson’s much-mocked dictum may have rung hollow when the largest US car manufacturer tumbled into bankruptcy a few years back. But right now the words of the man nicknamed “Engine Charlie” hit the nail on the head.

Last week, General Motors named Mary Barra as its new boss. By any standards, this is a pretty major crack in the glass ceiling. Running the world’s leading car companies has always been for men. Never before has one of them given its top job to a woman. Think motor industry executives, and you think of patriarchs such as Henry Ford or Gianni Agnelli, or corporate he-men like Lee Iacocca. When did you see a car ad explaining useful stuff, such as the amount of groceries you could get in the boot? Here in the US, they’re all about speed, performance and conquering the wilderness – guy stuff.

Now, Ms Barra is no industry outsider. Her father was a machinist at GM’s defunct Pontiac division and she’s spent her entire career at the company, much of it in engineering and design. Even so, if a new GM is indeed rising from the ashes of the old one, nothing proves it like her appointment. “The focus must be on the customer,” she told an interviewer a few months ago. That sounds trite sales-speak, until you remember that the main reason for the previous GM’s demise was its failure to build cars that customers actually wanted. A woman’s touch could be just what is needed.

In fact, Ms Barra’s promotion is part of a trend. Women may not yet be true equals in the workplace; on average, in the US, they are paid 79 per cent of what men earn for the equivalent job, while only 22 of the biggest 500 US companies have female chief executives. But across American society and government, they are seizing new redoubts.

If high finance is your thing, you may have recently noticed a cheerful woman from Brooklyn holding forth on the merits of quantitative easing. That would be Janet Yellen, the next chairman of the Federal Reserve (assuming, of course, a dysfunctional Congress gets round to confirming her – but more of that in a moment).

Central banking, like running car companies, is a man’s business. Yes, a dozen of the world’s 160-odd central banks are led by women, but almost all of them are in developing countries, with the notable and somewhat surprising exception of Russia. But never has there been a female governor of a top Western central bank. Ms Yellen is about to become the most powerful monetary official on earth.

In fact, the Fed has been something of a pioneer in the field. Over the past two decades, six women have served as a governor (or board member), among them not only Yellen but also Sarah Bloom Raskin, who is set (Congress again permitting) to be the first female Deputy Secretary of the US Treasury, the department’s second-ranking official. Among other things, she will help to supervise the new rules to rein in Wall Street excesses. And there, too, a woman’s touch may be just the thing.

“If Lehman Brothers had been a bit more Lehman Sisters, today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different,” remarked Christine Lagarde, now the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, after the Great Crash of 2008, when she was still serving as France’s first woman finance minister. She wasn’t even half-joking.

Financial scandals and disasters are guy things, too – all that testosterone propelling traders to take one risk too many, to prove they’re top dog. No woman would ever have set about rigging Libor, no way could JP Morgan Chase’s “London Whale” have been a man. As for a female Bernie Madoff, forget it. No woman has ever led a big Wall Street securities firm, and that is not a coincidence. But after Janet Yellen and Sarah Raskin, that day is surely drawing closer.

And this isn’t my pious call for gender equality or affirmative action in the workplace. Nor is it to suggest that command of the financial system be made over entirely to women. Risk-taking and innovation, those oft-thought-of male virtues, make capitalism go round. But they must be leavened with those qualities with which women seem to be more endowed and that the financial sector needs much more of: responsibility and caution, prudence and selflessness.

The same goes for government. A greater emphasis on the customer and the consumer, a less macho, less dogmatic approach to problems – wouldn’t that be wonderful in politics, too? In fact, if you peer beyond the headlines of gloom and gridlock on Capitol Hill, you will find some encouraging signs. Women increasingly are making their presence felt.

There are a record 99 women among the current 535 senators and congressmen. One of them, Patti Murray of Washington State, was co-author of the compromise budget deal that produced a rare outbreak of comity on Capitol Hill last week, and you can’t but feel the system would function a great deal better if more women, less confrontational and more inclined to collaborate, were around.

Take the poisonous feuding in the Senate, and the Democrats’ invocation of the “nuclear option” to end the right of the Republican minority to filibuster Obama nominees such as Yellen and Raskin. The dispute has been driven by men, in particular by the undisguised animosity between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, respectively majority and minority leader. If women held those jobs, this current mess surely wouldn’t have arisen.

As it is, the congressional women are overwhelmingly Democrat, which makes sense, too. Brinkmanship, chest-thumping and a refusal to compromise, those “male” traits are the hallmark of Republicans on Capitol Hill. And by damaging the party’s brand across the United States, they’ve only increased the chances of a Democrat named Hillary Clinton smashing the thickest glass ceiling of all in 2016.

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