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You’ve probably heard the refrain that car repair “is a man’s work.” Well, it may be tough work, but women are equally as capable of the skills it takes to get the job done. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we want to honor the women in our industry: Mechanics, engineers, pioneers, and business owners. Here are a few of the notable women in auto history, and in today’s industry.

Notable women in auto history

Despite what your modern auto shop demographic might suggest, women have been in the auto industry for a long time. Denise McCluggage was a racecar driver and founded the popular magazine AutoWeek in the 1960s. The first turn signal was invented by Florence Lawrence in 1910. Mary Anderson invented the first windshield wiper in 1903. Women started getting hired to work in traditionally male jobs – like auto mechanics – during WWI while many men in the country had left to fight.

During this time women took up many professions that later were taken back by male workers. Unfortunately, women in today’s auto industry are few and far between.

A young Queen Elizabeth II, then Princess Elizabeth, works under the hood of a truck.

Queen Elizabeth II

During WWII, upon turning 18, now-Queen Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service to train as a truck mechanic and driver. By the end of the war, Elizabeth reached the rank of junior commander. She is the only female member of the royal family to have served in the military.

Kitty Brunnel sits partly under the front of an old car in a mechanics jumpsuit. Someone out of frame is handing her a tool.

Kitty Brunell

To this day, Kitty Brunell is the first and only woman to win Britain’s RAC Rally, in 1933. She had been rallying since 1929 when she was 17 years old. She has many photographs of her working on her vehicles compared to other drivers of the time, likely taken by her father, motorsport photographer Bill Brunell.

A photo of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas, with a poodle sitting between them.
Gertrude Stein (left) and partner Alice B. Tolkas.

Gertrude Stein

During WWI, American author and poet Gertrude Stein worked as an ambulance driver with her partner Alice B. Toklas (pictured, right). Stein bought a van and the two served as ambulance drivers for the French. During the war, drivers had to be responsible for the maintenance of their vehicles as well as their driving.

A black-and-white photo of Bertha Benz.

Bertha Benz

Wife of Carl Benz, Bertha built the company that launched Benz to the public eye. She submitted a patent for the automobile while taking care of five children. To show the value of her husband’s car, she made the decision to take a long-distance trip. She took two of her sons and persevered – overcoming a few mechanical obstacles and repairs along the way – and became the first person to take a road trip. Not only that, but she was one of the first successful female marketers at the time as well.

Danica Patrick wears her racing jacket and aviator sunglasses, looking off into the distance.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick’s career is a long list of firsts for women. She was the first to lead the Indianapolis 500 race in 2005, the first to win the IndyCar circuit in 2008, and the first in pole position at NASCAR Daytona 500 in 2013. In 2006 she was named American Female Athlete of the Year. Most importantly, she put women on the map in racing, encouraging female drivers and audiences of the sport.

Mary Barra

The first woman CEO of a leading global auto manufacturer is Mary Barra, who is CEO of General Motors. She was named the most powerful woman in business in 2017 by Fortune Magazine.

Today’s women in auto repair

When we think of the auto industry, we think of a male-dominated field. It is, to be quite honest. Only 1.9 percent of the 880,000 auto mechanics and service technicians in the US are women. But more women are becoming mechanics, and further than that, opening their own businesses to train and hire more women mechanics. And women mechanics have a built-in customer base: Women who don’t trust auto workers. Many women customers feel afraid male-run shops will try to take advantage of them, because often, they do. And women mechanics understand dealing with that sexism more than anyone.

Struggles for women in car repair

Some barriers are physical. Shops might not provide protective gear that fits some womens’ smaller frame. Some techs have cited issues finding protective boots in their shoe size. Women also tend to have less muscle mass than men as well, and though women workers can grow stronger or find workarounds, it can add frustration and take more time to complete a repair.

Three women stand around an old car with the name "Throttle Queens" on the side. One woman is working under the hood.

The bigger barriers are social. Women experience sexism when applying for jobs in labor fields for a number of reasons, including stereotypes that women are not mechanically inclined, not serious about their profession, or are not as knowledgeable as male technicians. Sarah Lateiner, the owner of 180 Automotive in Phoenix, remembered when she was applying to jobs, “I literally walked in once and he yelled back, ‘Hey, Joe, we got a little girl here wants to be a technician, you’ve got to see this.’ “

Once they’ve found a job, the industry culture is also a hurdle. Sometimes sexism happens in the form of ‘harmless’ jokes, and sometimes as explicit harassment. One of the founders of Women in Automotive and 20-year industry veteran Kathy Gilbert, says management at car shops may not be trained to handle sexual harassment cases properly.

Former powertrain prototype operations manager at Ford Motor Company Cheryl Thompson told Automotive News that she reported unwanted sexual advances from the plant manager. The manager was later fired and her coworkers resented her for it. “I felt like I was thrown under the bus,” she said.

The good news is that some women auto workers have opened all-women shops where female techs and mechanics can work without the fear of harassment and sexism.

A group of 8 women in mechanic's jackets stand together in front of a vehicle lifted for repair.Photo from Girls Auto Clinic. // www.girlsautoclinic.com/

These shops offer a safe place to learn about auto repair. Shops like Girls Auto Clinic offer classes, talk to local communities and groups, and take opportunities to encourage girls and women to learn mechanics and enter the industry. They seek to create an environment where women don’t have to worry about fitting in with the ‘boys’ culture.

These shops feel like more of a novelty, though, because women mechanics are a rare find in the industry. The bigger problem is adapting the workplace to be more welcoming to both sexes, and there is little to be found on the web about how to do this.

How repair shops can do better

Here are a few ways store owners and managers can change to encourage women technicians (written by a woman).

A woman with curly hair in a mechanic's jumpsuit leans under the hood of a car in a repair shop.

1. Create a respectful environment

This shouldn’t just be something your shop does when a woman or child walks in the door. It should be your 24/7. And no, we don’t mean cutting out curse words. That means management stepping up to enforce work boundaries. This should include things like zero-tolerance of racial slurs and harmful stereotypes.

Create a set of guidelines and talk to your employees about why this is important. They might not like it. But if they’re mature, worthwhile employees, they will come around and learn to be professional.

Why it matters: If everyone is treated with respect and compassion, it will not only benefit women who feel harassed by men in the workplace, but it will also benefit your workplace culture as a whole.

2. Hire more women

Your shop will never be a woman-friendly workplace if you never hire women. So get on it! Even if these employees aren’t directly in mechanical jobs at first, hiring more women sets the precedent that a woman mechanic might feel more comfortable applying to your shop.

Gilbert told Automotive News that women also need to be involved in training and leadership roles for balanced representation.

Why it matters: Women make up half the population and are discouraged from pursuing traditionally male career fields. If they show up and say they want a job in the field, then they truly want to be there.

3. Listen to your women employees

If your female employee comes to you to say that a male employee made her feel threatened or uncomfortable, listen. Do not assume she’s “looking for attention” or being sensitive. Actually listen. And then follow up with them after you talk to the other employee. Let her know what actions you have decided to take and why.

Also, create an open door where your employees feel comfortable talking to you about shop conditions or issues. If this doesn’t create a better work environment, come up with a trusted way that employees can express their grievances anonymously.

Why it matters:  If your employees feel like they can speak openly about barriers they’re facing in the workplace, your shop will be able to address those problems and make your employees feel happier and safer.

 

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