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Jo's Beetle

Jo Hamshaw's Beetle

I used to own a 1972 Triumph Stag. “70’s brown.” And every time I drove that beautiful piece of machinery, some guy would try to race me off at the lights.  There was always something primal in that exchange. And, something inherently geeky and boyish in my drive to beat someone off the mark as soon as the light turned green. Maybe, it was because I knew what he was thinking, that my pint-size self wasn’t capable of handling that piece of equipment. And I knew intrinsically, that he was completely off the mark.

The Rise of the Female Geek

Although the automotive industry is by and large still a man’s world, women are making in-roads. And, what is apparent is that it doesn’t come down to gender to determine whether a person is mechanically-minded or not, it is just a personal characteristic and a fact – that some women like cars, a lot.

Recently, at a Volksworld Show, a group of women from VW Heritage built a VW Beetle from just a box of spare parts. It took two days and three women – and one handy man to build the engine – to bring the car to life. Why did they do it? To fight the stereotype that cars are a guy thing by showing a bunch of extremely capable women doing the muscle work.

According to mechanic Caroline Lake who owns her own garage in the UK, women have loads of qualities that make them skillful mechanics.

 “They tend to be more patient, they are great problem solvers. They will discuss issues rather than throw a spanner across the workplace. They are very dextrous. It is a fiddly job, and as engines become more and more complicated, there is less room. Women have the advantage as they ‘generally’ have smaller hands.”

Steve Steffens, vice president of marketing for Merchant’s Tire & Auto, agrees, believing there should be more female technicians in the field.

“The tire business is still viewed as a man’s world, and this is unfortunate because the women techs we have are very good. They are detail-orientated and very customer-focused, which is hard to find in a technician.”

Female Enthusiasts are in Every Car Scene

Jo Hamshaw is one of the many female car enthusiasts cutting through the stereotypes in a male-led industry. She is a VW enthusiast and has four parked up in her garage. A 1957 Splitscreen, 1971 Beetle, 1991 Golf MK2 and a 1998 T4 Transporter, all lovingly labored over by her and her partner.

“There is no difference between a woman and a man working on a car. There are plenty of women out there, in every car scene.”

Jo has been working for VW Heritage since 2006, in product development. She is formidable in her knowledge of VW spare parts, however she still crosses paths with the old-worldly attitude that women do not know what they are talking about when it comes to cars.

Although, refreshingly, these types of attitudes seem to be in the minority.

Societal Myths Uncovered

Nancy Barr Mavity wrote in a 1927 article in Sunset Magazine that “If a man was non-mechanical, it was a personal accident of temperament; if a woman showed the same deficiency, it was a sex characteristic.”

And, the reference to ‘women drivers’ being too dangerous behind the wheel has been an almighty myth handed down through the generations, thanks to Michael Berger who coined the term in the 1920s when he described women drivers as ‘possessing the nervous imperturbability which is essential to good driving. They seem always to be a little self-conscious on the road, a little doubtful about their own powers.”

Well, Mr Berger, the female population seems to have empowered themselves quite sufficiently these days, with studies revealing that women are responsible for 44% of new vehicle purchases, and spend up to US$81 billion on new cars each year – that’s a lot of driving power.

Furthermore, women are getting involved in the maintenance and repairs of vehicles and actually taking over the traditional male role. This could be due to their inquisitive mind and detail-orientated nature, as Caroline Lake refers to in her BBC Five interview.

Despite this gender leap, women make up a lowly two percent of the automotive workforce and there are only 200 female mechanics out of 500,000 operating in the UK.

Although slow, change is imminent, with more women taking the front seat in a male-dominated world. Research into the automotive industry found that 11% of executives and managers in the motor industry are women and 28% are in labor-related positions, in the United States.

They may not be substantial figures, but it does suggest a cultural shift of importance is in the making, and women’s increasing interest in technology is helping to take them from the back seat to the front, where they are driving change across the whole car scene.

 Megan McAuliffe is a writer, journalist and blogger covering ethical and sustainable issues in lifestyle, community and culture. You can find her on Twitter @Mxxsy

Image credit: Tara Gould @EthicalBizTara


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