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All change at auto shows?

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mary barra, new CEO General Motors‘The first female head of a major automaker walked the auto show floor in a conservative black suit past women in skimpy dresses.’

General Motors’ new CEO Mary Barra hopes her engineering background and position as the first woman to lead the top U.S. automaker will encourage young people to pursue careers in science.

Barra was selected in December to succeed Dan Akerson this month. Her experience as a global product director may be a sign that vehicle development will become a priority for the company, reported the Associated Press.

And, as she told AP, with her technical background –  she is an electrical engineer – she could maybe motivate young women or young men to pursue a career in science.

Although Barra, 52, is a General Motors (GM) “lifer” – her father worked at the company and Barra has been there for the whole of her 33-year working career – her appointment is unusual for a reason other than her gender; financial executives, whom investors have criticised for lacking product experience, have long held the seat Barra will take over.

Looking to refocus the company’s direction, one of the reasons General Motors may have chosen Barra could be for her experience in manufacturing, engineering and human resources.

Akerson has called Barra a “car gal” for her vehicle expertise and has praised her for having “brought order to chaos” in the global product development process.

GM’s share price reflects investors’ caution to laud the new pick, however. The stock closed at USD40.02 after the announcement, a .9 per cent drop since the announcement of Barra’s appointment; the stock hasn’t fluctuated much in the same time frame.

“Akerson’s tenure is too short and will be measured on whether or not he has chosen the best successor,” independent auto analyst Maryann Keller said to Reuters.

“She is an excellent choice, but you won’t know that until she actually starts the job and appoints the people she wants to help her finish a job that is only partly done.”

Barra will be GM’s fifth CEO since the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Although she is the first woman to take this role, other women join Barra in the top ranks of the company. GM has four female board members and several women executives in senior management.

GM is probably the most complex automaker to manage. So, what are Barra’s executive assets that are going to make the difference?

To begin with, most analysts focus on the fact that major difficulties in top companies are often caused when they shift away from customer focus.

And in an industry lead by men, women make the majority of car buying decisions. So, this can mean that GM is getting closer to its customers.

But for those of us not so worried about the actual cars:

At media previews for this year’s Detroit auto show, ‘General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra, the first female head of a major automaker, walked the floor in a conservative black suit past Corvette models in skimpy dresses and leather jackets, past young women in towering heels and sporting plunging necklines handing out breath mints…’

But as women gain more income and buying power automakers may have to rethink how they grab the would-be purchaser’s attention.

Ford no longer uses scantily clad female models like it did 15 years ago. The company’s data shows that women buy 41 to 42 per cent of new cars each year, up from 20 per cent in 1980. Among buyers 30 years old and younger, women account for 56 per cent of new car purchases.

Ford had set up a sample assembly line in its exhibit, which was staffed by both men and women.

Ford’s chief operating officer, Mark Fields, said women and younger buyers in particular, come to auto shows to get educated.

Some automakers have already done away with models altogether. At Honda’s stand in Detroit, the focus was on the brand’s new Fit subcompact and a futuristic fuel-cell car called the FCEV. The company says it tries to appeal to the broadest range of customers at its show stands.

And while we have to laud this year’s changes – why did it a) ever start and b) take so long to start going away?

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