Gender Bender: A woman's place...is in the bays.

Jan. 1, 2020
In 1975, being a woman and a mechanic was as unheard of as a woman running for president, as Betty Kendall quickly found out during her search for a job within the then-male-dominated industry.

In 1975, being a woman and a mechanic was as unheard of as a woman running for president, as Betty Kendall quickly found out during her search for a job within the then-male-dominated industry.

But Kendall, who recently had graduated with a degree in automotive repair from a local community college, would not give up — not even after she received a rejection letter from a male shop owner that read: "Neither I nor any of my fellow mechanics/shop owners would ever consider even hiring a woman."

But that didn't hurt as much as the female shop owner who refused to give her a chance, Kendall says. "She pretty much told me that women who wanted to be auto mechanics were 'airhead dreamers,'" Kendall adds.

Fast-forward 30 years, and things certainly have changed for the better, as Kendall told Aftermarket Business during an interview about women within the automotive industry. Kendall, who is now a retired mechanic, also has served as an educator and mentor to countless young female (and male) technicians during her career. She is the co-founder of the Portland, Ore.-based Association of Women in Automotive, an organization that supports women working in all aspects of the automotive industry.

The change in perception shouldn't come as a big surprise, says Becky Vierck, co-owner of Re-born Automotive, an independent repair shop also located in Portland. Vierck is ASE certified as a service advisor, a designation she says helped make her feel more comfortable in her role and helped build her credibility with male technicians and customers alike.

"I feel like I can help the women who come into my shop," says Vierck, who handles the business end of the shop while her technician husband handles the repairs. "I can relate to why women want their cars to be reliable and can help them look at the estimate in a different way. It helps to be able to understand the customers' needs."

Vierck also feels that male technicians and service advisors tend to pre-diagnose problems, while women will ask questions and gather information from the customer before jumping to conclusions.

Amy Mattinat, co-owner of Auto Craftsman, a Montpelier, Vt.-based independent repair shop, agrees. "A lot of times, the person on the front desk ends up being a tech who is not turning a wrench anymore. They may not be the best communicator — instead, they are fixers," she adds. "It's not a bad thing; it's just a different way of thinking. They want to help people, but they may not be the greatest at communicating with other people."

That being said, Vierck adds that some female customers still prefer to deal with men when they come into a repair shop. "They just think the men will know more about cars," she explains.

Breaking the mold

Although Kendall has faced more challenges than the other women, Vierck and Mattinat admit to occasionally running into a tough client or facing unwarranted sexism.

"My biggest problem in recent years was the parts salesman who kept calling me 'honey,'" Vierck says. "He did stop, though, after I asked him to."

Mattinat, on the other hand, says she repeatedly witnesses women throw away their power when confronted with male technicians.

"It happens with female mechanics and service advisors, as well as with female customers," she notes. "They may be the toughest businesswoman on the block, but something about a repair shop just intimidates them."

For Mattinat and Vierck, changing that dynamic is all-important. "We want to cultivate a relationship with our female clients," Mattinat explains. "We want to help them keep their cars safe and reliable. So we educate them about their decisions, and give them all the facts they need to make those decisions."

And when faced with men who don't think a woman has the ability to do the job, Kendall offers sage words of advice for young women to lay on their detractors. "Listen. You know I could be repairing the brakes on your grandchild's school bus. And if you think that's not a job that requires responsibility and skill, you don't know anything."

Teach your children well

Perhaps one of the greatest legacies women such as Kendall, Vierck and Mattinat have left behind for the young women entering today's automotive industry is the almost universal acceptance customers feel when they see a woman behind the counter or on the shop floor. Terica Devoreh-Spratt, a former technician and current service advisor at Hawthorne Auto Clinic in Portland, is living proof of this.

"I haven't experienced too much negativity about me working in the field," she says. "It's becoming more acceptable, I guess. My family and friends think it's great, because whenever they have a problem with their cars they know I can solve it for them."

Devoreh-Spratt says male teachers at her technical high school were the most supportive of her choice to pursue automotive repair at Mount Hood Community College after she graduated. And it was a male teacher who encouraged her to apply for an internship at Hawthorne Auto Clinic, which led to a job she has had for the past 10 years.

Kendall, an instructor at Mount Hood, says the educational environment certainly has changed over the years. Unlike previous generations of educators, today's faculty and staff are more prepared to see women in the classroom alongside their male counterparts — and the male students don't think it's strange to work alongside women at all.

But the biggest change Kendall has noticed over the years comes from the parents of the young women who want to become a part of the automotive industry, and the support they now are showing for their daughters' career choices.

"It used to be that the young women who approached us at career fairs would be pulled away by their chaperones and redirected to the home ec booth," says Kendall. "But over the years, the attitude of the adults staffing these fairs has changed. They are expressing more interest and more support for the girls' choices. Because of this change of attitude, the young women to whom we talk are more comfortable and certain of their aspirations."

It doesn't hurt that today's young women can look to Kendall, Vierck and Mattinat as positive role models in a field that has become increasingly hospitable to women.

"When a little girl can look out and see a woman carrying a wrench and working on a car, it's a big 'ah ha' moment," Kendall adds. "They realize that there's something else out there for them. It opens their minds."

And that "ah ha" moment just may be the future of women in the automotive industry.