She's not the first woman to head a global corporation.
Ginni Rometty runs IBM and Indra Nooyi heads PepsiCo. Don't forget Ursula Burns at Xerox and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard. There's Marissa Mayer at Yahoo.
Still, when Mary Barra emerged on Tuesday as the new chief executive of General Motors, the announcement felt historic. Next month, the 51-year-old daughter of a GM factory worker will succeed retiring Dan Akerson as leader of the biggest U.S. automaker.
The automotive sphere has been seen as a guy thing since the first oil-splattered cars started rolling down dirt roads in the late 1800s. Even now in Saudi Arabia, women risk violence or arrest just for sitting behind the wheel of a car.
But in Detroit, Barra, leapt ahead of men such as Mark Reuss, president of GM North America; Dan Ammann, chief financial officer, and Steve Girsky, vice chairman.
"It is remarkable because the auto industry has always been such a male-dominated industry," said Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and past president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Just one in five workers in the auto industry is a woman, and a mere 4 percent of CEOs at all major U.S. companies are female. So Barra's promotion is a big deal. On the other hand, auto analysts say her elevation should not come as a surprise to anyone at GM because her career path has been so steady.
"She's been there 30 years. She has earned her stripes," said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for IHS Automotive, a forecasting firm. "She is well respected and I don't see her having a problem. I think she will be accepted because of credibility — she has it. "
It helps too that her late father was a GM die maker in Pontiac for nearly four decades. Barra got her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at the General Motors Institute at Kettering University in Flint, Mich. She met her husband, Tony Barra, when they attended GMI. Her first job was at the plant where her father worked. GM gave her a scholarship to get an MBA at Stanford.
Being part of the GM family for so long "is part and parcel of who she is," Brinley said. "Everyone understands that she knows how to build things."
In various roles at GM, she has worked on cutting costs, streamlining management, working with suppliers and figuring out what designs will be popular. She understands that "you need to listen to your customers," Brinley said.
Since early 2011, Barra has led GM's vehicle-development operations. During that time, GM's Chevrolet Impala become the first U.S. sedan in at least two decades to be chosen by Consumer Reports as the best on the market. And Motor Trend picked the Cadillac CTS as car of the year.
Jasinowski said Barra not only has a knack for knowing what consumers want, but she may have fresher ideas about how to sell vehicles to all customers, not just men.
When it comes to TV commercials, "there has been excessive reliance on sports to carry the auto message forward," he said. "A lot of women love sports ... but the industry has gone overboard with the football stuff."
Anne Doyle, a former Ford executive and author of Powering Up! How America's Women Achievers Become Leaders, said the auto industry as a whole has been too dominated by men who think alike.
But that conformity changed at GM when the company accepted a multi-billion-dollar bailout from taxpayers five years ago. "There's nothing like a crisis to force people to either retrench — or to take risks and do things differently," she said.
After going through a bankruptcy and bailout, GM emerged with new directors. "They completely reorganized," Doyle said. "They changed the culture there."
Those changes helped "crack the steel ceiling," allowing a woman to rise, she said. Having a CEO who is also a mother of two children might help GM attract talented women to work at the company, she added.
"This will give GM a competitive edge," Doyle predicted.
NPR reporter Sonari Glinton contributed to this report.
Gawker brings us this video posted on Monday of a herd of Chamois goats that make a seemingly miraculous escape from an avalanche on an Alpine mountain face. It occurs in the Rhone-Alpes near Pralongnan-la-Vanoise, not far from the border between France and Italy.
Skiers watching (and filming) can be heard expressing concern over the fate of the goats, who split into two groups — one that makes a relatively quick escape and another that gets hammered by the charging snow, only to emerge moments later, apparently unscathed.
Getting people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act remains an uphill battle in much of Florida.
Politicians in the state erected roadblocks to the law from the beginning — from joining in the 2010 lawsuit to thwart the law to placing restrictions on what insurance helpers called navigators can tell people seeking advice.
Even so, advocates have been trying to get the word out to an estimated 1.6 million Floridians who qualify for new subsidies to make coverage more affordable. Florida has the second-highest rate of uninsured residents in the U.S., yet it seems many who could benefit the most aren't interested in listening.
The message will be hardest to get across, many say, in the Florida Panhandle, where sandy white beaches on the Gulf Coast back up to vast pine forests. Towns are small and scattered. The area is closer both politically and geographically to neighboring Georgia and Alabama than faraway Miami.
