Up to Speed: 5 Things to Know About Mary Barra, GM’s First Female CEO

General Motors, the largest U.S. auto-manufacturer, has named Mary Barra its first female CEO. Here are a few facts to get you up to speed.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg, via Getty

Girls rule, boys drool.

That may become the new catchphrase in the auto industry. Women are accounting for a rising share of car purchases. And on Tuesday, General Motors, America’s largest auto manufacturer, tapped its first female CEO.

GM announced today that Mary Barra, its current executive vice president of global product development, purchasing, and supply chain, will become CEO on January 15, 2014, replacing current CEO and Chairman Dan Akerson, who led the company through its bailout and recovery. To get you up to speed on Barra, here are five things you need to know about her career.

1. She’s Got Cars in Her Blood

Barra is the daughter of a die maker who worked at GM for 39 years. Barra started working at GM herself (in the Pontiac Motor Division) when she was 18 to pay for tuition at what was then called General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). Her dream ride as a 10-year-old was a red Chevy Camaro convertible, and when she went to buy her first car she nearly bought a Pontiac Firebird. Instead, she opted for a less-snazzy Chevrolet Chevette.

2. GM’s Crisis Provided a Big Opportunity

Barra thrived in the chaos of crisis-era GM. After being saved by billions in federal money, GM faced a government and public that wanted new leadership at a company rocked by changing consumer tastes, rising commodity prices and the global financial crisis. In 2009, Barra was put in charge of the company’s human resources division, and then in 2011, current CEO Daniel Akerson tapped her for her current post as head of global product. In both of those positions, Barra was in a prime spot to implement much-needed changes.

3. She’s Not Afraid to Challenge Tradition

During her time as head of HR and as head of global product development, Barra made changes – large and small -- that changed GM’s culture. She hacked through layers of excessive management in product development. One of the more hotly contested was her decision to allow employees to wear jeans to work. Not surprisingly at an old-school company, that drew a lot of complaints, to which Barra reportedly responded, “So you’re telling me I can trust you to give you a company car and to have you responsible for tens of millions of dollars, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately?”

4. The Attention on Her Gender is Nothing New

In an interview with Businessweek Barra said this being a female in the automotive industry: “I’m not blind to the fact that sometimes it’s probably helped. Sometimes it’s probably hurt.” When she was an executive assistant for former CEO Jack Smith, she visited other executives at GM to discuss issues affecting women—while pregnant.

5. GM Still Faces Big Challenges

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Before the executive announcement, the big news this week about GM was that the U.S. government had finally sold its remaining shares in the company (at a loss). Since the bailout, GM has posted 15 consecutive quarters of profitability, and it has a very solid balance sheet. Yet the problems facing Barra are still large: its international operations are lagging, auto demand in the vital European market is chronically weak, the company must figure out how to lower costs to compete in India and China, and it faces aggressive competition in its home market.