Despite the groundbreaking nature of her appointment, announced Tuesday, Barra in many ways represents the ultimate insider. The Michigan-born daughter of a Pontiac die-maker, Barra grew up loving Camaros and Firebirds and brought deep knowledge of engineering and production to her three decades at the nation's largest automaker.
Rising from intern to head of global product development, Barra most recently led the creation of GM's most memorable cars in years, even as the beleaguered automaker executed a drastic downsizing. She led the development of such critically acclaimed models as the seventh-generation Corvette, GM's new truck lineup, two new rear-wheel-drive Cadillac sedans and the 2014 Impala, which has drawn raves from Consumer Reports and the automotive press.
"It marks the first time in a very long time that GM is being run by an engineer," said Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Capital.
Barra, 51, joins a handful of women as CEOs of major U.S. companies, including Marissa Mayer at Yahoo Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Meg Whitman. She is the first woman to head a major car company. GM is the world's second-largest automaker, behind Toyota Motor Corp.
Her appointment is one sign of a diminishing old-boys network in the auto industry. One quarter of GM's factories are run by women. With Barra's appointment, which includes a director's seat, five of the automaker's 14 board members will be women.
"I never thought I'd see the day that a woman would head a car company — much less the biggest car company in America," said Michelle Krebs, an analyst at auto information company Edmunds.com. Barra replaces Dan Akerson, who announced his retirement just a day after the federal government closed the books on the taxpayer-financed bailout of GM, selling the remaining shares in the nation's largest automaker and taking an estimated $10.5-billion loss. He praised Barra for energizing product development at a crucial juncture.
"Mary went into an organization that four years ago, quite frankly, was in chaos and brought order," said Akerson.
Akerson, 65, said he had planned to resign in the latter half of next year but decided to advance GM's succession plan after his wife was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. He led the automaker through one of the toughest periods in its history after joining the board in 2009 and being named chairman and CEO in 2010. Since emerging from bankruptcy, GM has logged 15 consecutive quarters of profitability.
"I will leave with great satisfaction in what we have accomplished, great optimism over what is ahead and great pride that we are restoring General Motors as America's standard bearer in the global auto industry," Akerson said.
He will hand the reins to Barra on Jan. 15.
Barra started at GM 33 years ago, joining the Pontiac division where her father worked. She earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University in Flint, Mich., and a master's in business administration from Stanford University.
In an interview with The Times before her appointment, Barra recalled getting excited, from a young age, at the introduction of new models.
"I always had favorite cars — Camaros and Firebirds," she said. "And I just loved the business — from the plant floor to leading global product development."
Industry observers cheered Barra's appointment and the milestone it marks. The elevation of a woman to the top position at a major industrial company underscores the quality and availability of women ready to lead corporations, said Kathy Kram, a Boston University School of Management professor.
"Her appointment is certainly something to be celebrated. But the fact that we are still counting firsts says something about women in leadership," said Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer of Catalyst, a nonprofit that tracks the status of women in business.
In its annual census released Tuesday, Catalyst noted that women continue to be underrepresented in the most senior ranks of Fortune 500 companies. Women hold just 14.6% of executive roles, a number that has been stagnant for four years, Gillis said.
When Barra takes over at GM in January, she will be only the 23rd female chief executive at a Fortune 500 company, according to Catalyst.
At GM, other women are following Barra's path through the executive ranks. Alicia Boler-Davis is senior vice president who heads global quality and customer experience. Grace Lieblein is senior vice president of global purchasing. Pam Fletcher is an executive chief engineer who directs GM global electric vehicle programs.
Barra has the skills and the track record to lead the company, said Jared Rowe, president of auto information company Kelley Blue Book.
"We've seen some of the best products released under Mary Barra, who has helped to oversee the development of their vehicles on a global scale," Rowe said.
Barra's appointment came as part of a larger management shuffle. Mark Reuss, 50, executive vice president and president for North America, will succeed Barra as executive vice president for global product development, purchasing and supply chain. Dan Ammann, 41, GM's chief financial officer, was named company president and will assume responsibility for the company's regional operations around the world.
Both Ammann and Reuss were considered possible successors to Akerson.
The transition includes GM's splitting up the chairman and chief executive's position. The automaker named Theodore Solso to succeed Akerson as chairman. Solso, 66, is the former chairman and CEO of Cummins Inc. and has been a member of the GM board since June 2012. Akerson said GM's board thought it prudent to split the positions so that Barra could focus on company operations while Solso could deal with board issues.
Barra's challenges include reducing the number of platforms GM uses to build its vehicles, a global industry trend in which GM has lagged. The automaker wants to produce 90% of its vehicles on just five platforms, thereby cutting costs and boosting profits.
Over time, Barra said, she learned that the auto business starts and ends with the product. Every vehicle GM sells needs to offer great design, performance, technology and durability, she said. Before its bankruptcy and bailout, GM had lost that focus, she said.
"I think there is a shift of really understanding," Barra said, "that this is the area where you win or lose."