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Daily Egyptian

Women in SIU automotive technology steer toward industry equality

By Marnie Leonard

When her friend’s car broke down, SIU student Nayeli Garcia thought it would be nice to lend a hand and take a look under the hood.

Cars are her specialty, after all. Garcia, a senior from Joliet studying automotive technology, spent her childhood running around half-built automobiles in her father’s shop before she eventually decided to make it her profession.

But she was dismayed to find out her help was not wanted. Her friend’s husband was quite frank when he told her the reason had everything to do with her gender.

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“He said, ‘Girls don’t do that,’” Garcia said.

Of the 332 students enrolled in the university’s automotive technology program for the fall semester, only 17 are women, according to university data.

The trend in enrollment at SIU corresponds with job placement in the professional world. In 2015, women accounted for less than 2 percent of the workforce in automotive fields, including technicians and body repair specialists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From left: Alli Giblin, of Gilberts, Melissa Vanderwater, of Plainfield, assistant instructor of automotive technology Jessica Suda and Alicia Johnston, of Dunlap, stand for a portrait Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in SIU's Automotive Technology building. The three students are seniors in SIU's Automotive Technology program. “I realized I wanted to do something where I felt like I made a difference everyday,” Johnston said. “So I picked the automotive industry.” (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

From left: Alli Giblin, of Gilberts, Melissa Vanderwater, of Plainfield, assistant instructor of automotive technology Jessica Suda and Alicia Johnston, of Dunlap, stand for a portrait Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in SIU’s Automotive Technology building. The three students are seniors in SIU’s Automotive Technology program. “I realized I wanted to do something where I felt like I made a difference everyday,” Johnston said. “So I picked the automotive industry.” (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

This disparity is something the university is actively working to fix through raising awareness of the issue and broadening recruitment efforts to include more women, said Jessica Suda, the first and only female instructor in the history of SIU’s automotive program.

While the current ratio is far from equal, Suda said female enrollment has been increasing since she went through the undergraduate program in 2011.

“You saw another female in the bathroom and it was a shock,” Suda said. “It was like ‘Oh my god, I knew another one was around here somewhere.’”

In the spring, Suda started a group called Women in Automotive Transportation Technology. This group, which is soon to become a registered student organization, involves men and women in raising awareness about different opportunities within the program.

“We’re not training people to just wrench on cars and change oil, which may be a shock,” she said. “We are dealing a lot with modern technology.”

Graphic by Sloan Marion

Graphic by Sloan Marion

For Garcia, having the choice to work in different sectors of the field encouraged her to sign up for coursework at SIU.

“It makes all the difference to have someone show you that you don’t have to be a technician forever,” Garcia said. “You can be in an office if you want, you can study the business stuff, you can do anything.”

Other than technician training, students can learn about the business management, diagnostics and engineering aspects to the automotive industry, said Michael Behrmann, the department’s chairman.

He said men and women are needed in the profession to ensure its survival.

“We’ve got to work together because we need a strong workforce for this industry going forward,” Behrmann said. “To achieve that, we need to be inclusive.”

While many women in the program agree SIU has been receptive to the problem, some said they have experienced discrimination from potential employers.

Alli Giblin, a senior from Gilberts studying automotive technology, is one of them.

Giblin said she has faced bias from customers and employers in the full-service and quick lube shops where she has done everything from change oil to work management. She said odd stares from customers were common when she would emerge on the shop floor to work on a car.

“It’s not something they’re used to — a girl being back there,” Giblin said.

Alicia Johnston, a senior from Dunlap studying automotive technology, works on a car Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in the Automotive Technology building. “I realized I wanted to do something where I felt like I made a difference everyday,” Johnston said. “So I picked the automotive industry.” (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

Alicia Johnston, a senior from Dunlap studying automotive technology, works on a car Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in the Automotive Technology building. “I realized I wanted to do something where I felt like I made a difference everyday,” Johnston said. “So I picked the automotive industry.” (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

She said she has been treated differently because she is a woman in the workforce on more than one occasion. She recalled applying to a shop she knew to be short-staffed, and was dodged by the manager when she tried to follow up on her application.

She never heard back, so she asked around. Eventually, Giblin learned from a friend that the manager wouldn’t hire her because he thought having a woman in the shop would distract the men.

“He said I might slow down productivity,” Giblin said.

When a male friend of Giblin’s applied days later, she said, the manager offered him the job.

Most women in her field have experienced at least a small degree of discrimination, she said, but she has seen mentalities changing slowly. The first shop owner to give her a chance was unsure at first because he wasn’t used to having women working for him, Giblin said.

“He didn’t really believe in me at first, but I was able to prove to him that he should,” Giblin said.

She worked her way up to full-time technician and assistant manager within three months, and in that time began to notice changes in the attitudes of the customers she served.

“I don’t care if you’re a guy or a girl,” Giblin said. “Just do your best and you can get where you want to be.”

Recent efforts by the Women in Automotive Transportation Technology group have included raising money to fund trips to community colleges and high schools to recruit men and women. The goal is to encourage students interested in working in automotive techonology to learn the craft at SIU, Suda said.

“We’re all just here to further our careers and to learn,” she said.

Staff writer Marnie Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @marsuzleo.

To stay up to date with all your SIU news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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