One can imagine a mechanic’s workshop: bright yellow lifting platforms holding up vehicles, tires dangling. The slightly sweet smell of gear oil. The Güiro-esque purr of a socket wrench. But when you imagine who is working on your car, what do you see?
In Robin Reneau’s experience, it is not. Reneau, also known as Rob The Blonde Mechanic, saved up for her first car after moving to Atlanta from New York City at the age of 18. After enduring endless maintenance problems and being repeatedly ripped off by mechanics, she realized she had to learn about cars herself. It became a passion, then a career, leading to Reneau opening her own workshop, Georgia Auto Solutions.
And yet, her reality as owner and chief engineer never seems to match the expectations of others. “I deal with it every day,” says Reneau. Vendors come in and expect or see a man named Rob and ask for the ‘man in charge’. With customers, she sometimes encounters men asking for their resumes or credentials—something they would doubtfully ask a male shopkeeper. Even some female customers still reflexively seek out a male in-store for help rather than Reneau. “It’s definitely a gap I’m trying to bridge—one woman at a time, one client at a time,” she says. And not just out of a sense of gender equality. “It’s like, ‘Hey… if you have a car, you have to be a responsible car owner; You need to know basic features and how to get your investment.’”
Despite decades of Disney movies and well-intentioned parents promising women can be anything, somehow that message hasn’t made it into our nation’s oil-smeared garages. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s 2022, so now we’re all created equal and women are treated fairly,'” says Reneau.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up just 2.3% of automotive service technicians and mechanics in 2021. “Sometimes I can tell you this isn’t a woman-friendly industry,” said Jill Trotten, RepairPal’s vice president of sales and industry, during a panel about female technicians at the Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo in January 2022. But female screwdrivers like Reneau and Bogi Latins – mechanics, car care instructors and owners of the Girl Gang Garage – are working to change that.
“We’re dealing with a cultural landscape where women just haven’t had exposure to the automotive industry or manual trades in general for generations,” says Latiner, referring to the generations of women who didn’t have access to trade education generational bias that evoked four-year degrees as a “more respectable” career path than trade school and pushed women further out of the workforce.
Latiner’s passion began as a teenager with a beetle. “I would have never fallen in love with Volkswagen Bugs [and] If I was upset that someone treated me badly when I got my car going, I probably never would have tried to find out anything about my car,” she says. “And I never would have found out that I love it and I’m good at it.” Lateiner took an auto repair class in high school (the only woman in her class) and switched back to cars after graduating from college, doing her mechanical engineering degree at Universal Technical Institute graduated.
“I would have people tell me I don’t belong… that they would never hire a woman.” – Bogi Latiner
Then she was looking for a mechanic job and hit a wall. “I would have people tell me I don’t belong, that they would never hire a woman, [and] that they didn’t think women should be mechanics,” she says. Over the years, she’s regularly had men test her knowledge, question her expertise, and even examine her hands to see if they’re dirty.
“Sometimes it’s lonely out there,” says Latiner. “It makes it even harder to stay in the industry because you don’t have that community empowerment.”
That’s why Latiner founded Girl Gang Garage. In 2016, she hosted an all-female truck build and recognized the need for a space where female-identifying and non-binary people, regardless of their experience, could learn mechanics and build connections (as well as cars). Today, Girl Gang Garage hosts hundreds of women each year for professional development, project building, and opportunities within a supportive and open-minded community. Latiner has also started other initiatives like Trades Lady Happy Hour, a weekly Instagram live chat with fellow tradeswomen. Crucially, she notes, her garage is a place where it’s okay to fail.
Latiner used to teach both men and women, but she noticed that women tended to fall behind in class and avoid speaking out, while men stepped forward — or even coaxed her into being a teacher. “I hope to make the lives of women in the industry a little bit better by connecting them,” she says.
The Latin-led, all-female builds (no cis-males allowed) are taking on projects — like pairing a 1961 Volvo PV544 with a 2019 Volvo S60 for this year’s Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show — that are particularly challenging and complicated are. “Part of the purpose of these builds is to raise awareness in the automotive industry that women are capable […] and that if we get the chance, we can excel,” says Latiner.
“Don’t let fear or people tell you it’s not for you. You make that choice for yourself.” -Rob Reneau
Every time a woman finds her way into a store and excels, it challenges hiring managers’ assumptions and changes the landscape of the auto industry. “It’s hard to put into words how special this community is,” said Monica Janoff, Administrative Director of Girl Gang Garage. Janoff only discovered Latiner’s garage after taking a metalworking and welding class, then signed up to work on an all-female build. “We have ladies who have over 15 years of experience in the industry to work on the build as well as ladies who don’t,” adds Janoff. “That’s the magic that happens here at Girl Gang Garage and why so many of the women who walk through the doors do so year after year.”
Reneau himself was once a guest at Latiners Trades Lady Happy Hour. And even from a distance, she benefits from the community that Latin people are building. “Sometimes I feel like I’m alone or I don’t have any other female mechanic friends,” says Reneau. “And to see people from all over the world and hear their stories… I mean, it’s just awesome.”
For Reneau, Latiner’s garage and the all-female builds serve exactly that purpose: respect, opportunity, and confidence. For her part, Janoff was surprised by the trust she received from the Girl Gang Garage community. “Walking through the garage doors is one of the most intimidating feelings,” she says. “But learning something new, having women at all levels cheering you on and helping you without judgment is something you can never replace. It boosts your confidence in and out of the garage.”
That doesn’t mean the industry as a whole has taken a 180th step just because Latiner and Reneau foster an inclusive environment. Just this year, Latiner took part in an episode of The inevitable Podcast by MotorTrend (same network that hosts Latiner’s All girls garage Show) in which she talked about the challenges of female technicians. “It is exhausting. [Women] We just want to come and do our job … and instead we’re dealing with these layers of sexism, misogyny and sexual harassment,” she said. “It is not [just about] it attracts women, it keeps them.”
When MotorTrend shared a (now-removed) video of the episode on its Facebook page, Latiner said the post sparked insanely negative comments from men, including accusations that she made up problems. “[They weren’t] They just said they didn’t agree with me, but they blatantly said I was lying,” she says. Some men even called her sexist. The answers were ugly.
“Like many women, I just wish I could be a mechanic,” Latiner wrote in her own Facebook post in response to the negativity. “Without the rest of the crap and without the gender qualifier. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.”
Loudly and proudly flaunting their skills, Latiner and Reneau act as beacons for more female-identifying and non-binary people to invade spaces that still remain somewhat gendered. “If we don’t give our kids every opportunity, we’re going to continue to have massive gender bias in crafts,” Latiner says. “The more female mechanics there are out there and the more visible these female craftsmen are, the less likely it is [will be] for a man who has never been exposed to that concept.”
Both women sense that change is happening, even if it is slow. “I’m curious to see what will happen in 20 years,” says Latiner. And if you’re interested in getting some fat on your own jumpsuit, she’s got a physique or two that she could use your help with.