HELL ON WHEELS

Auto me­chan­ics rou­tinely cheat women. Here’s how one woman stopped them.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @girl­sauto­clinic Pa­trice Banks, an au­to­mo­tive tech­ni­cian who founded Girls Auto Clinic, is au­thor of the “GAC Glove Box Guide.”

Af­ter 12 years work­ing as an en­gi­neer for a For­tune 500 com­pany, I quit my man­age­ment job to be­come an auto me­chanic. I traded high heels and an air-con­di­tioned of­fice for boots, Dick­ies and grime-cov­ered hands. The rea­son was sim­ple: I was tired of feel­ing like an auto air­head and get­ting scammed by the male-dom­i­nated car-care in­dus­try.

Like many women, I felt dread each time my car’s odome­ter crept to­ward the next 3,000-mile in­ter­val. An oil change never meant just an oil change. It meant be­ing hag­gled into buy­ing a new air fil­ter and a tire ro­ta­tion. It meant be­ing told I needed new brake pads and spark plugs— things I’d never heard of at prices that were un­heard of. I’d go into a Quick Lube ex­pect­ing to pay $19.95 and come out $300 poorer.

For a long time, I gave in tomy help­less­ness. When my ve­hi­cle needed a jump-start, re­ly­ing onmy guy friends seemed likemy only op­tion. One of my worst mo­ments came when the dash­board light started flash­ing on my twoyear-old SUV. The dealer told me it had a trans­mis­sion prob­lem that would cost $1,800 to fix. The shop held my car for two weeks, and when I fi­nally got it back, it had a to­tally new prob­lem: It would shake when in re­verse. On top of that, the trans­mis­sion prob­lem re­turned eight months later. For months, I went back and forth with the deal­er­ship, which wanted an­other $1,800 to fix it. From that mo­ment on, when­ever my ve­hi­cle needed ma­jor re­pairs or main­te­nance, I’d just get rid of it and buy a new one.

Most driv­ers have auto-re­pair hor­ror sto­ries, but women are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble. In a 2013 sur­vey of car own­ers and leasers by con­sumer re­source site Re­pairPal, 77 per­cent of re­spon­dents said me­chan­ics are more likely to sell women un­nec­es­sary re­pairs, and 66 per­cent be­lieved that me­chan­ics charge women more than men for the same ser­vices. That gen­der bias isn’t just a fig­ment of cus­tomers’ imag­i­na­tions. A re­cent study by North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity found that auto-re­pair shops give women sig­nif­i­cantly higher price quotes than men when the cus­tomers are un­in­formed about mar­ket prices.

This is a ma­jor prob­lem for the auto in­dus­try and one it has done very lit­tle to fix. Women are the in­dus­try’s top cus­tomers, hold­ing the ma­jor­ity of driver’s li­censes in the United States and spend­ing more time on the road than men. They shell out more than $200 bil­lion ev­ery year buy­ing new cars and ser­vic­ing their ve­hi­cles. Yet women hate go­ing to the auto-re­pair shop even more than they hate go­ing to the den­tist, ac­cord­ing to an Au­toMD con­sumer sur­vey. Why would an in­dus­try iso­late its No. 1 cus­tomers?

Though the auto in­dus­try gets much of its rev­enue from women, it has been stub­bornly un­in­ter­ested in em­ploy­ing them. Tired of feel­ing ig­no­rant and scammed at re­pair shops, I de­cided to seek out a fe­male me­chanic, but my search came up empty. I soon learned that fewer than 2 per­cent of auto me­chan­ics are women. Deal­er­ships are no bet­ter: Just 13 per­cent of car sales­peo­ple are women. It’s easy for us to feel mis­un­der­stood and mis­treated by the auto busi­ness when we don’t see our­selves re­flected in it.

