BERKELEY, Calif.—"We don't hire women here."
It wasn't blatantly advertised on the "Help Wanted" sign in the window of the auto repair shop. But, apparently, it was a company policy.
The shop manager didn't even bat an eye when he bluntly told that to a female job applicant seeking an interview for an entry-level opening.
Did the shop get slapped with a discrimination lawsuit? No.|.|.|at least not yet.
The Impact Fund is a nonprofit Berkeley-based group that litigates cases and provides training and counseling for public-interest lawyers across the country. It recently concluded what it called a first-of-its-kind study focused on the treatment of female applicants to blue-collar jobs in the auto service industry.
Conducted covertly at 20 well-known but unidentified service shops in the San Francisco Bay Area, the study uncovered some troubling findings: Male applicants were favored four times as often as equally qualified female applicants.
The female applicant, in many cases, was explicity turned down because of her gender.
Choosing `job seekers'
The research, by the fund's Testing Project unit, consisted of 40 "matched pair" tests. In each, two research assistants—one male and one female—applied for work at each of the 20 shops. The businesses, found by using the Yellow Pages, were only identified in the report as oil and lube, tune-up and tire change facilities.
Except for the gender factor, each member of each pair of testers was equally qualified in every way possible, according to the report by the group's executive director, Brad Seligman, and its project coordinator, Ana P. Nunes. That equality included resume credentials, interview styles and personal characteristics—although female testers were made to appear slightly more qualified than their male counterparts.
The Testing Project was established in 1998 to conduct "objective research concerning the prevalence of discrimination" in various industries. Ms. Nunes previously coordinated fair housing tests and an employment study about the treatment of African-American and Caucasian applicants at employment agencies.
Mr. Seligman said at least two other agencies that conduct similar types of testing include the Equal Justice Center (once called the Fair Employment Council) in Washington, D.C., and Chicago's Legal Aid Society.
Matched pair testing has long been used in both the social sciences and in the struggle for civil rights, and is now commonplace in the field of fair housing, the Impact Fund said.
In order to provide reliable data for the auto service analysis, testers had to be carefully selected and matched to possess similar interviewing styles and demeanor. In all, 80 persons were screened for the tester positions before two, two-person teams were chosen.
The research assistants—three recent college graduates and one college student—were taught effective interviewing techniques and also were instructed to dress appropriately, and comparably to each other, for interviews.
Each was told what to expect for the typical application process at repair shops, such as completion of a standard application form, a brief interview with the shop manager and, occasionally, having to take a personality test.
Testers were instructed by a certified mechanic about basic terminology, how to change oil, and rudimentary knowledge that could reasonably be expected of the applicants during an interview. The credentials of each tester were nearly identical, with only slight variations so as not to arouse employers' suspicions. Female applicants' credentials reflected slightly more work experience related to autos.
What they found
In 19 of the 40 tests, a preference for the male applicant was observed, while 13 of the tests showed no preference for either applicant and eight demonstrated a preference for the female.
But the study said that when the data is limited to shops that were actually hiring, the results were even more stark. The greatest bias demonstrated against women job applicants was seen at shops that had immediate positions to be filled. In 60 percent of the tests (12 of 20), the male was preferred, while in just 15 percent (three of 20), the female was preferred.
"Particularly troubling was the number of incidences where the female applicant was subjected to overt gender-specific comments," according to the report. There were comments or questions "such as concerns regarding her willingness to `get dirty,' or that the work was difficult for women because car engines were hot and hot oil would sometimes drip" on technicians' arms.
Neither male applicant was ever told how difficult the position would be.
The report's data "supports a finding that female applicants for auto services jobs face substantial barriers to equal treatment in the application and hiring process. Even in cases where the female tester ultimately received the same or even arguably better treatment than the male tester, she often had to endure sexist and discouraging treatment that could serve to dissuade a female job applicant from seeking employment in this field."
What they heard
In some instances, "the disparate treatment of the female tester was overt," the report said.
For example, at a business identified as "Auto Service Shop #4," the female tester was told she could have a job on the premises "serving coffee and pastries to customers." During the job interview, the manager told her that the "auto lube job is hard for women." That comment came despite a review of her resume which indicated past jobs she had held—laborer and construction-type jobs—were "all men's jobs."
