Female Mechanics’ Skill, Passion, Strength Pay Off

That is popular research professor and New York Times bestselling author Brené Brown’s conclusion after spending more than 20 years studying courage, vulnerability, and empathy.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path,” Brown says.

The decision Rebecca Schindler and Susan Sweeney made to enter the world of auto mechanics, even though fewer than 2 percent of service techs are women, required quite a bit of vulnerability and self-determination.

They would tell you it’s paid off.

Rebecca Schindler vividly remembers her first day as a service technician: “I was the only woman on the team, so I had a point to prove. I had to show them that I could do everything they could.”

She started by getting organized, something most technicians do during their first days. She brought in little plastic cups, like the ones used for mouthwash, for all the different kinds of screws, bolts, clips, etc., needed for different jobs. They were neatly labeled and filled by the end of the day.

“The next day, I came in to see everything dumped out in a big pile,” she says, smiling. “This was just the usual hazing. I was so glad I was treated the same and wasn’t left out!”

Still, she had to go above and beyond to prove to herself and her team that she was as capable as they. At just 5 feet tall and 120 pounds, Schindler says she usually required more time to complete the often very physical tasks of the job than the guys did. She also relied on more (and better) tools.

“What they could get done in one step might have taken me five,” she says, then adds, “but I’m also incredibly thorough. Plus, anytime someone says ‘You can’t do that,’ it just lights a fire under my ass.”

The job can be physically dangerous. When she “chopped off” the tip of her finger one day, she wanted to be tough about it. So she covered it with her other hand to hide it and walked out of the shop. Her manager (the same one who once told her that she was “taking a job away from a man with a family to support”) asked if everything was OK, and she said she was fine.

“I Krazy Glued it and kept working,” Schindler says.

When she met Patrice Banks a few years ago, her life changed drastically.

Even when she was a girl, Susan Sweeney had an interest in cars. She remembers watching her dad fix his own car and being curious about what he was doing.

But it wasn’t until a high school tour of a tech school that her interest in automotive repair and bodywork piqued and she decided auto mechanics would be the career she’d pursue.

“Nobody in my family was in the automotive industry, but it just clicked for me,” Sweeney says. “I was all in from the start. I was enrolled in Lincoln Technical Institute two weeks out of high school.”

While in school, she bought a ’76 Camaro – basically so that she could “break it apart and build it into something better”: a racing machine.

Susan Sweeney, forewoman at Girls Auto Clinic, works on an engine.

In addition to her passion for empowering people about their vehicle by educating them about how the it functions and what is being repaired, Sweeney has a passion for building (and racing) hot rods. The pace of her speech picks up as she excitedly talks about things like “500 horsepower at the crank,” “G-body,” “running high test fuel” ….

Despite her obvious passion for and knowledge of cars, she did face quite a bit of discrimination initially in her job as a service tech. But it just fueled her.

“My support came from family and friends. They’ve been amazing the whole time,” Sweeney says.

If she ever feels discriminated against today, it doesn’t bother her as much. It even brings out her playful side at times.

“I love going into a shop and acting clueless, then directing them to the exact part I need,” she says with a smile.

One of the people most appreciative of Sweeney’s skill and expertise is Patrice Banks.

When Patrice Banks went looking for a female mechanic in Philadelphia just a few years ago, she couldn’t find even one.

Her experience with male techs had often left her with more questions than answers. And not that women are the only ones with questions about repairs, but with more than three-quarters of people who bring their car in for service being women, it seemed to make good business sense to Banks to employ female techs.

The seed for opening an all-female repair shop was planted.

Banks attended school and began offering free clinics about basic car maintenance to women. That’s how she met both Schindler and Sweeney. When she shared her idea of opening a repair shop/salon that employed only women, and catered to women, both were on board.

“The highlight of my career has been working at Girls Auto Clinic alongside the most amazing women I have ever met,” Sweeney says. “A place where I know I belong and fit in. I am so blessed to be here with them.”

Schindler says that although the guys she worked with at previous jobs had been pretty cool, the atmosphere in general wasn’t supportive.

“I knew not to ask for help unless the job absolutely required two people,” she says. “And making mistakes was really frowned upon. I feel so lucky to be working with such a smart, capable group of women, who are eager to help and support one another.”

One of Sweeney’s biggest showings of support came shortly after Girls Auto Clinic opened. Banks had hired a foreman to help make sure that the shop was set up correctly, but he left right before the grand opening.

Sweeney offered to step up and take his place.

“I didn’t want to go above the others, but I did have the most years of experience, and I wanted to help,” she says.

The group unanimously voted for her to be forewoman, the title she’s had since opening day.

Banks calls all of the women who work for her “amazing technicians.” She encourages any woman interested in the job to pursue it.

“Ladies, we are so capable. More than we know,” she says. “[Our] emotional strength, softness, cleverness are needed. Believe and know that it is for you and you can do it.”

Sweeney’s and Schindler’s chosen paths as service technicians says a lot about these women,  especially when statistics show that in most male-dominated fields, women typically leave because they aren’t supported and don’t feel they truly have anyone to model themselves after. Both eventually found what they were looking for by creating it together with the team at Girls Auto Clinic.

Now they get to do what they love while supporting a new generation of skilled technicians who happen to be women.

Adding to the excitement is the upcoming Fox pilot “Patty’s Auto,” a multi-camera ensemble comedy inspired by Girls Auto Clinic. Actors came and shadowed the team to get a feel for their day-to-day life and the goings-on at the shop.

“We were so lucky they wanted to spend so much time with us,” Sweeney says. “We had dinner with them afterward too. It was such a fun day.”

In addition to team goals and activities, the women at GAC are also encouraged to keep growing and pursuing their own dreams.

Sweeney is in the process of fixing up her family’s new home. After that, she plans to build a new hot rod.

“What inspires me is learning new things, working with this great team of women, and making the world a better place,” she says. “And showing my kids (I have two boys and two girls) that they can do and be anything they want to.”

Schindler also has plans for the future. Taking steps to make her dream of opening her own unique repair shop a reality, she substitute teaches severely autistic children once or twice a month and will earn her double BA in early childhood education and special education in January. From there, she plans to open a shop that hires adults with ADHD and other special needs.

“Everyone deserves meaningful work. These are intelligent, capable people who want to work, and who take pride in their work,” she says. “I have learned so much from them.”

With all the adventure on her road to success, and with big plans in place for the future, Schindler is most excited about what’s happening in her life today.

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