Photo courtesy: ThinkStock
*This piece was updated on Sunday, July 24, at 2:15 p.m.
Although women made up nearly half of the U.S. labor force in 2015, they held only 7.3 percent of automotive repair and maintenance jobs, according to Catalyst, which promotes inclusive workplaces for women.
“I think a lot of it still has to do with the perception that women can’t do what men can, and that’s just wrong,” said Macy Cawthorn, 22, a mechanic with ASE certifications in brakes, suspension steering, electrical and engines, who can do "just about anything a man can do in the shop with the right tools."
Cawthorn worked four years at Haley Toyota in Chesterfield County until becoming pregnant with her son last year. She is now a Haley service advisor — the person who asks what’s wrong with your car and explains what has to be done to fix it.
Cawthorn, who started working on cars with her dad and brother, Keith, when she was 12, received her training through Chesterfield County’s Career and Technical Center in her junior and senior years of high school. She was one of three female students who started the program, but the only one to finish.
She also was turned away at four other dealerships before Haley hired her. “I was actually told at other dealerships that I wasn’t strong enough or I wasn’t qualified,” Cawthorn said. “Guys in my class had no problem finding jobs.”
In her four years as a mechanic, Cawthorn had two customers who refused to let her work on their cars, but those two are far outweighed by many longtime customers and friends who still call her today for automotive advice and house calls.
She says she would go back under the hood. “There’s just something about the accomplishment of helping the customer and getting them back on the road.”
While some major and independent automobile repair shops may be slow to hire women, more automobile parts and accessory retailers are realizing the advantages to hiring women.
Two months ago I unknowingly met such a woman while trying to start my car in a Henrico County strip mall. Due to catch a train to Philadelphia within 40 minutes, I was in near-panic mode and barely noticed the woman headed into a FedEx store at Parham and Staples Mill roads.
Yet, she noticed me in my 2000 model SUV and immediately told me to “pop the hood.”
The woman then started cleaning the car’s battery with her keys.
“Try it,” she said.
I did. Nothing happened.
She jiggled something on top of the battery and told me to try it again.
Next thing I know the woman was on her phone asking someone to bring a battery charger to my location. She assured me that help was on the way and that I would not miss my train.
Impressed, I got out of my car, figuring I should at least find out the name of this good Samaritan. We chatted a little and it was then that I noticed the AutoZone label on her shirt. Leslie Williams is the district manager for customer satisfaction for AutoZone. She is based in Colonial Heights. And when the person whom she’d called arrived, I learned that she, Roosev Lanfranco, manages a Brook Road AutoZone store.
AutoZone, the leading retailer and a leading distributor of automotive replacement parts and accessories in the U.S., created AutoZone Women’s Initiative (AZ WIN) “to strengthen women’s engagement by facilitating networking and creating ongoing leadership and learning opportunities.” Goals include improving the company through women’s leadership, and developing a strong bench of promotable women, said company spokesman Ray Pohlman in an email.
Williams, 48, has worked for AutoZone since 2009. Having previously worked for a competing auto retailer, she began learning about cars when she realized how often women are taken advantage of when it comes to car repairs.
“My husband didn’t know anything at all, so I learned to take care of our vehicles,” she said. “One day, I was in the local AutoZone and asked for a belt. The guy at the counter tried to sell me the wrong part. I told him ‘If I take it and it’s wrong, I’ll be back for the one I asked for and a job.’ That is when I first started in this industry. I started as an inventory specialist and have had several positions throughout my career.”
Williams encourages other women to consider careers in the automotive repair or retail industry because of the opportunities for growth. “People will always be driving cars and need maintenance,” she said. “There is a lot of satisfaction helping people in need, and the service we add to our community is great.”
I offered to treat Williams to lunch, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She said that if my car didn’t start when I returned from my trip, it probably needed a battery, which AutoZone would be happy to provide.
As it turned out, my train was running late. But even had it not been, I’m certain that I would have made it in time, thanks to Williams, a godsend and a rock star.
I also consider my old mechanic, Christine Duncan in Greensboro, North Carolina, just as much a rock star.
When you own two 16-year-old vehicles with nearly 400,000 miles between them, you need a good mechanic. A male friend recommended Duncan when one of my cars needed a reboot.
After several routine visits to the East Market Street auto repair shop where Duncan works, I’d almost grown accustomed to seeing the oil-stained uniform worn by the young woman who slightly resembles Selena Gomez.
I’ll never forget stopping by Duncan’s repair shop right before Thanksgiving in 2014 to have her check out a funny smell coming from my car.
My curiosity increased when Duncan placed her hand underneath the hood of the car.
“Did you just taste whatever you stuck your hand in under my car’s hood?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I wanted to make sure it wasn't the antifreeze. Antifreeze tastes sweet.”
Noticing the look of horror on my face, she quickly added, “It won't kill me.” She laughed. *(See editor's note at end of piece.)
I recently asked Duncan, 26, why she became a mechanic. She said that her grandfather, who died last August, taught her about cars when she was growing up. She started repairing vehicles at age 13 — a background very similar to Haley’s Cawthorn.
After high school, Duncan entered Guilford Technical Community College’s (GTCC’s) automotive program, where she was the only woman in her class. She completed the program in 2011, and began working for Discount Muffler and Auto’s Randleman Road store. When the owner opened a second store, she was asked to run it based on her ability to weld and repair motors, transmissions, wheels, axles, radiators and more.
Duncan, whose customers are evenly men and women, said she became a mechanic because she enjoys being outdoors and dislikes mechanics who choose to "take advantage of women.”
One day, Duncan wants to open her own shop.
She may want to give Cawthorn a call here in Richmond. The two could be a female automotive force to be reckoned with.
*Editor's note: A quick lick of antifreeze or ethylene glycol may not have harmed Duncan, but consumption is highly toxic to both humans and pets. See guidelines at webpoisoncontrol.org.