General Motors Tuesday named longtime executive Mary Barra as chief executive, making her the first woman to rise to the top of the male-dominated world of U.S. auto manufacturing.

Barra, the executive vice president of global product development and global purchasing, will take over for current chief executive Dan Akerson on Jan. 15.

The selection of Barra, 51, to lead GM into the future marked the latest in a spate of appointments of woman chief executives to corporations long seen as dominated by men. Last year, the technology firm Yahoo named a woman as president and CEO. Also, women have been named in recent years to run defense contractors General Dynamics Corp. and Lockheed Martin as well as computer giants IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

“I think it is fantastic, and it indicates the openness of even the most traditional corporations to look for leadership from all sources, including from women,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group. “I think it is particularly heartening to see a corporation like GM do that, not only because of the traditional image we have of the male CEO at car companies, but also because of its global reach.”

Despite the high-profile appointments and a record of educational achievement that decisively outpaces that of men, women overall haven’t made much progress recently when it comes to rising into senior leadership roles in the nation’s largest companies. Women hold just under 17 percent of the seats on boards of directors and fewer than 15 percent of senior executive positions in the nation’s Fortune 500 companies, according to a new report from Catalyst, a firm that tracks the progress of women in corporate America. Overall, 23 women head the nation’s 500 largest corporations, the firm said.

Mary Barra is named chief executive to succeed Daniel Akerson, marking the first time a woman has run the world's No. 2 auto maker. (Handout photo/REUTERS)

Barra’s promotion came one day after the federal government announced the sale of its final remaining shares in the iconic automaker, marking the end of the darkest chapter in the company’s history. The investment by the federal government during the height of the financial crisis prevented GM from collapsing, and the company has emerged leaner and highly profitable in the years since.

“With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today’s GM,” Barra, a 33-year employee of the company, said in a statement. “I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.”

Although GM is stronger than it has been in decades, Barra will face significant challenges when she takes over the company. The firm is losing money in Europe and its big bet on the Chevrolet Volt electric car has yet to pay off.

But analysts called Barra well equipped to grapple with those issues. “Barra has spent her professional career in the car industry, and she has earned her stripes in a succession of manufacturing and engineering positions,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and an analyst at Kelly Blue Book. “As the current product chief for General Motors, she has overseen the corporation’s improvement in product quality and has benefited from the critical success of many new GM vehicles, including the Cadillac CTS and Chevrolet Impala.”

Barra is succeeding a chief executive who led GM through a dramatic revival from its near death experience. Akerson was less than eager to take the reins as GM’s chief executive in 2010, when the federal government was the automakers’ majority shareholder and the company’s cars were widely panned as uninspired — or worse.

But after enduring painful cuts, the company has enjoyed 15 consecutive quarters of profitability, invested more than $9 billion in its operations and began hiring again.

The company said Akerson is stepping down several months before he intended to because his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer.

Now it will be the job of Barra, a GM lifer, to keep up the pace.

A native of Waterford, Mich., Barra likes to say she is a longtime math and science nerd who grew up at GM. Her father spent 39 years working as a GM die-maker, and she often would go with him to dealer showrooms to check out the latest models.

When Barra was preparing to attend college at General Motors Institute, an engineering school formerly known as the West Point of industry, she put money down on a sporty Pontiac Firebird. But her frugality soon kicked in, causing her to settle on a compact Chevrolet Chevette.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and she began her career with GM as a college co-op student working for the now-defunct Pontiac brand. She later attended Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business on a GM fellowship, and since then has worked her way up through a series of engineering, manufacturing and senior staff jobs at the company.

In 2011, she was named a vice president for global product development, a crucial job that put her in charge of the design and quality control for GM vehicles built around the world. Last August, she was named executive vice president.

“She is a leader in the company’s ongoing turnaround, revitalizing GM’s product development process, resulting in the launch of critically acclaimed new products,” GM said of Barra in a statement.

“Her appointment is very promising, very exciting. But I am also mindful of the fact that we have women struggling at every level,” said Greenberger, who noted that two-thirds of the nation’s minimum wage workers are women. “Every time we see this kind of breakthrough, it is a go-girl kind of moment for women who are struggling at every level.”