5 Things To Know About Mary Barra, GM’s First Female CEO

By Sophia Jones

In a little more than three decades, Mary Barra has risen from a teenager checking under Pontiac hoods at a car plant in Flint, Mich., to the first female leader of the largest automaker by vehicle unit sales in the world. On Jan. 15, 2014, Barra will become CEO of General Motors and the first woman to lead any major American automaker in what Business Insider calls “a step forward for an industry that has been, and remains, dominated by men.” In a company long dominated by financial executives, Barra will not only be the first female executive to run GM, but the first engineer. The 51-year-old mother of two will strive to improve GM or what Forbes calls “one of the most dysfunctional companies on Earth,” a company that has been teetering on the brink of closure for years. As stated on GM’s website, Barra’s goal is to make GM “a company that America can be proud of again.” It is only just recently, within the past three years, that GM has been able to pump the brakes on its tumble off the ledge of failure.

Five things you may not know about Mary Barra, what her promotion means for General Motors, and what her new position means for society:

1. The lady works well under pressure. Her innovative thinking is one of the most significant reasons that GM is still around today. The year 2011 became a pivotal time for GM and for Barra, as the company was released back into the public trade after filing for bankruptcy and being owned by the U.S. Treasury. Barra, a woman with little experience designing vehicles, was named senior vice president for global product development, in charge of deciding what the look and ambience of GM’s most important products would be. The nation sat by, waiting to see if GM would fail or endure. GM not only survived, it succeeded, rising from the ashes like a steel phoenix reclaiming its auto-making throne. After some intense redesigning, revamping and closing of its four worst performing brands, GM regained its position as world’s largest automaker by vehicle unit sales within ten months. In a 2011 interview, Barra explained to Forbes that she “shaved at least three years off the implementation plan and saved more than a billion dollars.” GM’s new model of the Cadillac was named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 2013, Consumer Reports named Chevrolet’s new Impala the best sedan on the market in July, and auto website Kelley Blue Book (KBB) named the Buick the Best Value Luxury Brand for 2013. This year, GM paid back their U.S. government loan five years ahead of schedule, and, according to a KBB senior analyst, GM’s sales improved by 13 percent in the single month of November 2013. Mary will succeed current GM CEO Dan Akerson, who said in a 2013 interview that “Mary went into an organization that was in chaos and brought order.”

2. Cars are in her blood. GM is in her heart. At a Dec. 10, 2013, Town Hall meeting of GM employees, Akerson introduced Mary to more than 205,000 workers as a “car gal.” Barra has been working for GM for her entire 33-year career, but her relationship with the company goes even deeper than that. Barra’s father worked as a die maker at a GM Pontiac plant for 39 years in Waterford, Mich. where Barra grew up as a math-and-science whiz. Her first car was a Chevy, and her first job at the age of 18 was with GM, checking the hood and fender panels of Pontiac Grand Prix cars coming off the assembly line. In 2011, Barra told Forbes that this first taste of the auto industry “got [her].” Barra worked in the factory as part of a GM co-op program that helped to pay for her college tuition at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., where she would graduate with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. She began working as a senior engineer at a Pontiac plant immediately after graduation, and GM recognized her potential for leadership, paying for even more of her education by sending her to graduate school under their fellowship program. Barra got her master’s in business administration from Stanford Graduate School of Business in California in 1990 and went straight back to GM, where she would work for the rest of her career giving back to the company that gave to her.

3. Barra was chosen as CEO for her drive, not her gender. In September, Akerson told Huffington Post reporters that it was “inevitable” that a woman would run one of the U.S. automakers one day, but, in GM’s Town Hall meeting he claimed that Barra was “picked for her talent, not for her gender, not for political correctness, anything of that order.” Because of her long-standing career with GM, she experienced what went wrong in the 1980s and 1990s firsthand. She has learned from it, and she understands how to move forward from it. She explained her vision for GM to Forbes in 2011: “It’s about no-kidding results. Don’t tell me the dog ate your homework, because the customer doesn’t care.” Barra’s election to CEO by GM’s board was unanimous. KBB President Jared Rowe wrote to Business Insider that “GM is in more than capable hands” with Mary Barra because the world has seen some of the best products released under her lead. Instead of waiting for things to happen to her, Barra makes things happen for her company and for herself.

4. As a female CEO, Barra may still be an American anomaly. According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit research and advocacy group Catalyst, there are only 22 female CEOs in the biggest companies in America today. The Catalyst holds an annual study of women in Fortune 500 companies who hold executive positions and are on corporate boards. The same week that Barra was appointed to CEO of GM, the Catalyst released their results for 2013, and for the eighth year in a row, the numbers were unchanged. Catalyst found that women held 4 percent of executive or corporate board positions and only 3.3 percent of those were durable goods manufacturers. Federal data for 2013 reported in USA Today showed that women are still the minority in the auto industry workforce, representing 21 percent. Out of 185,200 employees working in the auto industry, 39,000 are women.

5. Still, Barra’s appointment to CEO marks a new era. Historically, America’s auto industry has been viewed as a testosterone- and horsepower-driven “boys only” venture dominated by men. Many have made cracks in this stereotype, but Barra’s promotion officially shatters the wall excluding women. Terry Barclay, president of the professional women’s alliance Inforum told Michigan news station MLive that Barra’s appointment to CEO “is a day that is forever going to change the industry and the tremendous opportunities within it.” Apart from Barra, several women hold executive positions on GM’s board. Earlier this week, “USA Today” reported that women are actually the deciding factor in the majority of vehicle buying decisions in America today, making 80 percent of the car purchasing decisions over men. As a result of Barra and the determination of other “car gals” like her, the perception of and the opportunity within America’s auto industry progresses more and more every day—especially for young women.

Photo from GM.

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About Sophia

imageSophia is a senior studying journalism and art history at the University of Alabama. Roll Tide! Sophia tries to live her life like the sun—burning to be brilliant and vowing to always rise up again. Writing is her love language. She is currently an editorial assistant for Alabama Alumni Magazine, and has written for publications such as, “The Crimson White,” Alabama Heritage magazine, Alpine Living magazine, the “Tuscaloosa News,” Tusk205.com and Teton Home & Living Magazine. As a journalist, Sophia writes to inform. As a creative writer, Sophia strives to inspire. Overall, she hopes to captivate. Culture—food, language, people, music and art—is her kryptonite. Sophia has an unwavering belief in the power of a genuine smile, a home-cooked meal, and rock-n-roll.

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  • I think, Mary Barra is one of the bravest women in bussines. She took over GM, when that company was in big trouble. She even had to testify before a Congress. She is on the right way to become the most reliable CEO in GM history.

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