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General Motors Co. named Mary Barra, whose career began on the factory floor, to succeed Dan Akerson as chief executive officer, making her the first female CEO in the global automotive industry.

Akerson, CEO since 2010, turned 65 in October, and his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, GM said in a statement. Dan Ammann, the chief financial officer, was named president of the company. Akerson is retiring Jan. 15, and he’ll be replaced as chairman by Tim Solso, the former CEO and chairman of engine-maker Cummins Inc.

Barra, 51, who started at the Detroit company as an intern more than 30 years ago, has been in charge of product development and quality of all GM cars and trucks for 22 months, fostering collaboration and wringing costs out of the supply chain. The daughter of a Pontiac die maker takes the helm after the U.S. government sold its stake in GM, giving her full freedom to take on domestic and Japanese manufacturers whose price competition threatens profit.

As the first female CEO of a global automaker, Barra joins Ginni Rometty at International Business Machines Corp., Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo Inc., Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Meg Whitman and Ursula Burns of Xerox Corp. as women who have risen to run major U.S. corporations.

She beat out Mark Reuss, 50, president of GM North America; Ammann, 41; and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, 51, all of whom were considered potential CEOs.

Barra began with GM in 1980 as a student at General Motors Institute (since renamed Kettering University) in Flint, Mich., and landed her first job as a plant engineer at Pontiac Motor Division, where her father worked for 39 years. There were few women and even fewer 18-year-olds.

“It was a rougher environment,” she said in an interview in March. “It makes you harder.”

Her big break came when GM put her in a program for high-potential workers and gave her a scholarship to get an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She became an executive assistant for then-CEO Jack Smith. She recalls visiting senior leaders at GM to talk about diversity and women’s issues while she was pregnant.

Barra has played a role in GM management for a generation. Her career has included time as vice president of global manufacturing engineering, head of GM’s Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant and executive director of competitive operations engineering. Before becoming GM’s first female product chief, she was its top human-resources executive.

Most recently, she led the company’s $15 billion vehicle-development operations, a high-profile role that’s given her sway over the look and feel of the full line of GM cars and trucks. She was promoted to that position in early 2011, less than six months after Akerson became CEO.

Some of the new vehicles to come out under her include the Chevrolet Impala, the first U.S. sedan in at least 20 years chosen by Consumer Reports as the best on the market, and the Cadillac CTS, picked as Motor Trend’s car of the year.

In her role as head of product development, Barra has sought to make GM more profitable by following the example of Billy Durant, who founded the company more than 105 years ago: Cut costs by building a wider variety of cars and trucks that use the same parts.

One of Barra’s most high-profile moments came in 2009 after then-CEO Fritz Henderson put her in the HR role to help groom a new generation of leaders as the company worked to come out of bankruptcy. She let employees to wear jeans, a simple change that shook up the company’s culture.

Barra had been attacking GM’s bureaucracy, slashing the number of required HR reports by 90 percent and shrinking the company’s employee policy manual by 80 percent.

In her product-chief role, she has worked to reduce manufacturing complexity, or building more models using fewer “platforms” – industry-speak for the basic structure and parts that can be tweaked and repurposed for multiple vehicles.

Her appointment culminates a period when women in the auto industry have been taking over senior roles in traditionally male-dominated areas.

Eight years ago, three of GM’s 54-person senior leadership group were women. Today, in a downsized company after its bankruptcy, six of GM’s top two dozen executives are women, including two of the company’s six senior vice presidents.

GM’s female leaders say that they didn’t experience overt hostility while they rose through the ranks, but that the pressure to prove their qualifications was more intense than it was for their male counterparts.

The New York Times contributed to this report.