Any female executive or manager working in the automotive industry — heck, any woman working at almost any industrial company — knows what it means to be the only female in the room. All through her professional life, she has often been in that situation — not once but many, many times — and the higher up you go the more that is the case. Even in 2021.
She knows what it means to have to be always on, always careful about what she says. When you are the only one, you feel sometimes as if you represent all women, so the pressure is intense. You feel as if you’re always needing to prove that you deserve a seat at the table and belong in that room. There is pressure to be one of the guys. One executive talked about not wearing much makeup to fit in.
Bottom line: It’s hard to be yourself and that can be exhausting.
Recently, I sat down with seven female senior executives from the U.S. auto industry to ask what they learned on their path to executive leadership. It was part of a Women in Leadership project that Oliver Wyman has conducted for the past five years in time for Women’s History Month. Oliver Wyman researchers spoke with more than 160 senior female leaders in business and surveyed more than 300 male and female executives on the gender leadership gap. While we are seeing progress as we celebrate women’s accomplishments this month, the glass ceiling still only has cracks.
The women, including the auto executives, talked about the different set of rules that they felt they were judged by. Women said they assessed the quality of leaders by their ability to collaborate and empower their teams. Men said in the survey they valued decisiveness and being direct. It’s no wonder that women may not fare as well as men when being considered for promotion, most often by men.
In our society, women who are direct and decisive often get labeled as bossy or abrasive. When men get excited about an idea, they’re being assertive and have strong opinions; when women do, they’re emotional and opinionated. Women with children often get overlooked for promotions, especially when travel or relocation is required, while for men who have children it is rarely a consideration. They’re outdated notions that can still get in the way of a career. But it’s not a battle of the sexes. Several of the women with whom I spoke brought up men who had sponsored them during their careers — colleagues who went beyond mentoring and advocated for them to get new responsibilities or promotions.
Every woman from automotive talked about the importance of having sponsors rather than mentors, someone who would not just advise them but stand up for them. That vote of confidence often tipped the scales in their favor when decisions on promotions and assignments were being made.
One of the frequent themes that the women from automotive sounded was the need for numbers. Even two women in a room doesn’t help. It needs to be three or more to allow women to relax and be themselves. And ever so slowly, the numbers are inching up.
Anyone interested in fostering diversity needs to recognize the need for more than one. Tokenism is bad for companies, belittles the person put in the role and means a step backward for all women. In an environment of tokenism when there’s only one, even if a woman is overly qualified for a promotion, some will still insist she got it because she was a woman.
No article on women in automotive would be complete without mentioning Mary Barra, who has been CEO of General Motors for seven years. She was the first chief executive of a major car company and one of only about 40 at Fortune 500 companies at the end of November 2020. You see evidence of Barra’s impact everywhere — in an 11-member board of directors that is now more than half female and in a changing culture being slowly built around diversity, safety, emissions reduction and a 21st century perspective on the automobile.
Currently, women represent only a small minority among the executive leadership — only 4 out of 20, including Barra — but you sense it may not remain that way. That said, the industry is hard on female executives. Two of the seven I interviewed late last year have moved on to executive positions at companies outside of the industry.
Many of the women, like myself, believe that their parents provided them the foundation for their road to leadership by giving them the confidence, tenacity and resilience to push through. My mother was the manager of a construction company while I was growing up and then started her own bookkeeping firm.
Many women mentioned their fathers as well as their mothers. Fathers wanted to see their daughters successful and provided encouragement to work hard, never quit and aim high.
In the end, it may be our daughters and granddaughters who benefit most from our willingness to be the only woman in the room and push for more.