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Straightening Wrecks, Demolishing Stereotypes

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As director of marketing for the global product lines at BASF Manufacturing, Darlene Eilenberger’s responsibilities are significant. And unlike her male counterparts in top jobs at other major companies, the struggles she’s endured to get there have often been significant, too.

Fortunately, Eilenberger—a former science teacher who worked summers part-time washing glassware at a BASF laboratory and then earned an unheard-of perfect score on the company’s color test—had a trusted mentor and advisor willing to stand up for her. A former science teacher who worked summers part-time washing glassware at a BASF laboratory and then earned an unheard-of perfect score on the company’s color test.

But even as Eilenberger’s mentor championed her skills as a top color-matcher in automotive refinishing, he also painted for her a realistic picture of what working in a male-dominated field held for her. He said, in short, that when she became a manager, she would experience a microcosm of what women had endured for decades before.

“He told me that I would have to work twice as hard as any man to make it,” Eilenberger recalls. “He wasn’t saying it to be nasty. He was telling me that that’s what I was going to have to do to survive and to set the stage for other women. ‘You’re going to be tested on a routine basis; you’re going to have to work twice as hard to gain respect in this male-dominated industry,’ he said. And he was absolutely right.”

Like her mentor, Eilenberger has helped many women succeed in the auto repair industry. Her marketing department, comprised entirely of men just 10 years ago, is now half women. She advises every employee, male and female, to find a mentor within the company. BASF saw the wisdom in this advice, and in the mid-1990s, the company began to actively support its female employees. The number of women in the BASF workforce soon began to increase.

“But from 1979 to 1995, it was a long haul, let me tell you,” Eilenberger says.

A Look Back

The indelible image of Rosie the Riveter still stands today as a representative of the era when women emerged on the industrial working scene. Based on a 1920-born, Kentucky woman named Rose Will Monroe who worked as a riveter in Michigan during World War II, the fictional Rosie was an efficient and strong worker who kept the production workforce humming, doing a “man’s job” while the men were away fighting for the country.

The Rosie movement increased the number of working American women nearly 60 percent in four years, bringing 20 million women into the workforce by 1944. The change that increased the number of much-needed workers was swift: In the first seven months of 1942, the number of jobs deemed “acceptable” for women increased 56 percent. However, conditions at these jobs were often poor, and the pay was far from equal. The average man working in a wartime plant made $54.65 per week while women were paid just over half that, at $31.21 per week. (Today, women without children average 10 percent less than men; mothers earn 27 percent less; and single mothers average 34 to 44 percent less than men—that is, about the percentage the Rosies saw way back in the 1940s.)

Even as many women were discharged from the workforce when the servicemen returned, Rosies everywhere—and the generations of Rosies who followed—had gotten the message that factory work, men’s work, was an option. That realization opened the door to dozens of industries and revealed the potential of women in the workforce.

The Challenges

Quite a few occupations are dominated by a particular gender, but the differences in some fields are beginning to diminish. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, autobody and related repairers added more women to their ranks—a 369 percent increase from 1983 to 2002—than any other occupation. That jump was slightly ahead of police, supervisors and detectives (360 percent), and millwrights (315 percent).

Concurrently, the attitudes of those in male-dominated fields have changed, too. But there’s still room for improvement.

A little more respect. Business owner and National Auto Body Council Secretary Janet Chaney got her start in the autobody business the way most men do: She grew up in it. A young Chaney started washing and detailing cars at her father’s higher-end body shop in Portland, Ore., then worked in the paint shop. She moved to the office and learned how to write estimates when her father became ill.

“It all happened for me so quickly, I didn’t notice any challenges that came from me being a woman in this industry,” she recalls. “It was just something I had to do.”

Nose to the grindstone, learning and taking care of the family business, Chaney says she couldn’t spare attention for incidents that arose from being a woman in the male-dominated workplace. A couple of instances, however, couldn’t be overlooked.

“I will tell you that I had some challenges—some men who were really not very nice to me. I had some threats made when I became authoritative,” she says. “But for a few isolated incidents, I think I was taken seriously. I think it’s because I had worked so hard and there was so much respect for my father.”

When she moved on to become executive director of the Oregon Autobody Craftsmen Association, Chaney felt no “diminished value” as a woman in the field. “I felt that my work stood on its own,” she says. “Because of my knowledge of the industry, I think it kept me above that type of male-female problem.”

As Chaney has risen through the ranks of business, she sees fewer differences between men and women in the industry. But, Chaney adds, women still have to work smarter and harder to gain the same status as men—a lesson she was never taught but one she learned through her own experience. “I kept my head down, and moved forward,” Chaney says.

