A Woman Takes The Wheel At GM

For the first time, a woman has been named CEO of a major U.S. automotive company. Mary Barra, 51, breaks a glass ceiling in one of the most male-dominated industries in the nation. But women buy more than half the cars in America, so the question is why it took so long.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

The male-dominated automotive industry just got a shake-up. For the first time ever, a woman will become the CEO of a major auto company. Fifty-one-year-old Mary Barra has been named the next chief executive of General Motors.

Michelle Krebs is a senior analyst at Edmunds.com and has covered the auto industry for over 30 years. She says a female in the top position at an auto company is long overdue.

MICHELLE KREBS: Women buy more than half the cars and trucks in America, and they - the statistics show they influence the decisions of more than 80 percent of the vehicles purchased. But it's been a very male-dominated auto industry. A number of women have gotten close to the top but never gotten that very top job. The industry has had a hard time retaining great female talent.

RATH: It's kind of remarkable, if you look at Mary Barra. She's got qualifications coming out of her ears as far as being the CEO of GM - her experience, and so on. She's been there for decades, and it's just an amazing track record of accomplishment. But the current CEO, Daniel Akerson, he had no experience in the auto industry before he took the job. Is that contrast as telling as it seems?

KREBS: She has the perfect resume. You know, much will be made of the fact that she's a female, but she is - her resume is exactly the kind that you would look for, to be CEO of an auto company. She got her degree in electrical engineering. And then she started working in the assembly plants, which is a pretty tough place to be for anyone, and especially for a woman.

RATH: How do you think that background - having worked on a production floor - might affect how she would run the company?

KREBS: Well, I think it's a huge advantage that she came up through the manufacturing ranks for a number of reasons. First of all, it's proof she's tough because you have to be tough to work in an assembly plant. And she actually ran assembly plants. She also knows what can and can't be done, in terms of manufacturing vehicles. So her reputation inside is that she's very good at bringing all the parties together and working together. And that's absolutely what General Motors needs.

RATH: So Mary Barra has - she's made it to the top, and it sounds like she's very highly respected in the company and in the industry. Are there particular challenges that she would face being a woman CEO?

KREBS: Well, I think the expectations are going to be high of her. You know, she's sort of an inspiration to women already in the auto industry. I know I talked to other female auto executives, and they're cheering her on. And she can serve as an inspiration to young women to attract them to the industry, and prove to them that you can move up to the top in this business. But that's a whole other dimension that a male CEO would not have to experience.

RATH: Michelle, you've been covering the auto industry for a while. I'm just wondering what's it like for you personally, your feelings seeing Mary Barra become GM's first female CEO?

KREBS: I'm thrilled because I personally like Mary. I think she is extremely qualified, and perfect for the job at this time. And it, frankly, has been frustrating through the years to see so few women attracted to the auto industry. And including in the media and analyst side, there aren't many of them, either. So I welcome women rising to the top in this business.

RATH: Michelle Krebs is a senior analyst at Edumunds.com. Michelle, thank you.

KREBS: Thank you.

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