Don't call me 'baby': How sexism is fueling the employment crisis in the auto repair industry

Chaya M. Milchtein, Prism Guest Writer  |  Updated Feb 06, 2020 8:13am EST
 While women make up over 50% of drivers in the United States, they represent only 3% of mechanics. Little is being done to grow those numbers. In the automotive repair industry, sexism pushes qualified women out of jobs as mechanics, service advisors, and managers—not because women can't handle harassment, but because they don't want to and shouldn't have to.
According to Auto News, the average technician is male, over 40 years old, and has 19 years of experience. Within a decade or two, these technicians will reach the point in their career where they retire or can’t do the physically demanding job any longer. Meanwhile, the automotive industry has 39,000 fewer technicians entering the industry every year than are needed to sustain it. Welcoming women into an industry desperately looking for bodies to fill empty bays should be a no-brainer. But in the automotive repair industry, sexism runs deeper than business sense.
My first job in 2013 at age 18, after aging out of foster care in Wisconsin, was at Sears Auto Center in Glendale, Wisconsin, right outside of Milwaukee. I worked surrounded by stacks of tires twice my height and old dead car batteries, nearly the size and weight of a concrete block, often covered in fine blue battery acid powder. The air was thick with the odor of new rubber tires and motor oil. 
Each day, I worked the service drive. I checked in cars, listened carefully to customers' concerns, and asked questions to assist the technicians in properly diagnosing cars. I was the liaison between technician and customer from the beginning to the end of repairs, translating mechanic jargon into understandable language.
I loved my work, but hated the way my coworkers treated me.
Throughout my five years at auto repair shops, men—including my manager—called me “baby,” sometimes multiple times a day. They used the word like a punctuation mark. It didn’t matter their age, size, or position relative to mine, "baby" was mostly used as a way to infantilize and demean me. The word stood for everything I hated about being a woman in the field. But the problems went beyond just words.
Of the many shops in which I have worked, most only had a men's staff bathroom and changing area. Female employees, if there are any, were required to use customer facilities.
Many technicians have nude photographs hanging on their tool boxes. Each time I saw these photographs at work, I felt like a piece of meat—a person to be used sexually, but unworthy of being considered equal in the workplace.
These small gestures add up. Women in the automotive repair industry are excluded from what is a boys club. Many leave.
By 2018, after working as a service manager for three years at two different shops, I’d had enough. No job was worth the daily sexism. My last job as a service manager ended up being one of the most humiliating experiences of my career. An assistant manager that I hired would regularly speak over me in front of customers, interrupt me, and tell customers that what I was explaining to them about their car was wrong.
As he worked to undermine my authority with both customers and my team of employees, my work was rendered essentially useless. When I discussed it with my direct supervisor, I was told that I had a Napoleon complex and nothing was really going on. I struggled, losing faith in my own abilities.
My experience was, unfortunately, not unique. According to a 2017 survey of almost 900 women in the automotive repair industry,  68% of women in the industry have been told they’re “too aggressive,” 62% have been accused of being “too bossy,” and 61% have been called out for being “too emotional.”  
Towards the end of my time with the last company, the assistant manager was fired, but only after significant documented policy violations. Weeks after he was gone, I left the company and the industry altogether with my hopes crushed, wondering where I had gone wrong.
While I was driven out of the industry after years of struggle, sexist exclusion prevents some women from even getting started. In 2015, Harley McGuigan was still in high school in Lubbock, Texas, when she applied for her first apprenticeship. She was eager to begin her career as an automotive repair technician. She had taken shop class and worked with her father, a shop owner, leading her to have a better grasp of cars then other teens her age.
During the interview for that apprenticeship, the hiring service manager, a man in his 50s, said he would hire her, but wouldn't give her the training necessary to advance, such as pairing her with an experienced technician or giving her the opportunity to work on more complex jobs with supervision.
He explained that she would "soon get pregnant and go back to being a regular woman,"  McGuigan recalled. While she decided to take the job anyway as her options were limited, McGuigan left the repair industry altogether at the end of 2019.
Even when women manage to break into the auto repair industry and stay, they are grossly underpaid.
Stephanie Stanke is a 31-year-old mechanic shop owner and technician in Weston, Wisconsin, with over 15 years of experience. The last job she was offered was in 2015 for $10 an hour. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t even catalog what women in the auto repair industry get paid because there are too few of them, but Stanke knew she was being underpaid compared to her male colleagues.
“The other techs were making an average of $15 to $20 an hour. Some of the detailers said they were getting paid the same as me,” she said. A detailer is an entry level position at dealerships; generally, they are paid less than technicians with any kind of experience. For comparison, the local McDonalds paid $10.50 per hour and didn’t require investment in training and tools, which can cost mechanics $25,000 to $50,000.
"I was the lowest paid technician at their dealership," Stanke told me. After a month, she went to the human resources manager to lodge a complaint of gender-based discrimination in her wages.
She told her to go elsewhere, or start her own shop.
“I quit right there on the spot and began looking into opening my own shop.”  
In 2017, she opened Wooster’s Garage in Weston, Wisconsin, which welcomes women and allows Stanke to thrive in her car repair career, modeling for others what inclusivity really means.
Others have also found refuge in women-owned shops. Jill Trotta, an ASE certified master technician, is now the vice president of marketing, industry and sales at RepairPal, a company which is an invaluable resource for consumers with both an repair estimating tool and a network of highly vetted and certified shops, based in San Francisco. She began her career in 1990 as a technician at a car dealership in Los Angeles.
Her coworkers at the car dealership—all men—were hostile towards her.
“They would not help me, they would not teach me, they wouldn't even eat lunch with me,” Trotta told me.
After six months, she left for work at a woman-owned garage in San Francisco. While she worked hands on in the shops, Trotta designed her career to avoid male-owned shops.
"I have had the privilege of working predominantly in shops owned by women and that was a lot by design," she said.
Tiera Bagwell was a Volkswagen technician from 2009 to 2013 before management pushed out of her position after carpal tunnel surgery. By the time she got to the woman-owned Chevrolet dealership in Condard, Montana, Bagwell was already feeling defeated. Late in 2013, she ended her automotive repair career and found a home in the railroad industry.
"I would have stayed in the automotive industry if I had worked for a female owner right out of school," she said.  
But an auto repair shop shouldn’t have to be owned by a woman in order for it to be a safe, healthy, and equitable environment for women to work. Male service managers, shop owners, and foremen need to actively recruit women, maintain a zero-tolerance policy for misogynistic behaviors, enforce harassment policies, and pay women fair wages.
It’s not on women to do this alone. Sexism will not stop unless male managers step up.
The automotive repair industry should hold a mirror up to itself and take responsibility for its sexist practices. Gender-bias training for managers should be required, including how to welcome female employees into the shop in a productive way, and how to coach their teams on how not to be sexist. 
The industry can fix its employee shortage crisis by opening the doors wide to women who already want to enter the field, and encouraging women who haven't yet considered it. Sexism isn’t the only industry fault, but keeping over 50% of the population from considering the career certainly hurts its chances of filling the gap. Not only can women help to fill the thousands of open positions, but they can also become spokespeople and refer friends, family, and community to the career opportunities the automotive industry has to offer. Nude calendars and the bro club aren’t worth keeping women out.
 
Chaya M. Milchtein is an automotive educator, writer and speaker who is passionate about educating the average automotive consumer and uplifting the voices of women in the industry. Learn about her work on her website, Mechanic Shop Femme, and on Twitter.
 
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