When Dan Akerson became General Motors' CEO in September 2010, he was surprised to find one of the company's top talents hidden away in human resources.
HR isn't usually a stopping point for executives being groomed to be CEO, especially of a large manufacturing company. It's a technical job that requires a fair amount of compliance and compensation expertise.
But that's the department Mary Barra was leading when Akerson arrived, despite her background in engineering, running an assembly plant, product development and supply chain management.
"I don't mean to diminish HR, but generally, you don't get to the corner office by being in human resources," Akerson said.
And so, he set Barra on a path to figure out whether she was capable of handling the CEO job. He put her in charge of global product development, purchasing and supply chain. Akerson said he wanted to see whether she could rise to the challenge.
"In my mind, she was the clear choice," Akerson said. "Some of the reaction was, 'Gee, that's a very politically correct choice.' It was not PC. It was black and white. Mary Barra was far and away the best choice for the job at the time."
In the Automotive News Project XX Survey, many women said Barra has been an inspiration.
"She has kind of shattered that glass ceiling," said Kelsey Kruzel, social media manager for CDK Global. "Just being able to see women in that position is really encouraging and motivating, on the grand scheme."
But many also noted that there is still a dearth of females in leadership roles, and that makes women feel like there isn't a clear path to the top for them.