According to 2016 statistics, although women make up half the workforce in the United States, they represent only a quarter of the automotive field. When you break it down even further, putting aside management roles and senior level positions, the numbers are even more abysmal. Women only make up 7.3% of automotive repair and maintenance employees.
In 2014 Mary Barra was appointed CEO of General Motors, becoming the first female CEO of a major auto maker. But how does that high-level representation have an effect on the engineering and manufacturing positions? Catalyst says the industry is having difficult attracting women into entry-level positions, which is where the pipeline problem occurs.
“In a survey of women in various industries, respondents stated the automotive industry was the least successful at attracting and retaining women,” it said.
In other countries, the percentage of women in automotive engineering and repair is slightly higher, but nowhere near equal. In Canada, across the European Union, and in the UK, the number averages just below 20%. So the question is – what is the secret to encouraging more female participation in this industry?
It has to come from a place of interest, of course, but if girls are never given the option to learn about automotive engineering and repair from the ground level they may be missing out on an exciting career prospect. While there are a number of universities and schools around the US which offer automotive engineering programs open to both boys and girls, Michigan Technological University is going one step further.
Earlier this summer they launched the inaugural Women in Automotive Engineering program, a week-long initiative that invited girls to get first-hand experience in the industry from female role models who are working in the field. The program was sponsored by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and was part of the University’s Summer Youth Program. The leadership team was headed up by Jennifer Shute and Jody Hand who are former MTU students who wanted to provide role models for the current students, something the two women did not have while they were attending college.
As Mark Wilcox from the MTU news website points out, “their most important role was to show the high-school women that a career in the male-dominated automotive industry is indeed possible.”
“Part of the reason we’re doing this is the fact we didn’t have (female) role models, not only at their age, but also in college…We think it’s important they know they have options,” said Jody Hand.
One of the reasons they believe they need to increase the pipeline of girls and women getting in the automotive industry from the ground level is the impact women have financially at the consumer level. Michigan Tech alumnus, Stephen L. Williams ’86, who was also FCA’s liaison to Michigan Tech, says women purchase 60% of all vehicles and influence nearly 85% of all car-buying decisions in the US. However, the enrollment of women in engineering programs remains at a low 18%.
“We are making a direct investment that will hopefully encourage promising young women to consider engineering as a field of study and a career in the automotive industry,” he said of the Women in Automotive Engineering MTU program.
One of the participants, a young girl from New Jersey, described her experience in the program as “exciting”.
“It helps to talk to role models and mentors in the automotive industry. It’s really my only opportunity to see the industry up close. I’ve been telling all my friends about this,” said Serena Evans-Lutterodt.
This is a unique college-level program that is not offered by many schools, according to Cody Kangas, director of Tech’s Center for Pre-College Outreach.
“At this point we know there are very few, if any, similar programs to WIAE in the United States.That alone speaks to the importance of not only continuing to offer it, but enhance and expand the experience to drive more prospective students to consider the field and its incredible careers,” he said.
One of the common issues female consumers face when taking their car to be repaired is potentially being taken advantage of by a mechanic, or being bullied and pressured into paying more for a service that is unnecessary. With more female mechanics opening repair shops and able to communicate to other women in a way that is not condescending or intimidating, it could present a unique opportunity for the market.
In fact, we can already see women in the automotive industry who are recognizing this pattern and are choosing to make a difference. In Texas, Lewisville resident Robin Mainer teamed up with her friend Kimera Shepler to open a female-friendly auto-repair shop this fall that will cater to women who have been taken advantage of in the past.
They want it to be a safe space for female customers, while also employing female mechanics and giving them an opportunity to enter the automotive workforce.
And Philadelphia entrepreneur Patrice Banks made headlines around the country after quitting her Fortune 500 corporate job to open up the Girls Auto Clinic – a place where women can learn the auto-repair trade as well as learn how to maintain their own cars, so they don’t feel intimidated by the experience of taking it to a mechanic.
Like with a number of STEM industries that are sorely lacking in female participation, it often comes down to role models and visual representations of women in a specific job. If kids grow up seeing auto-repair as a “boy” thing from entertainment such as ‘Bob the Builder’ and never see women fixing cars in movies or in real life, unless they have role models and mentors in their own life, how will they ever know they can be part of this industry?
To get an idea of what it looks like when a young girl has a mentor encouraging engineering and automotive skills, take a look at the video below. Teen girl Kathryn DiMaria is barely old enough to drive, yet thanks to the support of her parents, especially her father and uncle, she has been building cars from scratch. Her story got the attention of General Motors who invited Kathryn to attend the 2013 Detroit Auto show and meeting some of their female engineers.
While not every young woman may be able to attend Michigan Tech University (which currently attracts over 7000 students from more than 50 countries globally) and their future WIAE summer programs, we hope stories like this will encourage other girls to seek out mentors and role models in the automotive engineering field.