GM's First Female CEO Is a 'Car Guy'

Mary Barra's promotion will help shatter pernicious auto-industry stereotypes about gender while putting the company in the hands of someone who cares deeply about cars.

GM CEO-to-be Mary Barra speaks by a 2014 Corvette Stingray (Reuters)

As the newly named CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra will be the first woman to run a global automaker. It's a remarkable, sun-roof shattering achievement that not long ago would have seemed unthinkable. But according to Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, the most important thing to know about her may be that she is, in fact, "a car guy."

"There's nobody with more years of honest 'car-guy' credentials than she has," Gordon told the Associated Press. "She started off as a little-girl car guy. She became a big-girl car guy and now she's a woman car guy."

If you need a moment to cringe, go-ahead—the phrase "big-girl car guy" is about as clumsy a compliment as I can imagine. But I wanted to single out Gordon's quote because, in ways both intentional and unintentional, it perfectly captures the reasons why Barra is such an important choice for GM, reasons that have everything and nothing to do with her gender.

Let's start with the phrase "car guy." We've all heard it. But in Detroit, it's considered a sort of honorific, bestowed upon those who live and breath design and engineering. Car guys are in the business to make great vehicles. They dream about classic 1950s tail fins and advanced fuel injection. And, in the minds of many, they are locked in a Manichaean  creative struggle with the finance types who often wield power over the world's car companies. Bob Lutz, a legendary auto industry executive and GM vet, titled his recent book Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle For the Soul of American Business. Rick Wagoner, the failed CEO who steered GM into bankruptcy and was personally fired by the Obama administration, is widely considered the ultimate bean counter.

Reality in Detroit isn't quite black and white. But it's a popular framework.

For the last several years, General Motors has been run by a pair of CEOs who are neither quite bean counters nor car guys. Rather, they were pulled from outside the auto industry entirely. Their main mission has been to right the ship and (implicitly) to return as much of the government's bailout money as possible. This week, Treasury sold off the last of its stock in GM, which has risen 42 percent this year.

And now comes Barra. An engineer and Stanford MBA, she grew up the daughter of a Pontiac tool and die maker and has worked at GM since the 1980s. She's actually run an assembly plant. She was vice president of global manufacturing and engineering. And in 2011, after a stint streamlining the company's bureaucracy as head of human resources, she was promoted to vice president of global product development, where she oversaw the company's entire vehicle portfolio.

As Gordon put it, there's now a "car guy" back in charge of America's top car company.

The problem with calling Barra a "car guy," if it wasn't clear, is the word guy. It invokes Detroit's long history of quiet and overt sexism, its habit of selling cars designed by men for men, even as women have grown as a share of new buyers. As Libby Copeland recounted in a wonderful article for Slate, this is an industry that ran ads in the 1960s urging women to buy cars to match their nail polish, that has had a longstanding infatuation with using bikini models as car show props, and that relies on consultants who believe "women care about interiors because they're 'programmed to create life' inside their wombs."

The knuckle-dragging has thankfully eased up a bit in recent years, especially as more women have ascended to leadership roles at GM. Barra, The New York Times writes, was part of a generation of high-powered female executives who have helped make the company more woman friendly. And Barra's promotion, for it's symbolic value alone, should help that process along.

In the meantime, she has a resume that suggests she'll keep the company focused on making vehicles people actually want to drive. Back in September, outgoing GM CEO Dan Akerson hinted at Barra's promotion when he said one day GM would be run by a "car gal." Now it is. And that's kind of great.