Our well-intentioned parents may have told us women can do anything, but the auto industry still hasn't gotten the memo.
You can conjure a mechanic’s garage in your mind: Bright yellow lifts holding up vehicles, tires dangling. The slightly saccharine smell of transmission oil. The güiro-like purr of a socket wrench. But when you imagine who’s working on your car, what do you see?
In Robin Reneau’s experience, it’s not her. Reneau, also known as Rob The Blonde Mechanic, saved up for her first car after moving from New York City to Atlanta at age 18. After experiencing endless maintenance problems and being ripped off repeatedly by mechanics, she realized she needed to learn about cars herself. It became a passion, then a career that led to Reneau opening her own garage, Georgia Auto Solutions.
And yet, as the owner and lead tech, her reality never seems to match with others’ expectations. “I deal with it day in and day out,” Reneau says. Vendors come in expecting a man named Rob, or see her and ask for the “man in charge.” With customers, she sometimes deals with men asking for her resumé or certificates — something they’d doubtfully ask a male shop owner. Even some female customers still reflexively seek out a male in the shop for help instead of Reneau. “It’s definitely a gap that I am trying — one woman at a time, one customer at a time — to bridge,” she says. And not only out of a sense of gender equity. “It’s, ‘Hey…if you have a car, you need to be a responsible car owner; you need to know basic functions and how to maintain your investment.’”
Somehow, despite decades of Disney movies and well-intentioned parents promising that women can be anything, that message hasn’t made it into our nation’s oil-stained garages. “It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s 2022 so we’re all created equal now, and women are treated fairly,’” Reneau says.
In 2021, women accounted for just 2.3% of automotive service technicians and mechanics, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. “There are times that I can tell you that this is not a friendly industry for women,” Jill Trotten, vice president of sales and industry at RepairPal, said during a panel on female technicians at the January 2022 Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo. But female wrenchers like Reneau and Bogi Lateiner — mechanic, car care educator, and owner of Girl Gang Garage — are working to change that.
“We are looking at a cultural landscape where women have just not been exposed to the automotive industry or the hands-on trade in general for generations,” Lateiner says, noting the generations of women who weren’t allowed in shop classes, compounded with a generational bias that pushed four-year degrees as a more “respectable” career path over trade school, further siloing women out of exposure to trades.
Lateiner’s passion began as a teen, with a Beetle. “Had I never fallen in love with Volkswagen Bugs [and] been pissed off that somebody treated me poorly when I brought my car into service, I probably never would have even pursued trying to learn about my car,” she says. “And I never would have found out that I love it and I’m good at it.” Lateiner took an auto shop class in high school (as the only female in her class), and after graduating from college, pivoted back to cars by completing her mechanic training at the Universal Technical Institute.
“I would have people point blank tell me that I didn’t belong…that they would never hire a woman.” - Bogi Lateiner
Then she went looking for a mechanic’s job and hit a wall. “I would have people point-blank tell me that I didn’t belong, that they would never hire a woman, [and] that they didn’t believe women should be mechanics,” she says. Over the years, she’s regularly had men test her knowledge, question her expertise, and even inspect her hands to see if they’re dirty.
“It is lonely out there sometimes,” Lateiner says. “It makes it even harder to stay within the industry, because you don’t have that reinforcement of community.”
That’s why Lateiner founded Girl Gang Garage. In 2016 she hosted an all-female truck build and realized the need for a space where female-identifying and non-binary people, regardless of experience, could learn mechanics and build connections (as well as cars). Today, Girl Gang Garage hosts hundreds of women a year for professional development, project builds, and more opportunities within a supportive and open-minded community. Lateiner has also launched other initiatives, like Trades Lady Happy Hour, a weekly Instagram live chat with other tradeswomen. Crucially, she notes, her garage is a space where it’s okay to fail.
Lateiner used to teach classes to both men and women, but she noticed women tended to fall to the back of the class and avoid speaking up, while men would step to the front — or even talk over her as the instructor. “I am hoping to make the lives of women in the industry a little bit better by connecting them to one another,” she says.
The All-Female Builds (no cis men allowed) led by Lateiner take on projects — like mashing up 1961 Volvo PV544 with a 2019 Volvo S60 for this year’s Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show — that are particularly challenging and complicated. “Part of the purpose of these builds is to raise awareness within the automotive industry that women are capable [...] and that, when given the opportunity, we can excel,” Lateiner says.
“Don’t let fear or people tell you that it’s not for you. You make that choice for yourself.” - Rob Reneau
Every time a woman makes her way into a shop and excels, it challenges the assumptions of hiring managers and changes the landscape of the auto industry. “It's difficult to put into words how special this community is,” says Monica Janoff, Girl Gang Garage’s Director of Administration. Janoff discovered Lateiner’s garage only after taking a metalworking and welding class, and then signed up to work on an All-Female Build. “We have ladies who have over 15 years of experience in the trade come to work on the build, as well as ladies who have none,” Janoff adds. “That's the magic that happens here at Girl Gang Garage, and why so many of the women who walk through the doors continue to do so year after year.”
Reneau herself was once a guest on Lateiner’s Trades Lady Happy Hour. And even from afar, she says she benefits from the community Lateiner is building. “Sometimes I feel like I am by myself, or I don’t have any other female mechanic friends,” Reneau says. “And to see people from all over the world and hear their stories…I mean, it’s just awesome.”
To Reneau’s point, Lateiner’s garage and the All-Female Builds serve that purpose exactly: respect, opportunity, and confidence. Janoff, for her part, was surprised by the level of confidence she gained from the Girl Gang Garage community. “Walking through the garage doors is one of the most intimidating feelings,” she says. “But learning something new, having women in all different skill levels cheering you on and helping you without any judgment is something you can never replace. It builds your confidence in the garage and out.”
That’s not to say just because Lateiner and Reneau foster inclusive environments, that the industry as a whole has done a 180. Just this year, Lateiner joined an episode of The InEVitable podcast by MotorTrend (the same network that hosts Lateiner’s All Girls Garage show), during which she spoke about the challenges female technicians face. “It’s exhausting. [Women] just want to come and do our job…and instead we’re dealing with these layers of sexism and misogyny and sexual harassment,” she said. “It’s not [just about] attracting women, it’s retaining them.”
When MotorTrend shared a (since removed) video of the episode on its Facebook page, Lateiner says the post sparked frenzied, negative comments from men who, she says, accused her of inventing problems, among other things. “[They weren’t] just saying that they didn’t agree with me, but they were saying blatantly that I was lying,” she says. Some men even called her sexist. The responses were ugly.
“Like many women, I want to be able to just be a mechanic,” Lateiner wrote in her own Facebook post responding to the negativity. “Without the rest of the crap and without the gender qualifier. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.”
By loudly, proudly showcasing their skills, Lateiner and Reneau act as beacons for more female-identifying and nonbinary people to break into spaces that still, somehow, remain genderized. “If we are not exposing our kids to all of the opportunities out there, then we will continue to have a massive gender bias when it comes to the trades,” Lateiner says. “The more female mechanics there are out there and the more visible those female tradeswomen are, the less likely it [will be] for a man to have never been exposed to this concept.”
Both women sense a shift happening, even if it is slow. “I’m excited to see what happens 20 years from now,” Lateiner says. And if you’re interested in getting some grease on your own overalls, she has a build or two she could use your help with.