When Susan Elkington is having a stressful day as the new president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, she'll look for the chance to leave the executive offices for the shop floor.
Watching the cars come off the line at the biggest Toyota factory in the world and helping some of its 8,000 workers with the tiniest of production improvements, "that would be my ideal day," she said in an interview.
But Elkington, 46, also has bigger duties as the first female director of the plant and as something of a trailblazer within the company. She worked her way up during 20 years at two Midwest factories and held a global manufacturing role at headquarters in Japan.
"I know I have a lot of visibility being a female, and I take that as a huge responsibility," she told Automotive News. "I know what it's like whenever I see some of the great women leaders that have come before me."
One of them is Martha Layne Collins, the former governor of Kentucky and the only woman to hold that role. Collins was in office when Toyota's plant was established in Georgetown in 1986.
"We had a conversation after I got named president, and she was like, 'I didn't realize I would see the first woman plant president at Toyota [Kentucky],'" Elkington recalls. "And I said: 'If you wouldn't have done what you did, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did.'"
Elkington has worked to promote diversity in the workplace and on programs that encourage girls in middle school and high school to explore engineering as a career.
Her daughter, just out of college, started work as a quality engineer at Toyota's plant in Princeton, Ind., last month. That was almost 20 years to the day after Elkington took a production engineering job at the same plant, working on Toyota's first full-size pickup.
And yet Elkington still doesn't have a pat answer to the never-ending question of what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.
"I always laugh when I get that because I've never been a man in a man's industry, so it's hard to compare it," she said with a chuckle on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show.
"I love to build things, and my big thing is I always try to do what I enjoy doing. And if you tell me I can't do it, I'll probably only want to do it more," she said.