A Mechanic In Red Heels: Girls Auto Clinic Founder On Push To Get More Women In Auto Industry

Men and women drive cars every day. But why do men seem to be the only ones working on them?

Patrice Banks was always suspicious of the lack of women in the automotive industry. Whenever she took her car in for maintenance, the mechanics were men who often did not take the time to talk with her about the car’s problems.

Banks knew other women who had similar experiences, who felt they weren’t knowledgeable enough about their car to make informed decisions and had to rely on the expertise of a man.

In 2012, she decided to do something about it. Banks, a materials engineer, went back to school to become an auto mechanic with the sole purpose of bringing more women into all realms of the industry, from auto repair to sales to CEO positions like Mary Barra at GM.

In the U.S. automotive industry, women make up 1.2 percent of service technicians and mechanics, according to data from research institution Catalyst. Of all industry employees, including office and service workers, women make up 21.5 percent.

“We don’t see women mechanics. We don’t see women working on cars,” Banks told Bizwomen. “And because we don’t see it, we don’t think it’s for us.”

In 2013, Banks launched Girls Auto Clinic, a female-friendly resource for automotive care. Banks sells a small book called the GAC Glove Box Guide on her website. (A “beefed up” version of the book will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2017.) She also hosts free workshops teaching maintenance basics.

Banks, 35, said there’s no reason women shouldn’t be able to understand how cars work, as the subject matter isn’t particularly challenging. Women simply put up a mental block from the start.

“Culturally, we’re told, ‘No, this is for the guys,’” she said. “And we don’t even try.”

Banks has her fair share of detractors. Both men and women criticize Banks for creating an enemy out of the automotive industry, but that’s not her intention. She feels she’s bringing a longstanding problem to the forefront.

“People are afraid I’m causing a ruckus and making the industry look bad as a whole,” she said. “But it already does.”

Banks also gets criticized for her signature red heels, which she wears to show that the shoes, makeup and clothes a woman wears have nothing to do with her ability to understand cars.

“I’m trying to say nobody is providing a service to these women,” Banks said. “ A lot of men don’t want me coming in with my heels and makeup, but I look like your daughter, your sister. Women who look like me want to be mechanics.”

As an engineer for DuPont, Banks found she had a technical advantage in her mechanics classes at Delaware Technical Community College.

“I have an advantage, but it doesn’t mean I can work on cars,” she said. “It means I understand how cars work.”

After graduating, Banks worked as an apprentice in different shops around Philadelphia, where she lives, eventually leaving DuPont for a full-time mechanic job in 2014. She didn’t grow up working in garages and still considers herself a beginner when it comes to the hands-on work, but she sees that as an asset.

“I think that’s my greatest advantage,” Banks said. “I see the pain points people are feeling.”

Most women would rather go to the dentist than go to a repair shop or car dealership, as shown in a 2014 study from AutoMD. More than 80 percent of both female and male car owners have a negative view of repair services and often feel overcharged.

Shop owners across the country are looking to improve the automotive experience for women, on the customer and technician side. Audra Fordin, owner of Great Bear Auto Repair in Flushing, N.Y., created Women Auto Know as an online resource to help women find trustworthy repair centers. Chris Cozad, owner of Alternative Auto Care in Columbus, Ohio, only employs fellow female mechanics.

For Banks, Girls Auto Clinic is all about giving women the confidence to know whether they’re “getting got or not,” to know if they truly need to purchase a new air filter along with an oil change or if the mechanic is just trying to up-sell.

She accomplishes this by explaining things in conversational terms. For example, Banks compares the engine and air filter to your nose. If you have “boogies” in your nose, it’s hard for you to breath. If the air filter is dirty, it’s hard for air to get to the engine. You need air to live and the engine needs air to function, so it’s important to change the air filter when it starts to get clogged.

Banks has gotten an impressive response to her approach. Her free workshops around Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New York City and New Jersey sell out every time. She won this summer’s Miller Lite Tap the Future startup contest semifinals in Philadelphia, earning $25,000 and a spot in the finals in Chicago.

In November, Girls Auto Clinic won $50,000 from the Keiretsu Forum Mid-Atlantic angel investor network. Banks is working on opening an all-female garage in Philadelphia (with a nail salon in the waiting area) and expanding her workshops to more cities, which she says will always be free of charge.

“The education is free because that’s important to me,” Banks said. “I get a lot a flack for offering this stuff for free. But I’ll tell you what, it’s the No. 1 reason I’m as successful as I am.”

Source: Upstart Business Journal, Melissa Wylie
Photo: Patrice Banks, founder of Girls Auto Clinic.