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Women face challenges and prejudices while trying to work their way to the top of any industry, especially those that are traditionally driven by men. There have still been a few notable women in the automotive industry, with more rising through the ranks each year. Currently, over half of the directors and executives at Ford and GM are women.

One woman, Mary Barra, has managed to climb all the way to the top of the ladder at GM. She became the CEO after the former chief executive, Dan Akerson, retired from the role. Since then, Barra has continued to impress her male counterparts and female supporters with her determination and success.

In the beginning

This was a milestone 39 years in the making. After graduating from General Motors Institute (before it was known as Kettering University), Barra began working for GM at the age of 18. She mainly had small engineering or administrative roles.

After 28 years of hard work and dedication to the company, she was appointed the vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering in 2009. From there, she started to get positions with more responsibility, like Global Purchasing & Supply Chain and Global Product Development. She intuitively helped design international vehicles for GM, making sure that the cars upheld the quality and refined engineering that made the brand famous.

Barra continued to make great strides within the company, even throughout the difficult recession that almost drove GM to bankruptcy. Finally, she was promoted to CEO of GM in January 2014. Thus, making her the first CEO of a major automotive company. This decision was met with warm regard from other notable women who had also risen to the top of corporate positions, including former first lady Hillary Clinton.

Leading the company

Mary Barra’s first year of leadership was a challenge. Due to a faulty ignition switch, GM has to issue 84 recalls of nearly 30 million vehicles. Barra’s capability as company leader was already being called into question.

During this time, GM was suspected of donating large amounts of money to charity organizations to give Barra awards to bolster her worth, including an Appeal of Conscience award and a Woman of Achievement and Courage award.

Despite this controversy, the CEO remained resilient. Barra weathered the company through the recall process and lawsuits. She even managed to attain higher profits than GM had earned during the previous year. GM’s company culture had suffered during the ordeal. In response, Barra instated new company policies urging workers to come forward with any problems they encountered at GM.

Over the next few years, Barra worked on strengthening GM’s technology in its vehicles. In 2017, she acquired Strobe to help develop more self-driving cars. She was also at the forefront of the Chevy Bolt EV’s production, with an impressive range of 200 miles and the first electric car to be priced under $40k.

In 2018, GM closed 5 North American plants as part of a restructuring plan, resulting in 14,000 layoffs. Barra’s decision was met with harsh words from President Trump. Despite this, her decision to cut costs raised GM’s stock by 5%.

Mary Barra’s awards and acknowledgments

In just 15 years, Mary Barra has accumulated many awards in her time as CEO. Forbes ranked her as #4 in its Most Powerful 100 Women List and was featured on the cover of Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. She earned GM first place on the 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality as one of the only two automotive companies with no gender wage gap.

Mary Barra has shown herself as more than capable of leading the way in an industry where women are the minority. Her success story will likely encourage many more young women to shoot for higher goals and positions in their industry.