At local events like the recent Florida Forest Festival and the self-proclaimed World's Largest Free Fish Fry in Perry, it's not hard to find people like Elijah Mott, an itinerant heavy equipment operator who says he doesn't know much about the health care law, and that most of what he's heard is bad.
"I think it sucks," he says.
The median household income in this county is about $40,000 a year. Lots of jobs here don't come with health insurance. That means many here like Mott, who doesn't have steady work at the moment, probably qualify for subsidies to help them afford coverage.
But Mott isn't buying the idea that the health law could possibly be good for his family. "I would have to say no," Mott says, "I haven't investigated deep enough to know if there is anything."
Mott and 41-year-old Michael Dees of Mayo, who works in a paper mill, have mostly heard that Obamacare is going to increase the price of health insurance, making it more unaffordable for people like them.
Dees says he expects to be laid off soon, and worries about how he's going to buy coverage for his family.
"Who can afford $700 a month?" he asks. "It's easier to pay for the damn penalty at the end of the year the IRS is going to charge you than pay $500 a month."
Dees says it's news to him that the health law offers people making less than $45,960 a year help paying monthly premiums.
"I really hadn't heard about the subsidy,"he says.
Guys like Dees and Mott are exactly who health law advocates like Karen Woodall are trying to reach. A longtime lobbyist for children's and family issues in Florida's capital of Tallahassee, she says it's tough to convince people here that the law might help them.
"It's challenging to overcome messages that are coming out of elected officials offices and a governor's office," she says.
Florida said no to both the law's Medicaid expansion, and to tens of millions of dollars to advertise new subsidies for those with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level
Privately funded groups like Enroll America are trying to supply the outreach and education in Florida. That includes partnering with churches like the Sanctuary at Mt. Calvary in urban Jacksonville, on Florida's Atlantic coast about three hours east of Perry.
Pastor John Allen Newman invited Enroll America representatives to address his congregation one recent Sunday. From the pulpit, he warns his flock of several hundred against misinformation he says opponents of the law are spreading.
"People perish for what?" he asks.
"Lack of knowledge," comes the practiced response.
Newman tells congregants that the law helped him get coverage after a large, private insurer turned him down because of a pre-existing condition. "This Affordable Care Act is saving lives," he says.
The message hits home with 23-year-old truck driver Anthony Person. "I never knew what it was before until I started coming to this church," Person says. Pastor Newman, he says, "started explaining it to us the way I could understand it."
Person left his contact information at the Enroll America table in the church's lobby, to get help signing up for new Obamacare coverage.
"My job is one that does not have the best benefits, so I need health insurance to cover myself," he says.
And then, there are those who might just fall through the cracks.
Back in the Panhandle, resident Karen Ray wishes subsidies to help working people afford coverage had been available when she was running her small business out of Del Ray Beach.
"There hasn't been a realization how many people out there are the working poor," she says, "working hard and not getting health care. And just living paycheck to paycheck and hoping nothing goes wrong."
Things went wrong for Ray in a big way after the BP oil spill in 2010.
"I had a beach wedding business, and it kind of went downhill after the oil spill," she says. "I've just been trying to get back on my feet since then."
Even before the oil spill her business never generated enough income to provide health insurance the 60-year-old Ray says. She used to get coverage through her husband's job.
"I lost my business, and my marriage, and my house, at the same time," she says, laughing wryly.
That's left her uninsured. She knows about the law - and she also knows, that because she lives in Florida, she is unlikely to benefit from it.
If Ray lived in one of the 25 states expanding Medicaid, she would qualify for new coverage. But because Florida isn't expanding, being poor alone isn't enough to get Medicaid here. Benefits here are reserved primarily for children, pregnant women and the disabled.
And because Ray has no income, she won't qualify for new Affordable Care Act tax credits designed to help the working poor afford private health coverage.
"I could maybe scrounge up the money to go get a mammogram," Ray says, but, "what if it comes back positive? What happens to me? It's not like you can show up in the emergency and say, 'Ooh! I have an emergency lump!' That won't happen."
"I think a lot of us are gonna fall through the cracks," Rays says, "and I'm very irate about that, very irate about that."
This story is part of a partnership with NPR and Kaiser Health News, with support from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism's California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.
