Six years ago, Patrice Banks struggled to open the hood of her car. Today, she leads workshops on auto care, has published a book on the subject, and is opening her own repair shop.
The former DuPont engineer's unlikely venture into car repair began when, tired of relying on men to take care of her car, she decided to search for a female mechanic – and found none at all.
“I couldn't find a female mechanic, so I became one," Ms. Banks explains in a TED Talk. Then she went a step further and created "a company that educates and empowers women through their cars."
In 2013, Banks founded Girls Auto Clinic, which offers free workshops in which women can learn how to take care of their cars, how to talk to a mechanic, and what to do in an emergency. In November 2014, she released a book called "The Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide," which contains the answers to such questions as "How often am I supposed to change my oil?" and "Do I really need that air filter the mechanic tells me I need every time I go in for an oil change?"
She is currently in the process of opening an auto shop in Philadelphia tailored specifically to women and staffed by female mechanics and technicians. The shop will include a nail salon where customers can get a manicure while they wait for their cars.
Many women feel uncomfortable going to male mechanics, Banks says, because they fear being overcharged. A study by Northwestern University shows that women do tend to pay more than men for auto repairs, especially if they have little or no knowledge of cars.
Banks attributes the disconnect between women and their cars to the lack of women working in the industry – not just as mechanics, but throughout "the entire automotive process, from concept, design, and manufacturing to sales and repair." In 2013, women made up less than two percent of mechanics and auto technicians in the US, and only a quarter of all employees in the Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicles Equipment Manufacturing industry were female, mostly in clerical positions.
According to Banks, many women are discouraged from entering the industry because of the discrimination they face. She recalls how one all-male high school automotive class that she spoke to questioned her car knowledge, asked to see her hands, and told her that she was a distraction.
"Imagine a 15-year-old girl who enjoys cars, loves cars, wants to work on them, enters into this field," she says. "Five years from now, she’s going be looking for a job from one of these guys."
Banks isn't the only woman mechanic to recognize the need for a greater female presence in garages. Caroline Lake of Norfolk, England, is the founder of Caroline's Garage, which promises honest service to both sexes and offers introductory classes for women in basic vehicle maintenance. She speaks frequently in schools to encourage young girls to join the male-dominated profession, and hopes to someday have garages across the country where women can train.
"There is no reason women can't do it," Ms. Lake said in an interview with The Guardian. "It's not about brute strength. There is a tool for everything. In fact, women have certain characteristics that make them perfect for the trade. Women are dexterous, patient – they have less of a tendency to throw a spanner across the room."