Mary Barra Is Taking Over the Wheels at GM

The auto-industry veteran becomes the first female CEO at one of Detroit’s Big Three

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Earlier today General Motors announced that they’ve named Mary Barra as its chief executive following the retirement of the company’s current CEO, Daniel Akerson, next month. She will become the first female CEO in the global automotive industry. As with Marissa Mayer and Yahoo!, we will undoubtedly be hearing about GM’s decision to name Barra quite a bit over the coming weeks.

Bloomberg broke the news, so it’s only fitting that they would be the first to question why the automaker chose Barra. And while I’m sure we’d be reading about CEO changes at America’s largest automaker even if GM had chosen a male to fill the role, I don’t think we’d be so quick to question, “Why him?” Because 51-year-old Barra is a clear choice: Since 1980, the electrical engineer has steadily risen through the ranks, in various managerial positions, among them executive director of competitive operations engineering to manager of GM’s Hamtramck Assembly plant to and V.P. of global-manufacturing engineering—and she played a major role in the overhaul of the company’s vehicle lineups around the world. And yet, the news of her appointment came as a major surprise: Many in the industry expected the job would go to North American V.P. Mark Reuss, who has been at the helm of the car company’s major launches. Instead, he will assume Barra’s former position, as veep of Global Product Development, Purchasing, and Supply Chain.

“Mary was picked for her talent, not for her gender,” Akerson, 65, told The New York Times—the paper of record deemed the 33-year-GM veteran’s appointment a milestone. Barra, who had been on a shortlist of internal candidates that the company was considering for the position to run one of Detroit’s Big Three, has not only the “breadth and depth” of experience, according to Akerson, but a “vision of where she wants to take this company.”

His insistence that the conversation be focused on Barra’s merits is, unfortunately an all-too-important distinction to make in a world in which women have to prove their talent to be taken seriously, even to this day. Akerson has decided to retire earlier than he’d initially planned, due to his wife’s illness—she was recently given an advanced-stage cancer diagnosis.

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