In everyday life, a handshake is rather ordinary. But when President Obama shook hands Tuesday with Cuban leader Raul Castro at a memorial service for the late South African President Nelson Mandela, this was how it was described:
Despite Tuesday's handshake, Obama told mourners in Johannesburg that "too many who claim solidarity with Madiba's [Mandela's tribe name] struggle for freedom ... do not tolerate dissent from their own people." It was an apparent reference to Castro and leaders of other nondemocratic nations gathered at the service.
Cuba and the U.S. have been at loggerheads since Fidel Castro, Raul's brother, overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Fidel Castro's communist regime in 1960, sanctions that have stayed in place since then.
Many Cubans who fled the island for Florida after the revolution are opposed to any easing of the embargo. The measures have hurt the Cuban economy but have done little to weaken the regime. Fidel Castro stepped down from the presidency in 2008 at the age of 82, handing the reins of power to his brother and comrade-in-arms Raul Castro, who was 77 at the time.
Obama's encounter with Raul Castro Tuesday isn't the first time a sitting U.S. president has shaken hands with a Cuban leader. President Clinton did just that with Fidel Castro in September 2000 at the U.N. General Assembly, a move which at the time was describe as "just a cordial conversation." That handshake came a month before the trade sanctions were amended to allow the sale of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba.
The U.S. policy is to isolate Cuba diplomatically and to keep the embargo in place. The two countries do not maintain diplomatic ties but have representation through the Swiss Embassy in Havana and Washington, D.C., respectively.
The U.S. regards Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and has criticized the Castro regime's human rights record. The U.S. is also concerned about the case of Alan Gross, an American contractor who is in a Cuban jail, accused of espionage. Cuba says it will only release Gross if the U.S. releases some Cubans accused of spying in the U.S.
But trade is another issue, as the Council on Foreign Relations notes in this primer:
"In 2008, U.S. companies exported roughly $710 million worth of food and agricultural products to the island nation, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. However, that number fell by about 50 percent in 2012. Total agricultural exports since 2001 reached $3.5 billion as of February 2012. Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas have all brokered agricultural deals with Cuba in recent years."
A Recent Thaw
The George W. Bush administration had tightened the embargo and increased travel restrictions, but Obama eased those soon after assuming office in 2009. And as CFR notes, "He went further in 2011 to undo many of the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration, thus allowing U.S. citizens to send remittances to non-family members in Cuba and to travel to Cuba for educational or religious purposes."
Cuba, too, is changing, as this story on NPR's Morning Edition by Nick Miroff notes. Raul Castro has introduced modest changes to a country cossetted for decades by a socialist economic model. Obama has acknowledged these changes and called for a renewed approach to the nation.
"We have to be creative," he said last month in Miami. "And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born."
"So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn't make sense."
Castro isn't the only world leader opposed to the U.S. to whom Obama has reached out. In 2009, he shook hands with then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; more recently, he spoke by telephone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
So, will the handshake change anything between the two Cold War-era enemies?
Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls it a "symbolic gesture [that] could signal ... maybe the beginning of a more substantive set of policies."
But Jorge Duany, who directs the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University, says none of the issues separating the U.S. and Cuba will be resolved by a handshake alone. "But at least it's a healthy sign of what the future may bring to the two countries and to some kind of re-establishment of relations between the two governments," he says.
Both Meacham and Duany's comments can be heard in Ari Shapiro's story on NPR's All Things Considered.
This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. You can see more photos and hear more audio from the series here. Tomorrow, we'll have a story from a meatpacking plant of Garden City, Kans., which takes a proactive stance toward its newest immigrants.
For centuries, immigrants in search of a better life have been drawn to America's largest cities. Now, in part because of the meatpacking industry, recent immigrants have been seeking out small, rural towns. But many of these towns are struggling to provide the social services needed by such a diverse population that's largely invisible to most Americans.
Noel, Mo., has been dubbed the "Christmas City" and "Canoe Capital of the Ozarks" thanks to the Elk River that winds through town. But this Missouri town of fewer than 2,000 residents thrives because of the Tyson Foods, Inc., chicken plant located here — it alone employs 1,600 people. Just 20 years ago, Noel only had about half as many residents, and most of them were white. Then in the 1990s, Hispanics — most of them Mexican — moved to Noel to process chicken. Pacific Islanders and refugees from parts of Myanmar and Africa followed.
"We do have small towns that have had 100 to 200 percent growth that have really changed overnight over the past 20 years and have a much larger immigrant population than they used to," says Lisa Dorner, a University of Missouri education professor who has done extensive research on immigrant children growing up in small towns and suburbs. Dorner thinks such major demographic changes don't always sit well with local residents.
