Mary Barra
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From the Fed to GM, 5 top-tier women trying to fix man-made messes

Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, famously told GM engineers that there could be no excuses. “No more crappy cars,” she said bluntly.

Barra, 52, most recently was GM’s highly regarded chief of product development. Now, the engineering manager and company veteran of 30-plus years needs to keep the entire multinational corporation on its game: “pushing GM’s middle management and old guard to think and act differently,” writes CNBC.

Her predecessor Dan Akerson, who had predicted that a “car gal” would someday run one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, calls her “one of the most gifted executives I’ve met in my career.”

But Barra, a Stanford MBA who started at GM at age 18, knows it’s fundamentally about making, and selling, great cars. Sure, she’s pleased that her appointment as the first woman to run a major car company may drive interest in science, technology, engineering and math. Still, as she told the Detroit Free Press: “My gender doesn’t really factor into my thinking when I come into the room.”

“There is no right turn or left turn we’re going to be making,” Barra says. “We want to accelerate.”  (Daniel Roland / AFP/Getty Images)

The job of the head of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, says Janet Yellen, 67, “isn’t just about fighting inflation or monitoring the financial system. It’s about trying to help ordinary households get back on their feet and about creating a labor market where people can feel secure and work and get ahead.”

As fed chair -- a gender-neutral title she prefers over chairman or chairwoman -- this respected economist is now responsible for deciding where and how money flows in the U.S. So the world’s largest economy is in her capable hands -- what’s next?

The first woman to head the Fed in its 100-year history, she moves up from vice chair at a tricky time: helping to slowly wean markets off the stimulus she helped design. There are detractors. Fed historian Allan Meltzer worries that Yellen “will be inclined to chase unemployment to the detriment of inflation,” as Time magazine writes. Yes, but she’s a “formidable economist and an impressive communicator,” reminds the Guardian. “She has shrewdly navigated the crisis of the past five years, advocating robust, early intervention to prevent a 21st century Great Depression, and has focused unstintingly on unemployment.”

So how does Yellen feel?

“I think we’ll see stronger growth this year,” she told Time magazine. “The recovery has been frustratingly slow, but we’re making progress in getting people back to work, and I anticipate that inflation will move back toward our longer-run goal of 2 percent.”

 (J.M. Eddins Jr. / MCT)
It’s quite a salvo at the man who runs your state.

On her first official day on the job, after Tani Cantil-Sakauye was sworn in as chief justice of the state’s judiciary in San Francisco, wrote California Courts News, she told onlookers she didn’t like to “oath and run” but she had to get to Sacramento to swear in Gov. Jerry Brown too.

Fast forward three years, and here’s what she declares about that governor’s proposed funding for her beleaguered state judiciary:

“We are rationing justice, and it’s become more than a fiscal problem,” she said during a news conference in January.

“It is in my view now a civil rights problem,” said Cantil-Sakauye, 54, the first Asian American and the second woman to serve as chief justice in California. “Because when you can no longer guarantee timely access to justice, and you can no longer provide litigants a courtroom in his or her community of his or her peers, then we know we are denying the protections of an American democracy.”

True, the system she inherited in 2011 was in “full crisis mode.” Years of cutbacks have forced the closure of 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms, according to The Times, and reduced hours at courts throughout the state.

The budget has “made us do more with less,” she says, and she’s looked at technological solutions, including videoconferencing, to allow judges to try cases remotely. But the crisis is now.

A judges’ committee last year found that the cutbacks had created a five-month wait for trials on traffic matters in San Diego and a four-hour wait in lines in San Francisco to pay parking tickets, The Times reported.

What next?

“I don’t think it’s her reputation as a legal scholar that got her the appointment, but rather her experience in dealing with court administration issues on the Judicial Council and her experience in dealing with the legislature and the governor,” says Santa Clara University Law professor Gerald Uelmen(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
While still in college, Marissa Mayer made it onto a list of “campus icons” in the Stanford Daily student newspaper. As she recalls about the article: “There was literally a line that said ‘the blond woman in the upper-division computer-science classes.’ And I was, like, ‘I’m a woman in the upper-division computer-science classes -- I should know this person!’ I really had just been very blind to gender. And I still am.”

Mayer, 38, was employee No. 20 at Google and that firm’s first female engineer. She “rose to senior manager while earning a reputation as a tough boss in a male-dominated field -- and as a self-proclaimed fan of quirky humor, designer cupcakes and couture,” the San Jose Mercury News wrote.

So, when Mayer made the move to Yahoo in 2012, the immediate mission was to turn around the struggling Web giant. She’s faced Yahoo’s legacy problems head-on, says CNET: “bloat, culture, structure, and all the other things that have made the entrance to Yahoo’s CEO office a revolving door.”

But a year and a half down the road, her No. 2 executive has abruptly exited and advertising still isn’t growing. Yahoo needs to “reinvent” itself, Mayer insists. It must build new products that “delight and inspire,” attracting more users, which in turn will draw more advertisers and revenue.

“The future for us,” she says, “is that virtuous cycle.” (Michel Euler / Associated Press )
This spring, longtime Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts will shed her stylish trench coat to focus on trendy high-tech at Apple.

The much-praised Ahrendts, 53, wins high marks for making the iconic British luxury brand’s products “more accessible, in part through digital initiatives,” while also keeping its classic trench coat stylish.

So why tech instead of fashion? Why move from CEO to a position that Apple itself describes as “overseeing the consumer experience in-store and online”?

“For a talented and ambitious merchandiser like Ahrendts ... revitalizing Apple’s enormous retail business might be the ultimate challenge,” writes Fast Company’s Jeff Chu.

But as Fast Company’s Austin Carr points out, she boasts “a reverence for design and customer experience that’s consistent with Apple’s DNA -- unlike her predecessor, John Browett -- which will be crucial in rejuvenating Cupertino’s retail experience.”

Of course, she’s “not a geek. She is not technical,” says Vishal Sikka, a development executive at SAP, the German multinational software corporation. “But she has a vision for things she wants to see, and she has a profound understanding of what technology can do for people.”

As Ahrendts said last year: “We’ve never been finance first. We’ve always been instincts first. My dad used to always say he can teach you anything but he couldn’t teach you to feel. And so that’s the hardest part.” (Peter Foley / Bloomberg)