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The rundown on Mary Barra, first female CEO of General Motors

REUTERS/Mike Cassese/Files

A woman is about to take the steering wheel at General Motors for the first time.

Mary Barra, the company's executive in charge of product development, was named to the CEO post, the company announced Tuesday, saying that current CEO Dan Akerson will retire on Jan. 15. She will not only be the first female executive to lead General Motors, but the first to lead any of the Detroit automakers or any automaker around the globe, according to Bloomberg. She'll also be the fifth CEO to run the company in the last five years.

The announcement comes one day after the U.S. government disclosed that it had sold the last of the shares of GM it had acquired.

What's her background?

While the big change that will get the most attention is that Barra is the first woman to lead GM, she's also the first veteran of the company to lead it in several years. Akerson worked in the telecom and tech industries before coming to GM from The Carlyle Group and his predecessor, Ed Whitacre, also spent his career in the telecom field.

Barra is a GM lifer, having joined the company before she turned 20 years old. Her father was a Pontiac die maker and she attended General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) before starting out as an intern on the factory floor. Along the way, she was once an executive assistant to former CEO Jack Smith. According to Bloomberg, she served as vice president of global manufacturing engineering, headed up an assembly plant and was executive director of competitive operations engineering. Then, before taking on the role of product chief, she ran human resources for the company.

Who did she beat in the race for the job?

Three men. The first, Mark Reuss, a "car guy" considered the favorite among GM's rank and file to get the job, will take over Barra's role as product chief. Dan Amman, the company's CFO who streamlined how the company's divisions transacted with each other, will become president. Vice chairman Steve Girsky was also seen as a potential contender, and he'll move to a senior adviser role until he leaves the company in April.

How notable is this for the auto industry?

In a corporate world where just more than 20 of the Fortune 500's chief executives are women, it's notable any time a woman gets named to a CEO post, much less one as large and historically important to the U.S. economy as General Motors. But it's particularly noteworthy given the male-dominated culture of the auto industry and the traditional reputation of the swaggering auto executive (Barra's current job as product chief was recently held by someone who flew a helicopter to work and has been called a "man of men").

According to recent data by the nonprofit Catalyst, which just released its annual report detailing the lack of progress women have made in the boardroom and the executive suite, women are under-represented at the top in the auto industry's sector. On average, women hold 16.9 percent of board seats and 14.6 percent of executive officer roles in large U.S. companies. But in the manufacturing-durable goods sector, which includes automakers, the percentage of female directors is 15.6 percent, and the percentage of female executives is just 11.2.

How notable is this for GM?

Women currently hold six of the 24 corporate officer positions at General Motors--a greater percentage than the typical Fortune 500 company, according to Catalyst's data. They also currently hold four of 14 seats on its board--again, higher than most. Akerson has been credited with trying to increase the percentage of women in top roles overall, but it's still difficult to do in an industry where, as of 2010, women made up just less than 21 percent of all employees.

What's her style as a leader?

Compared with some of her predecessors, Barra has been said to have a "quiet personality" or a "vanilla style." And while one of those former CEOs--the aforementioned copter-commuting Bob Lutz--was called "an autocrat in the boardroom with an allergy to consensus," Barra apparently couldn't be more different. She's quick in interviews to make references to her team, even when not asked about them, and is known for relying on team-building and consensus-seeking. But not too much so. In a profile of her in the Stanford alumni magazine (she got an MBA at the university's business school), another GM executive called her "very methodical, very logical, very fair. ... I guess she kind of has a consensus approach, but when it's not coming together, she gets concise and she's pretty decisive."

She's also known for trying to overhaul GM's bureaucracy by basic changes like cutting the number of required reports and simplifying the dress code to one that lets employees use their judgment. When one manager complained about what it might say to visitors if executives were wearing jeans, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Barra responded, “so you’re telling me I can trust you to give you a company car and to have you responsible for tens of millions of dollars, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately?”

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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