"When you find yourself, as a family especially, in a place that is pretty remote and hasn't recently been used to welcoming immigrants, you may feel pretty lost," she says.
For Somali newcomers, Noel has been particularly challenging. In a recent incident, tires on more than a dozen of their cars were recently slashed. Police didn't have a suspect and have since dropped the investigation. Some Somalis say they also feel unwelcome at local establishments.
"Overall, this community, they are not welcoming to people [who] look different or [who are of] different religions. It's like they are still in the 1980s ..." says Farah Burale, a Somali-English translator at the Tyson plant. "Because of that reason, we are isolated, we see each other in the chicken plant or on the street without saying 'Hi.'"
Affordable housing is also a problem here in Noel. There's a long waiting list for open units at the local housing authority.
"You cannot rent a house right now. If you look, try to find a house, you can't," says Faisal Ali Ahmed, a Somali refugee who works the night shift at the Tyson plant as a forklift driver. "It's a very difficult life. If they shut down this company now, nobody stay in this bush. Even, I think, the people living [here] a long time. They cannot stay."
John Lafley, the mayor of Noel, says long-time residents need to be sensitized to immigrants' needs and immigrants need to try to fit in.
"We're trying to assimilate people that don't understand the American way. And they want to keep their own ways, which is not that popular," Lafley says.
Lafley says Tyson Foods, Inc., is pushing the town to allow for more housing development, but he's concerned that Noel's infrastructure can't handle more units.
"We're about at 80 percent right now with our sewer plant and so any more building would tax our sewage plant more," he says.
The mayor says there's no money in the budget either to provide the social services needed in this small, remote town, which sits not far from the Missouri-Kansas-Arkansas-Oklahoma border. For rural Missouri, Tyson plant jobs pay decent wages that start at $9.05 an hour. Still, poverty looms large here. About 90 percent of Noel school students qualify for free or reduced cost meals. The number of homeless children has doubled in the past five years. Because the nearest food pantry and free clinic are miles away, many plant workers turn to their children's schools for help.
"We are the government agency in town," says Noel Elementary School principal Angie Brewer. "People come here if they need shoes, if they need clothes, if they're hungry. We send 37 backpacks home every weekend with kids that just don't have enough food."
Brewer grew up in nearby Anderson, and graduated from Noel High School in 1992. Back then, she remembers the schools were all white. Now, 66 percent of Noel Elementary's students are minorities. About 11 languages — from Swahili to Penglopese — are spoken here and almost half the school is Hispanic. Immigration issues, like parents being deported, have also become part of a typical school day here.
"We have kids who are afraid because their parent has been stopped on their way to catch chickens and they are concerned that they will be deported," Brewer recalled. "Last year, we had three families come in the next day, their dad was gone in the night. They were taken off the chicken truck and their mothers were scared."
Tyson says it takes its responsibility to the community seriously. The company has donated 40,000 pounds of meat to food banks in the area since 2000, and in August donated $35,000 to help feed the school district's neediest families. Tyson's Burmese and Somali translators help enroll children in school. Angie Brewer is grateful for the assistance, but believes it's her teachers who really make the difference for these children.
"No one's going to fall through a crack in Noel, Missouri. It's not going to happen," she says. "Some of these are my own children's friends and these are my friends. They're real people and you're not reading about them on TV or hearing about them. They're people that I know. I've been to their house. I've sat on their couch. I've held their hand. They're real people and they deserve the best."
Around dusk one night at the housing project next to Noel Elementary, half a dozen teenagers from Somalia, Ethiopia and Mexico played a pickup soccer game. One of them, a plucky 13-year-old named Mohamed Hassan, came to Noel two years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya. His parents work at the Tyson plant. Soon though, they may move to Kansas City for better jobs.
"It's hard to work at Tyson. I can feel it," Hassan says. "Because if I meet somebody that is older than 25 or 26, they always say, like, they broke their finger, they hurt their finger, or like, they always say, 'I'm tired' or something like that. Everybody would like to move to a different job, except Tyson."
Yet Hassan says he likes Noel: "When I first came, I didn't know any English. And now I do, a lot. I learned at this school and I am going say to them, 'Thank you for teaching me all that.'"
Tyson is hiring again and that means there will be soon be a new wave of immigrants for this two-mile square Missouri town in the heart of the Ozark Mountains to try to assimilate.