Mary Barra is the first woman to lead a major global automaker.

Barra officially became General Motors' CEO on Wednesday while at the North American International Auto Show.

"It's an honour for me to be able to lead this team," she said.

Barra, 52, is an electrical engineer who rose through GM ranks in 33 years with the company.

As many as 100 journalists pursued Barra after GM swept car and truck of the year awards Monday.

A security guard said he hadn't seen as large of a gaggle since 2009 when journalists were chasing after former CEO Rick Wagoner, as GM was headed toward bankruptcy.

'I've had to build credibility.' - Tracy King, Porsche manager

"You guys have rocketed her to superstar status overnight," incoming GM North America president Alan Batey told reporters at the show.

Barra is not the norm. She's the exception.

"You're having a hard time finding females, especially in the European brand," said Tracy King a North American regional manager for Porsche. "We have zero executive heads that are female."

King said the West Coast is "more accepting of females."

"I've had to build credibility. Being a female, men refuse to let me buy lunch in the Midwest. I'm still seen as woman when I'd like to be seen as an equal."

Few women studying auto engineering

There are few women even entering the ranks of the auto industry.

"One year, we had no girls as part of that program and other years we've had up to 10 per cent of the group being made up of girls," said Jennifer Johrendt, an associate professor of mechanical and automotive engineering at the University of Windsor.

'You want to be appreciated for your work.' - Ishika Towfic, engineering student

Ishika Towfic is just entering the field. She is a master's mechanical engineering student at the University of Windsor.

Her passion for cars started at an early age.

"I was very keen on the different models on the roads and the different models in technology. I used to ask my dad, my parents and friends, 'oh, what's the top speed. What kind of function does this car have? What's the model?'"

At the Detroit auto show, female models are still helping to sell the cars on display.

"It's kind of still a sexist world," said King, who has been with Porsche for 14 years.
Towfic isn't discouraged.

"At the end of the day you want to be appreciated for your work not because you're male or a female," she said. "That's what counts."

With files from Associated Press