General Motors has become the world’s first automaker to have a female CEO, when its board of directors named Mary Barra to the position, effective January. Barra, who also becomes the highest ranking female engineer in any industrial organization, will succeed Dan Akerson. Barra is currently Executive Vice President, Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. She was selected by GM’s Board of Directors.
The 51-year-old Barra, who is an SAE International member, has been considered a candidate for GM’s chief executive officer since Akerson moved her from global head of human resources to lead product development in early 2011. Last September, however, her status accelerated to CEO front-runner, when Akerson hinted to a Detroit Economic Club audience, "Some day, there'll be a Detroit 3 that's run by a car gal. I don't know when, but I think there are an unbelievable number of talented women in automotive, certainly at General Motors. It's inevitable."
"Ms. Barra's appointment as CEO represents a momentous occasion that is truly inspirational to female engineers,” commented Alexandra Cattelan, Chief Engineer at AVL North America and a former GM engineering executive. “Mary is a role model, proving that the opportunities are limitless for hard-working and talented women."
Barra is a GM “lifer,” having begun her career at the automaker in 1980 when she was a 19-year-old Kettering University co-op student working at the Pontiac Division. She holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.
Her appointment is one of other key executive moves by GM, coming one day after the U.S. government sold its remaining shares in the company. Pertinent to engineers, GM also announced that Mark Reuss, the incumbent North America President, will replace Barra as head of PD and purchasing. Alan Batey, currently Chevrolet’s global chief, will replace Reuss.
In his remarks to media Dec. 10, Akerson called Barra “a change agent and leader” who has “an adaptive personality” and is “one of the most talented people I know.” He said she was selected for the CEO position by the GM Board based on her capabilities, not for her gender.
“The perception of GM as an ‘old boy’s club’ is an old perception,” Akerson said, noting that GM has women on its executive committee, and continues to promote them to engineering and product-development leadership. Also, roughly one quarter of GM’s plant managers are female.
As head of global PD, Barra built a reputation as a leader who challenged the status quo and blew up a bureaucratic culture. She streamlined management and challenged engineers (and suppliers) to consolidate their designs, platforms, and componentry. “She has garnered great respect for many reasons, including that she’s a great listener,” noted Dave Leone, GM’s Executive Chief Engineer, Performance, Luxury, and Rear-Drive Vehicles.
While Akerson noted GM’s significant progress since the dark days that led to the company’s bankruptcy, he also laid out ongoing challenges that Barra and her teams face, primarily the need to continue to consolidate global vehicle platforms; upgrade powertrain capabilities, and further “remedy” GM’s International operations.
For Stacey DelVecchio, President of the Society of Women Engineers, Barra’s promotion couldn’t come at a better time for the profession.
“We’re really excited for Mary—to see a female with an engineering background to rise to that high a level in a company of that size, is wonderful,” said DelVecchio, who is also Caterpillar’s Engineering Talent Manager and is a chemical engineer by training.
“Mary’s a role model not only for those who are younger, but also for those like myself who’ve been working for 20-plus years. In general we need more engineers—and we need more of those engineers to be women,” she told AEI.