Although the woman was told there was no lube job available at the time—and that she would be better suited for the pastry-serving job—the manager told the male tester he could work part-time in the coffee/pastry position and part-time working on the cars.
Perhaps the most blatant sexism occurred in "Shop #19." As the female tester was completing her application, she was approached by a male employee who asked her several questions and made the following comments: "I thought you were applying to be a secretary;" "Do you have a man?" "Can I be your man?"
That same shop's manager told the female tester, "We don't hire women here," then said there were two other shops that did and provided her with the number of one shop that did "hire females."
In no case was a male applicant asked about his willingness to "get dirty," and only one shop manager suggested to a man that the position may be too "complicated" for him. Female testers—never the males—were usually encouraged to pursue "female" positions such as cashier, coffee server or display arranger.
Why study auto service?
The Impact Fund said it focused on the auto service industry for several reasons:
1. It is a non-traditional occupation for women, heavily dominated by men. It cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics that 927,000 individuals are employed in this profession, and only 53,000 (5.7 percent) are female.
2. The industry provides entry-level positions to people who may be interested in working on autos who have not yet completed mechanical certification, or those who may be interested in learning skills on the job.
Though some shops that were tested stated a preference for formally educated auto technicians, many expressed the value of hands-on learning, offered training and did not make formal instruction a prerequisite. Therefore, entry-level positions that were tested in this study are often gateway jobs to higher paying and secure automotive jobs, the report stated.
3. No other study that has focused on the treatment of women in a blue collar industry has been conducted using the matched pair methodology.
"A high rate of disparate treatment of female applicants to entry-level automotive service positions can adversely impact the course of these women's careers," the study concluded, and those positions "often determine subsequent positions and compensation."
Since many of the shops offer on-the-job training, the report said, "applicants who are rejected unfairly are also denied the training which would pave the way to greater skilled and higher paying positions."
The differences in treatment among job seekers cannot, it said, "be explained by any apparent objective factor other than the gender of the applicants. In addition, in many cases, the prejudices and stereotypes were blatantly expressed" by shop owners and managers.
Reaction to the report
When the study was released in June, it got "fairly decent media coverage," said Mr. Seligman, an attorney. "The general response from folks was, suprisingly, a lack of surprise.
"There certainly was nobody denying there was a problem here, or rushing to the defense of those types of (repair shop) operations.
"I think with women in blue-collar jobs, the dirty little secret that most people realize is true is that there continue to be pretty substantial barriers for women and more overt sexist behavior there than in a lot of other places."
A number of advocacy groups in the Bay Area are studying the report and considering the possibility of some litigation, he told Tire Business, but no lawsuits have been filed yet.
Although shops in only one metropolitan area were studied, Mr. Seligman was asked whether the findings mirror what's going on elsewhere, or in the industry as a whole.
"Well, folks in the Bay Area like to think we're more progressive than anywhere else in the universe," he answered. "Whether that's true or not, I don't know. But I think it's a reasonable assumption that what we see here is not different than other places."
Perhaps a look at other locales might find results "at least similar to the Bay Area, if not more discrimination," he suggested.
In light of the findings, Mr. Seligman's most immediate recommendation to automotive servicing companies is that they "ought to be extremely careful about the training of their managers," especially "telling them to pay careful attention about how fairly they treat job applicants."
He called the experiences of some of the testers "smoking-gun situations" in which "litigation against an outfit could easily turn into a huge headache.
"This is not difficult litigation (to win)."
The problem with most discrimination cases, he noted, is lack of any direct evidence of discrimination. "People deny everything."
"But when you come right out and say some of the things we heard, such as: `We don't hire women here,' and, `Hey honey, wouldn't you rather work in the coffee kiosk?'—that's not a complicated or sophisticated case to pursue.
"It's also the kind of case enforcement agencies might be interested in."
He described the group's findings as a "wake-up call that some immediate training is necessary" for owners and managers.
"The report shows that women who seek automotive servicing jobs face explicit and formidable barriers to even being able to apply for jobs, in many cases. Overt sexism as well as a clear preference for equally or less-qualified male applicants are part of the gauntlet women run through."
The damage is not only that female applicants "are on an uneven playing field," he continued, "but the treatment is so outrageous that many women are going to, not irrationally, decide that it's not worth putting up with this, and won't even apply.
"And to some extent, I wonder if that's really the goal of this kind of conduct: to discourage women from even applying in the first place."