The automotive industry is a new frontier for women looking for a career niche in a male-dominated field. But finding more sexism than support from men so far, many have to carve the niche themselves.
“All in all, I feel it’s a good field for a lady to get into. The only thing holding them back is tradition,” said Marlin Gaines, head of the Boise State University automotive technology program.
Gaines said the average ratio of his male students to females each year is about 30 to one, so there is plenty of room in the grease pit for more gender equity.
There is a need for an estimated 50,000 diagnostic technicians nationwide who understand increasingly complex vehicles. But even women with the right training often choose not to compete in the good-old-boy world of mechanics.
Instead, many are finding such lucrative jobs as parts department managers, district representatives for car or tool manufacturers, technical manual writers and even race car drivers.
Connie King, 50, parts manager for Peterson Motor Co. in Boise, literally built her career from the ashes.
Her husband worked for a Caldwell dealership that burned down in 1971. She helped move the surviving parts into bins at the Simplot Fieldhouse arena, working for three months in the winter cold.
King then became a parts delivery runner, worked on the parts desk in several dealerships and ultimately became parts manager for Peterson. Her department does almost $400,000 in business each month and the inventory is linked by satellite to Toyota and Chrysler manufacturers. She has 10 employees, including four women.
“It’s very high-tech and it’s a lot of fun,” King said. “When it comes to parts, I find women are very meticulous about getting things right the first time.”
She coped with gender bias by getting better at her trade.
“A lot of men didn’t want to buy parts from me. But I can associate a part with a number. When one of the guys asks, ‘What number is this?’ and you have an answer, the customers come to you.”
Sue Hannibal, a writer for Motor magazine, only planned to help with the books while her husband did the automotive work at his emissions-control business in the San Diego area.
“Within six months, I found myself getting dragged under the hood,” she said. “You don’t have to be strong. Generally, in the 1990s, you’re a diagnostician first - brain as opposed to brawn.”
Hannibal discovered most motorists were lost when it came to fixing the complicated emissions equipment in their vehicles, and many mechanics have trouble explaining their repair process to others.
“Customers would say, ‘I know you’re going to rip me off, so how much?”’ she said. “I would talk with them and communicate, and more often than not, they would say ‘Fix it.”’ She successfully pitched a story to Motor magazine and put together an Auto Logic newsletter for technicians. Then she put down her tools.
“I told my husband, ‘I’m getting out of this. I’m going to break a nail.”’ Hannibal said young people and teachers should not think of the automotive trades as beneath them. In fact, being an auto mechanic is becoming more like working as an aeronautical engineer.
Hannibal said physicians only need to know about male and female bodies, but mechanics must acquaint themselves with a long list of makes. And each company turns out a couple dozen models every year.
About 400,000 certified mechanics are members of the Automotive Service Excellence group. President Ronald Weiner estimated fewer than 10 percent are women. But that is starting to change.
“We’re seeing more and more, but the numbers aren’t phenomenal,” he said.
Weiner said the horizons for women in automotive careers are so vast that many of them are opting for managerial positions rather than rebuilding engines or changing oil.