Ten years ago, you might have guessed that America would have a woman president before a woman became head of any of the Detroit automakers — especially General Motors, long seen as the stodgiest member of an industry known for its mostly closed, male-dominated culture.
But Mary Barra smashed through that glass ceiling. GM announced she will become chief executive officer next month of what was for many years the biggest corporation in the world, and is still America’s largest automaker. There are a lot of reasons to like this appointment.
The biggest reason is that Ms. Barra’s promotion is not purely symbolic. For the first time in many years, GM will be led not by an outsider or a “bean counter,” but by a true “car gal” whose roots and passion are in the product.
Trained as an engineer, Ms. Barra has most recently been GM’s head of global product development. She is regarded in the industry as a hard-working, efficient, and humane manager.
She has her work cut out for her. GM is profitable again after its bankruptcy, but its U.S. market share is stuck at just 18 percent, and it faces increasing global competition.
If anything about her appointment offers pause, it is that the 51-year-old Ms. Barra has never worked anywhere else. She started as an intern in GM’s now-defunct Pontiac division when she was an 18-year-old student at what was then General Motors Institute.
The pre-bankruptcy GM was badly hurt by narrow-minded thinking among executives with similar backgrounds. Yet this is no longer your father’s GM: Its last two chief executives spent most of their careers in the telecommunications industry, and the automaker has been considerably shaken up in recent years.
We wish Ms. Barra all the best, for the sake of the company and the thousands of young women who are bound to see her as a role model. When the news broke, singer Bette Midler sent out a tweet that said it all: “See, girls, she started as an engineer, and I don’t mean trains!”
Let’s hope Mary Barra keeps General Motors inspired, and rolling along.
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