Mary Barra of GM. An image from GMAuthority.

A look at the highest-ranking woman in the auto industry

Starting at a time when the glass ceiling was nearly bulletproof, Mary Barra has climbed through the ranks at GM over 32 years with determination and dedication – promoted to Senior Vice President of Global Product Development last year, she is the highest ranking woman in the automotive industry.

She followed her father’s lifelong passion for cars, growing up during the 39 years he labored as a die-maker for Pontiac. He retired just six short months before she began her career as an 18-year-old co-op student in the Pontiac branch of the General Motors Institute, now known as Kettering University.

According to a post by Lydia Dishman on, GM’s presiding CEO, Dan Akerson, has placed her among the favored upper management personnel likely to succeed him. He confessed this admission a scant year after naming Barra to the highest position held by any woman in the automotive industry.

In her role as senior vice president, Barra takes a hands-on approach to overseeing everything from engineering to quality control on top of managing some 30,000 people and an enormous corporate budget.

“I have the best job in the company already,” she beamed at Dishman. “I am surrounded by great new cars, trucks, and crossovers every day, and I play a role in bringing new innovations and vehicle designs to life.” She also discussed the lessons of leadership she’s learned over 32 years at GM with Fast Company.

Barra paid her dues on the way up, working at everything from communications to managing Detroit’s Hamtramck assembly plant, along with many other positions. Through it all, it was her indomitable will and passion for the job that carried her up the corporate ladder.

“I have had many experiences that helped me grow and take with me a fundamental understanding of the industry and our challenges.” She also confessed to approaching each new job assignment, “like I am going to do it for the rest of my life.”

She also gave credit to the leaders she worked under for valuable guidance, growth and opportunity, never viewing her gender as a hindrance.

“Every time I approach a new business opportunity, or a new activity, or a new role, I approach it as an engineer, as a professional, as a leader. My gender doesn’t really come into it.”

Meanwhile she is pleased by the number of females now in upper management and on the boards of the industry. She admitted the professional level a woman is capable of rising to ties into the decisions they make in regard to career and personal life choices. How those goals are balanced determines the path of a woman’s career.

Barra utilizes a no nonsense approach to problem solving stating, “If you don’t address problems head on, they don’t go away – they get bigger. Get the right people together, address the challenges, and keep moving forward.”

Her management style is open and inclusive as she is always present at weekly staff meetings and frequently walks the departments with words or encouragement, inviting any suggestions to be sent her by email. On the other hand, she’s quick to make a ruling when a decision has to be made.

She sees herself as the coach of a team, but if a consensual solution to a problem isn’t evolving, she will step in to make the call. “If we have a spirit like that, we will have all the ideas on the table quickly and be able to make a decision.”

Her previous position was VP of Global Human Resources. She took that helm just as GM was dealing with their federally managed bankruptcy, but she saw it as an opportunity.


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