A little less boys’ club humor. Barbara Crest has an extensive background in marketing and communications for the nonprofit sector. Three years ago, she accepted a position as executive director of the Northwest Automotive Trades Association. She gets out into the field often, visiting body shops and garages, conducting member meetings and talking about automotive education with the Oregon Department of Education.

Asked if she’d been subject to subtle put-downs as a woman in the automotive arena: “Probably. I just don’t pay any attention to it,” Crest says, laughing. “What I’ve found in this industry is that there are some men, [especially the older generation], who are not acting in a professional manner. And I come from backgrounds where people are professional in their dealings. So it takes a little getting used to. But I don’t [have to] put up with it much.”

Better work/life balance. A relatively new obstacle to women finding their way in male-dominated industries may be their own aspirations for a better balanced life. With many women trying to—or needing to, financially—make time for a career while caring for a family, traditional employers are predicted to be unable to provide the kind of job flexibility that can make that possible.

Employers may ultimately regret not finding ways to provide workers with more flexibility on the job, however. Women increasingly own their own businesses to get the flexibility and empowerment they seek. That’s a trend employers will have to fight as they search for talented employees in the years ahead.

What the Future Holds

Less than 1 percent of the collision repair industry is female, according to the 2007 I-CAR Education Foundation Survey. While that figure is disappointing to some, it also reveals a potential antidote to the continuing shortage of technicians nationwide. Of course, an influx of female technicians won’t happen overnight. As with every stride womankind has made on the job, these things take time.

Experts agree that an increase in women and girls’ participation in all areas of science, engineering and technology requires strong leadership, changes in cultural values and practices, and systemic reform. In collision repair, for instance, bringing about such change will require continued and sustained efforts to reach out a helping hand to the women who are trying to succeed in the industry.

Lee Desrosiers knows just how much work there is to be done. For 21 years, he’s taught collision repair at Massachusetts’ Greater New Bedford Regional Technical Vocational High School. In the past 10 years, he estimates, about 15 girls have graduated from the program. None of them stayed in the trade.

“I have found that very few body shops are interested in female workers unless they want to work in the office,” Desrosiers says. “Currently, there is one body shop [Carl’s Collision Center] in Fall River, Mass., that is forward-thinking enough to hire my female students.”

To boost opportunities for women entering the collision repair and other automotive-related industries, business owners—male and female—can work with local schools, community colleges and universities to ensure that programs introducing girls to technology and science are in place.

Shop owners also can help boost gender equity by hiring an equal number of women into employer-sponsored training and education programs that prepare them for male-dominated positions like autobody technicians and painters. “I believe that we have great places for women in this industry,” Chaney says. “But we have to work hard to place them there.”

Stacy Bartnik, franchise director at CARSTAR, suggests introducing young people to the collision industry by offering shop tours and invitations to a conference or association meeting.

Leading by example is critical to encouraging women’s participation in the collision repair industry, and that’s the intent of the Women’s Industry Network (WIN). Founded in 2006 by a group of forward-looking women, WIN is dedicated to encouraging, developing and cultivating opportunities to draw more women to the field while enhancing the experience of those who are already in it.

“The establishment of WIN, I hope, will be a catalyst for change,” Fierst says. “I attended the inaugural conference. It is very clear that there is a demand for an organization like this that’s devoted to women.” She adds that, in combination with what it offered at the outset, WIN must emphasize the importance of women taking on national industry roles.   

“Clearly, on a day-to-day basis, what goes on in the shop and in corporate headquarters is very important. But there has to be participation among existing entities out there. WIN should be a complement to some of these older organizations, and WIN should … help get women into these organizations. I hope that will be a part of WIN’s mission,” Fierst says, applauding the efforts of those who have taken an active role in launching the organization.

Unlimited Potential

There is nothing within collision repair that women cannot do, says CARSTAR’s Bartnik. After working for the insurance industry and moving into the shop side, the Chicago-area resident says that women still face challenges, but that having women in visible positions within associations and organizations makes it easier for others to follow.

It also helps that many women have great ability to build trust between themselves and employees, a skill that helped smooth Bartnik’s own path to success. Across industries, employers are learning that trust building is just one appealing facet of drawing more women into male-dominated fields.

“The women who work for me can multitask so much better; they can really get a lot more done,” Eilenberger says. “I think companies today are looking at that and seeing the benefits of having more women in the workplace.”

And much in the way that women answered Rosie the Riveter’s call to duty during WWII, women today will continue to follow the modern-day pioneers found throughout the collision repair and other industries. Thanks to the likes of Eilenberger, Bartnik, Chaney, Fierst and Crest, those who follow are likely to find the doors to opportunity opened quite a bit wider.

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