Susan Elkington says early in her career in manufacturing she often found herself the only woman in the room. “For years I never wore pink into a manufacturing facility,” says Elkington, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky. “But now I wear pink. I have learned to bring 100% of myself to work every single day.”
Elkington says she learned a lot about body welding—but also about how to be a woman in a male-dominated industry—from Leah Curry, now the president of one of Toyota’s other manufacturing facilities, in West Virginia. “I worked with Leah in body weld and stamping; it was the first extended period of time I worked with another woman,” she says.
“I have realized there are things about being a woman that add value to the workplace. We’re wired differently from men. We are risk-tolerant. We think things through differently. I learned that it was ok to bring those softer-side skills to work. I give Leah some of the credit because she helped me figure out how to balance the two sides.”
Elkington grew up in rural Indiana. A high school teacher commented that she was good in math and science, and might consider a career in engineering. “When I went home and told my dad, he asked why—did I want to drive a train? Living on a farm, I didn’t know what engineers did,” she says. “My first job was in design in the electronics industry, but I found myself in the prototype labs all the time. I made the request to switch to manufacturing.”
When Toyota announced it was building a facility to produce pickup trucks in Princeton, 40 miles from Elkington’s home town, it seemed an unbelievable opportunity. “Being a farm girl, the only thing better from my perspective would have been building a tractor,” she says. Elkington was hired as an assembly engineering specialist, one of Toyota’s first 200 employees in Indiana.
But the experience that changed the trajectory of her career was the 2007-08 economic crisis. Elkington’s Toyota facility stopped production for three months but did not lay off any workers; instead, managers like Elkington focused on workforce development. “Team members would ask me how long Toyota could continue to do this, before they laid people off. We had to commit to our team members, to my home community,” she says. “Doing that made me want to ensure that manufacturing stays strong in North America. And so that’s when I started raising my hand for other assignments, learning other areas outside of manufacturing.” Those experiences included a three-year stint in Japan.
She appreciates the business value of a diverse workforce. “Having a diverse workforce with a diverse way of thinking is more productive, creative and innovative,” she says. “There’s a sense of energy present when you have that diversity. It will make manufacturing stronger and the auto industry stronger.”
She hopes to inspire young women to consider automotive careers. One of those young women is her daughter, who graduated in December with a degree in mechanical engineering and recently took her first full-time job with Toyota.
“What I tell young women is to make sure you are doing something you enjoy; don’t let someone else tell you what is right for you,” she says. “If you like building things, if you like to solve problems, this industry is a great place for you. When you think about what could happen in the next 20 to 30 years, the auto industry is going to be constantly changing. If you want to be in an industry and a job that is going to challenge you for years to come, this is it.”