INDIANAPOLIS—Being the only woman technician in an auto service shop can make for a pretty nerve-wracking situation.
At least that's what Michele Pogue, 29, feared when she showed up for work in a small-town Indiana muffler shop. But five years ago, when she started her auto repair career, her colleagues helped ease her fears.
"I was really fortunate," said Ms. Pogue, of Indianapolis. "They were very nice. I was concerned these guys were going to hate me. But they even helped me unload my toolbox. They were fine from day one."
With her slight build, Ms. Pogue, who is just 5 feet tall, was worried she could not do the job. Though she had the mechanical know-how, lifting tires—particularly truck tires—was challenging work. "I got to where I could pick up most car tires, but it was very painful when I first started. It took a month for me to quit getting up with pain every morning."
Ms. Pogue is just one success story of women who have made a career of auto service. There are others, but not many. Though the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence reports the number of certified female technicians has more than tripled in 10 years, women still represent less than 1 percent of the total ASE-certified technicians.
As of last autumn, there were 2,667 certified female technicians, up from 688 in fall of 1989. But overall, there are 425,000 ASE-certified technicians, the institute said.
Ms. Pogue enjoyed working at a muffler shop and earned respect from customers and colleagues. But she wanted to boost her income and advance in her field, so she went back to school for more technical training.
Now, Ms. Pogue specializes in driveability problems. She works for Linder Technical Services, an Indianapolis company that trains technicians, reconditions fuel injectors and diagnoses particularly tough driveability problems. Most of her time is spent problem-solving on computers—and she never gets her hands dirty, since the job requires no heavy lifting.
She and industry experts said women often do not consider auto service careers because they are intimidated by the auto industry's gritty, male-dominated image. Some manufacturers have just begun actively recruiting women in service departments and believe it's essential to educate women on the merits of auto service work—the relatively high pay and emphasis on technology.
"The field is becoming less focused on the ability to physically meet the challenges of automotive maintenance and repair and more focused on technology," said Ron Weiner, president of the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
"More technologically advanced course work will be important to future automotive technicians and has given women an advantage that did not exist prior to this shift," he said.
Not always welcome
Ms. Pogue was lucky. By the time she launched a career as a technician, icy attitudes toward women working in service shops had thawed substantially.
However, there was a time when women had reason to be intimidated when they entered the automotive field.
While Ms. Pogue's colleagues helped her carry her toolbox, the men who worked with Rose Baker, 41, filled her toolbox with mice as a prank. Ms. Baker, also of Indianapolis, was a parts manager 18 years for Volvo dealerships. She said the respect she later received was hard-won.
Ms. Baker believes the business is changing, but not fast enough.
"I made a lot of money for a lot of people. But there is a stigma. Someone has always questioned the ability of my gender, rather than my knowledge," she said. "I do not see a lot of women going into this field. There is not anything there in the system that makes young ladies feel welcome."
When Ms. Baker tried to apply as a district parts manager for an auto maker several years ago, she was told the position was filled. The auto maker hired a man for the job, and Ms. Baker wonders if she was rejected based on gender.
With her extensive background in dealership parts departments and experience as a purchasing manager for a trailer maker's parts distribution center, Ms. Baker recently had trouble finding a position as a truck parts manager.
"I sent out a lot of resumes and got no responses," she said. "I am no dummy when it comes to truck parts."
Ms. Baker now purchases chassis for school buses.
Discouraged by what she believes to be a persistent bias against women, she decided to get a bachelor's degree in business information systems.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. is one example of a company trying to attract more women to dealership service departments.
"The way we recruit people into the T-Ten program (Toyota Technical Education Network) is through the schools we partner with. Most of those schools are state-run colleges and vocational institutions with good diversity and cross-gender initiatives already," said Rick Lester, manager of the Toyota Technical Education Network.
Toyota's education network also has featured women in its recruitment materials to help women envision themselves in an automotive service career, Mr. Lester said.
The program—once geared only toward recruiting technicians—has been expanded to training programs for service writers, parts counter people and collision-repair technicians.
Toyota is seeing some progress. The typical enrollment for the program is 400. In 1999, 17 women registered as students, up from just eight female students in 1998.
But the numbers are still small, and Mr. Lester believes it will take time and persistence to lure more women into the field.
"The job isn't like it was 10 years ago. It's very high-tech, very demanding academically. To work on our cars, technicians plug in a hand-held computer. A lot of people don't understand that," he said.
"It's still a hard sell."