Meet the Female Mechanic Trying to Disrupt the Male-Dominated Auto Industry for Good
"I couldn't find a female mechanic, so I became one."
In 2011, Philadelphia native Patrice Banks had been working as an engineer for 10 years when she realized that while she may be an expert at diagnosing what was wrong with the equipment in her company's lab, when it came to what was under the hood of her car she was completely lost.
"I was interested in female empowerment," Banks said over the phone in March. "I had my own house, my own car. My girlfriends were the same: They were very independent, but still we didn't know how to do things like fixing a toilet, investing our money or jumping a car."
So Banks posted an informal Facebook poll, asking her female friends to name their No. 1 knowledge gap. They overwhelmingly returned the same answer: car maintenance. She immediately began searching for a female mechanic in the Philly area — and then in any area — but couldn't track down a single one.
"That was my 'aha!' moment," 36-year-old Banks said. "I wanted to learn so I could help other women."
Over the next two years, Banks quit her day job, got her mechanic's license and, in 2013, started Girls Auto Clinic, a series of workshops on basic car care exclusively for women.
"Brake fluid is like a white wine color," explains Banks. It's April in West Philadelphia and Banks is holding the first clinic of the year. "When it's old it turns brown." She drops a few other choice analogies over the course of the two-hour clinic: On the importance of getting an oil change, she tells students to "think of your engine like a vagina." And synthetic oil, she says, "is like a gel manicure."
Banks typically holds the $25 clinics outside as she only hosts them from April through November. But despite it being April, a steady snowfall in the area has moved Banks and her 20 pupils inside the garage of Crest Auto Stores.
She starts off with a table full of new and old car parts: brake pads, rotors, air filters and shocks, to name a few. She holds up the new and worn one side by side, passes them around so everyone can see and feel the difference and then breaks down some basic facts. What do they do? How often do you need to replace them? And how much should I pay for them?
"Next time a mechanic tells you you need one of these replaced, you can say, 'Show me,'" says Banks.
When it comes to car smarts, a blind spot comes at a price. For women, that price can be particularly steep.
In 2013, a Northwestern University study found that women who called an auto body shop inquiring about a repair that should cost $365 were charged, on average, $406 when they admitted they didn't know what a fair price would be. Admittedly clueless men were charged an average of only about $20 more. What's more, even though the research showed women are more likely than men to get their way if they haggle, they're less likely to try it — and, according to the authors of Women Don't Ask, will pay as much as $1,353 to avoid negotiating a price when purchasing a car.
Meanwhile, women not only edge out men as the majority of drivers on the road, but they also make a staggering 80% of car-buying decisions. Still, most women rely on men for advice on cars or to take care of any car-related problems themselves — or, of course, they get hustled out of hundreds of dollars.
Jamie Blair is 26 years old with a car just about the same age, and she's been on the receiving end of some sketchy pointers on car maintenance. "It's been exclusively men and I've had to make the distinction between 'Do I feel like you're taking advantage of me?' or 'Are you a good guy?'" she said in a phone interview.
But with Banks as the teacher there's more trust involved.
"She was so committed to us and our ability to do that work," Blair said. "I had been feeling like shit about the fact that I knew so little and that I was just messing up my car by not having that knowledge. ... Just being in that space felt really damn special."
Darcella Cross had a similar story: When she was married, she relied on her then-husband to take care of their vehicles. "He told me, 'If you're going to the mechanic and it's not for something simple like an oil change, you have to take a man,'" she said. Now that she's single, Cross wants basic car knowledge so she can buy a new car without having to rely on the help of a man.
"Just being in that space felt really damn special."
"She knows what we're going through and she understands how we can get jacked," said Cross, 47. "She understands what it's like to be in my shoes and that's what's so good about having a woman teaching the class."
Cross also added she loved the red heels Banks often wears while teaching that have become her signature. The footwear, said Banks, was a complete accident. One day, she said, she was going to mechanics class straight from work and had forgotten a change of shoes.
After going through the what's-what of car parts, Banks pops the hoods of two women's cars, explaining what fluids go where, which to fill (oil, windshield fluid, coolant) and which never to touch (brake fluid, for example — which Blair admits she had been topping off when she'd hear her brakes start to squeal). Banks has the cars' owners practice using jumper cables and shows them how to determine whether their oil is running low. She gives everyone a penny to measure the tires' treads and then tire pressure gauges to test the air levels.
"I don't want anyone to feel ashamed to ask a question," she assures her students. "This is a safe space and I want you to leave here feeling empowered."
At the end of the workshop, one woman buys some oil and fills her oil tank by herself for the first time. Blair later said that when her friends came over that night she brought them outside to her car and showed them how to jump it.
In this way, the Girls Auto Clinic is infectious. One session with Banks immediately inspires women to spread the word and become teachers themselves.
As Banks continues to operate out of Crest Auto Stores, she's in the process of opening her own shop this fall where she'll offer a fully functional garage, expanded workshops, a space to keep small children occupied and a nail salon. And since she's started the clinic, Banks said she hasn't needed to google "female mechanics" once. Many certified mechanics, like Susan Sweeney, have reached out to her, eager to be a part of the community Banks has created.
Sweeney works for a company that sells remanufactured auto parts, where she gives more than 80 people a day over-the-phone car advice. Sweeney said even though she's been a mechanic for more than two decades, when some people hear a woman's voice they immediately doubt her credibility.
"People on the phone will ask to speak to my manager, and my manager will tell them the same darn thing," she said.
"Girls Auto Clinic is a support group reaching out to others who don't even know there's a support group out there," said Sweeney. "We're letting other people know that we exist and saying, 'We know you're out there: Come to us. We can be here for you.'" She's planning on joining Banks as a mechanic come fall.
Banks calls the women who become part of what Sweeney might call a support group "shecanics." But Banks insists you don't need to be a car expert to claim the title.
"A shecanic owns her own house and isn't afraid to fix the toilet; she pays her way through college; she takes care of her family and children," said Banks. "I don't want people to think a shecanic is a woman who just works on cars. A shecanic is an empowered woman who is not afraid to learn something a woman isn't traditionally taught."
And, if she wants, she might even do it in heels.