Mary Barra named GM chair in new first for a woman

New York - General Motors chief executive Mary Barra was named chair of the automaker on Monday, smashing yet another gender ceiling in the US auto industry.

The GM board of directors unanimously elected Barra to its helm, and she will remain CEO, the largest US automaker announced.

Barra, 54, will succeed Tim Solso, who will continue to serve as the board's lead independent director.

"At a time of unprecedented industry change, the board concluded it is in the best interests of the company to combine the roles of chair and CEO in order to drive the most efficient execution of our plan and vision for the future," Solso said in a statement.

"With GM consistently delivering on its targets and on track to generate significant value for its shareholders, this is the right time for Mary to assume this role." Barra, a GM career veteran, became chief executive on January 15, 2014, the first female CEO of any major automaker.

At the time, feminists criticised that she was not also made chair, as had been customary for her male predecessors.

In the month after becoming CEO, Barra was handling a recall of 2.6 million cars for defective ignition switches that grew into a massive scandal as it emerged the company knew about the deadly defects nearly a decade earlier.

An independent GM compensation fund has accepted claims for 124 deaths and more than 250 injuries related to the problem.

Under Barra's management, GM has made large strides in raising its operating margins in North America, to 11 per cent in the third quarter of 2015, an strong performance in the auto industry.

"I am honoured to serve as chair of the board of directors," Barra said in the statement. "With the support of our board, we will continue to drive shareholder value by improving our core business and leading in the transformation of personal mobility."