Dear Tom and Ray:
Why is it, do you think, that there aren't more women mechanics? I'm asking for purely selfish reasons. I'm an art-history major and have worked in museums for the past decade, and I'm looking to change careers. I'm completely visually and hands-on oriented, and I've always been fascinated by car engines and how they work. I'm one of those obnoxious women who leans over the hood of my car every time I take it to the shop, and have them explain what they're doing. I have a proclivity for taking things apart and figuring out how to put them back together, and I don't mind getting dirty (I do ceramics as a hobby). Bottom line: I'm thinking of taking some vo-tech mechanic classes and am wondering about becoming a mechanic. Am I nuts? Is it possible for a woman to be integrated into a testosterone-driven field like this? I think so, but I need a reality check. Words of wisdom are greatly welcome. -- Elizabeth
RAY: You sound like you'd make a great mechanic, Elizabeth. I'd wholeheartedly encourage you to go for it.
TOM: It won't be entirely easy, though, because you're right -- this is a largely testosterone-poisoned field. There are lots of crude remarks, sexual innuendoes and, until recently, the major tool supplier in the industry was famous for its annual girly calendars.
RAY: Yeah, wasn't that great!
TOM: You see, Elizabeth? This is the kind of nonsense you're going to have to put up with. And you have to expect some degree of harassment from those who don't want you there -- either because they feel more comfortable in an all-male environment, or because they feel threatened economically by the opening of their profession to the other 50 percent of humanity.
RAY: But every field has its pioneers. Rosa Parks had to endure a lot to sit at the front of the bus. Jackie Robinson took a lot of guff as the first man to integrate major league baseball. And just ask my family what my brother had to endure as the first moron admitted to MIT.
TOM: We're a little bit past that pioneering stage now in the auto-repair business. Fortunately, there are already some women working on cars. We had a very good female mechanic in our shop years ago. And there was even an all-women repair shop in our neighborhood for a while. But it's still fairly rare, so be prepared for some grief, Elizabeth.
RAY: If we had suggestions for you, one would be to try to maintain your sense of humor. Garage culture seems to revolve around guys kidding each other and putting each other down. As strange as it might seem, this is how guys express affection for each other. If you can take it, and give it back with a smile on your face, you're more likely to be embraced.
TOM: The other suggestion would be to know your stuff as well as you can. Jackie Robinson had to be better than most of the other players just to get the same opportunity. So, work hard, ask questions when you don't know something, carry your weight and do your job as well as you can.
RAY: One final suggestion is that you might do best in a dealership rather than a small, local garage. The reason I say this is because dealerships tend to be larger, have many employees and are therefore more aware of workplace rules as they apply to harassment and the like. So you might find a more protected environment there.
TOM: Whatever you decide, good luck. I hope you do it. Write back to us in a couple of years and tell us how it all works out. And send us a list of all the new words you learn.