I saw a ma­jor busi­ness op­por­tu­nity in the auto in­dus­try’s gen­der gap. Be­com­ing a me­chanic wouldn’t just save me hun­dreds of dol­lars on un­nec­es­sary and in­ad­e­quate re­pairs. It also would al­low me to save other women from the same fate. At 31 years old, I started tak­ing night classes at a com­mu­nity col­lege and worked week­ends at a re­pair shop for free. Af­ter two years, I earned a di­ploma in au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy and ended my en­gi­neer­ing ca­reer to launch Girls Auto Clinic in Philadel­phia.

For the past cou­ple of years, I’ve been hold­ing free work­shops in park­ing lots, garages and auto-re­pair shops to ed­u­cate women about the ba­sics of car care so they’re equipped to ask ques­tions and ne­go­ti­ate prices with me­chan­ics and sales­men. Com­pa­nies and women’s groups, in­clud­ing Girl Scout troops and car deal­er­ships, have hired me to talk to their em­ploy­ees and mem­bers. I show them what the var­i­ous parts of cars do, when those parts need to be ser­viced, what flu­ids need to be changed and other as­pects of what’s un­der a ve­hi­cle’s hood. I even ac­com­pany women to deal­er­ships and re­pair shops to hag­gle with the men try­ing to sell them cars and parts. It’s amaz­ing how of­ten sales­men don’t know the an­swers tomy ques­tions about a used car’s up­keep and how quickly they’ll knock $500 off the price when you tell them you know the ve­hi­cle is due for ma­jor main­te­nance. When a woman can ne­go­ti­ate, it’s em­pow­er­ing.

But knowl­edge isn’t women’s only bar­rier to get­ting equal treat­ment by the auto in­dus­try. The busi­ness suf­fers from per­va­sive sex­ism that crip­ples even the most in­formed and ca­pa­ble women. Ci­rina Johns, a tech­ni­cian I now work with, strug­gled for years to gain the re­spect of the male col­leagues and bosses who as­sumed she wasn’t strong or ca­pa­ble enough to work on big trucks and more chal­leng­ing jobs. It’s a com­mon story for women who work on cars. Most of us do it on our own be­causewe can’t find shops that will give us a chance or treat us as equals. Even when I was in school and look­ing to work for free, a lot of shops told me no. When I started plan­ning to open a re­pair shop in Philadel­phia to be staffed by fe­male me­chan­ics and cater to fe­male driv­ers, Ci­rina im­me­di­ately moved from New Jer­sey to join me.

Re­cently, I vis­ited a tech­ni­cal high school to dis­cuss what it’s like to be a woman in the auto-care in­dus­try. All of the stu­dents were boys, and they made clear that they were skep­ti­cal ofmy cre­den­tials. They looked atmy hands to see how dirty they were. They quizzed me onmy knowl­edge of car parts and me­chan­ics. Even af­ter I passed their tests, the boys told methat I was too much of a dis­trac­tion to work with men. They were still teenagers, but that kind of men­tal­ity is what dis­cour­ages girls who are in­ter­ested in cars from go­ing into the busi­ness — and fu­els the in­dus­try’s gen­der dis­par­i­ties.

Mak­ing auto-re­pair shops and car deal­er­ships safer spa­ces for women is just good busi­ness. But the men who con­trol the in­dus­try aren’t the only ones who can force that change. As their big­gest cus­tomers, women have a lot of power to dis­rupt this in­dus­try. We can arm our­selves with the knowl­edge to pro­tect both our wal­lets and our ve­hi­cles from over­priced parts and un­nec­es­sary re­pairs. We don’t have to be auto air­heads.

PHO­TOS BY AN­DREW RENNEISEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pa­trice Banks talks about air fil­ters at a re­cent work­shop in Philadel­phia. She wants women to feel com­fort­able at the re­pair shop or deal­er­ship.

Banks ex­plains var­i­ous auto parts at the work­shop. In one sur­vey, women said they’d rather go to the den­tist than visit a car me­chanic.

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