Does anyone really deserve more than a million dollars a month?

Feb 11, 2014

If I could have dinner with any corporate executive, I’d choose Mary Barra, who I think is fascinating.

She rose through the ranks of the highly macho culture at General Motors to become its first female CEO. And she didn’t do it as a transplanted financial expert, but as the first honest-to-goodness automotive engineer to lead the company in more than 20 years.

Were she male, she'd be called a "car guy" by the press.

Were she male, she’d be called a “car guy” by the press.

Though powerful, she still impresses people as feminine, and has managed to build an incredible career while sustaining a successful long marriage and raising two children.

If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is.

Yet I’ve also been fascinated and appalled this week by the ongoing kerfuffle over Mary Barra’s salary.

A few days ago, author and feminist Anne Doyle got my attention with a post on her leadership blog, Powering Up.

Doyle, who is a friend of mine, was both incredulous and indignant that Barra was apparently being paid less than her predecessor, Dan Akerson. Not just less than he was being paid then, less than he is being paid now, in retirement.

The figures seemed to show Akerson would get almost $4.7 million this year in salary and short-term stock incentives, while Barra would get $300,000 less.

Seemed like the old gender pay gap is alive and well, even at the highest levels. It seemed especially galling that the retired man was getting paid more in salary than the woman who inherited his job. Well, this certainly set off a tempest at General Motors, and yesterday, a spokesperson said we’d gotten it all wrong.

In fact, new figures show that Barra’s total compensation this year will be $14.4 million, way more than the $9 million Akerson got last year.

Well, I am glad any time a blow is struck for pay equity, but I’m also uneasy about this: Does anyone really deserve more than a million dollars a month? I am not starving myself and think those who work hard and smart deserve material rewards.

... what is the definition of enough?

But what is the definition of enough?

It is certainly easier to justify Barra’s salary than that of Prince Fielder, an overweight and underperforming baseball player who was paid more than $20 million last year.

But there are women second-tier autoworkers at GM struggling to support families on less than $30,000 a year, and the single waitress at my local coney island who may make $20,000.

I wonder if Mary Barra thinks about them and the fact that there’s no way they will ever be able to buy a new GM product.

Incidentally, yesterday I discussed the fact that not a single Republican invited to witness President Obama signing the farm bill at Michigan State Friday showed up.

Actually, there was one elected GOP official there – State Representative Mike Callton, R-Nashville. He wasn’t invited; he showed up on his own, and had to fight to get a ticket.

He told reporters, “The President deserves our respect, and he is the leader of the nation, whether a Democrat or a Republican.”

Well, Representative Callton, that was a classy thing to do and say, and you deserve respect as well.