She started working for GM in 1980 as a co-op student.

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DETROIT — Mary Barra isn't a household name in the Motor City, but give her time.

At 50, she became the highest-ranking woman at General Motors — or any American auto company — as senior vice president for global product development, which includes design and engineering of the company's 11 brands around the world.

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She's now 51, and her birthday is later this month.

Barra is one of Forbes' World's 100 Most Powerful Women.

In 2011, she followed in the footsteps of Bob Lutz, a quintessential car guy, as well as Tom Stephens, who held the job at GM after Lutz and before Barra was named to her senior vice president post in early 2011.

GM's chairman and CEO, Dan Akerson, had tapped her for the position.

With her appointment Tuesday, Barra becomes the first female chief executive of a major automaker. That is surprising to some considering women control 80% of all car-buying decisions directly or indirectly.

Barra has become the one to finally smash the glass ceiling in the testosterone-dominated industry.

Barra went to public schools in Waterford Township, Mich., and attended General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, in Flint, Mich. She later got her MBA from Stanford University.

She started working at GM in 1980, the same year her late father, a tool and die worker for 39 years in the Pontiac division, retired.

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Pragmatic and hard working, the affable wife and mother of two teens seems nonplussed with the attention she has been receiving.

"There's pressure in every job. I have the best job at GM, because I lead a talented, dedicated team around the globe who shares a common vision: to design, build and sell great vehicles," she said when she got the product development chief's job.

Barra, whose late mother worked as a bookkeeper, grew up gravitating toward math and science. She inherited her father's love of cars and became an electrical engineer.

Despite her hectic schedule, Barra is a champion supporting young women and girls to help get them interested in math and science.

"I have never met another leader who is both so technically smart and on top of her game while also being a grounded and genuine human being," said Terry Barclay, chief executive of Inforum. "She is a transformative leader and effective builder of teams."

Recognized for bringing diverse groups together, Barra was appointed vice president, global human resources in 2009 to initiate change in GM's culture during the critical restructuring.

She met her husband, Tony Barra, when they both attended GMI. He works as a consultant for a company that's not in the auto industry.

They've been married 26 years and have two children.

When it came to talk of a female CEO for GM or any major auto company, Barra was convinced that it would happen though she didn't realize a year and a half ago that it would be her.

"It's a natural progression," she said.

Her advice to young women and men hoping to move up the corporate ladder:

"You need to do a great job and you will get noticed," she said. "Great leaders will naturally give you advice once you've earned it."

When asked whether the GM gene was passed to her offspring, she said her son "has been drawing cars and trucks. Ed Welburn (GM's design chief) is one of his idols."

Meanwhile, her daughter is into liberal arts: "I can see her becoming a lawyer."

As for her own career, Barra is focused keeping the pedal on the momentum GM has gained.

Carol Cain hosts the Sunday morning talk show Michigan Matters on WWJ-TV, Detroit.

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