US automotive giant General Motors has made history by naming Mary Barra to succeed Dan Akerson as CEO of the company. Barra, 51, will be the first female to head a global car manufacturer.

Barra is executive vice president, global product development, purchasing and supply chain at GM. She has been in charge of design, engineering and quality for all GM vehicles and has headed most of the company's recent new vehicle introductions. The married mother-of-two is an engineer and holds an MBA from Stanford University.

"With 33 years of experience at GM, Barra has risen through a series of manufacturing, engineering, and senior staff positions," the company said in a statement.

"She is a leader in the company's ongoing turnaround, revitalising GM's product development process resulting in the launch of critically acclaimed new products while delivering record product quality ratings and higher customer satisfaction."

"With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today's GM," said Barra. "I'm honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.

GM announced that Akerson will step down on 15 January as chairman and CEO of the company. The company noted that he "guided today's GM to record profits and dramatic improvement in vehicle quality while closing the chapter on government ownership".

The company also named Theodore Solso to succeed Akerson as chairman. Solso, who has been a member of the GM Board since June 2012, is the former chairman and CEO of Cummins.

Challenges Ahead

GM has emerged from a near collapse five years ago with the help of funding from the US government and some outside managers. Barra's appointment comes a day after the US government said it had sold its last shares in the company.

As part of its restructuring, GM had earlier sold many of its unprofitable product lines and has the leanest structure in decades and significantly reduced debt levels.

In her new role, Barra has to seek ways to tackle strong competition from automakers including Japan's Toyota Motor Corp and Tesla Motors.

She also faces challenges such as lowering GM's costs, which is essential to win customers in price-sensitive markets such as India and South America.

Rising Number of Women in Top Posts

The appointment of Barra, especially in the male-dominated automotive industry, indicates the rising role of women in top corporate roles.

Barra joins Ginni Rometty at International Business Machines, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!, the woman candidates heading major US companies. Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Meg Whitman and Xerox Corp.'s Ursula Burns are other top woman chiefs.

Nevertheless, the number of females in top positions is significantly less than that of male in the US. Women hold just under 17% of the seats on boards of directors and fewer than 15% of senior executive positions in the 500 largest companies in the US, according to research firm Catalyst.