Grace Lieblein, GM's vice president of global quality, hopes that Barra's rock-star-like rise -- she has landed on the covers of Time, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Forbes -- will change the perception of the auto industry as a clubby man's world.
"She's become a bit of an icon, which is cool," Lieblein says. "We need those kinds of role models, because a lot of women would not even think of the auto industry."
Barra spent the first 15 years of her career in various engineering roles inside GM's factories. Then in 1996, she was picked to be the executive assistant to then-CEO Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, a three-year stint that put Barra on the map inside GM as an up-and-comer.
One who noticed was Gary Cowger, a former GM executive and Barra mentor. In late 1998, Cowger left his post running Opel in Europe to help back in Detroit following a crippling 56-day strike at the automaker's stamping operations in Flint, Mich. Cowger needed someone to handle internal communications to repair relations between union officials and the company. He picked Barra, who had exactly zero experience in communications.
Barra was able to strike an easy rapport in the plants because she could talk the talk from her manufacturing background, Cowger said. She went on to work for Cowger in a variety of roles of increasing importance.
"It wasn't just that Mary was good at every one of these new jobs she went on to," Cowger said. "It's that she has always shown excellent judgment. The higher you go in an organization, that's one of the biggest things people watch for."
Barra says her career ascent at that time was helped by an internal GM program called the Affinity Group for Women, a networking group started in the mid-1990s that still exists today.
The group "wasn't asking senior leaders for anything," Barra said. "It was asking, 'What can we do for ourselves? How can we mentor and network and put the skills in the hands of women earlier in their careers so they understand what it takes to be successful?'"
That's still a work in progress.
Sheri Hickok, chief engineer on GM's next-generation full-size truck program, says GM has a well-deserved reputation as a flexible workplace for female executives trying to balance family life. But she worries that younger women -- maybe even some future Mary Barras -- might not see that.
"I have a lot of young women, let's say five years into their career, who are getting ready to start a family and are very nervous to take a promotion or move to the next level because they're not sure how they'll balance that," Hickok says.
"We need to showcase that flexibility more."