By Michelle Hill
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.
Different set of rules
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 They're outdated notions that can still get in the way of a career.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
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.