by Chasidy Rae Sisk
Why aren’t more women working in automotive and collision repair shops where we so desperately need help?
Although women comprise around 51 percent of the population, less than two percent of auto body repair technicians are female, based on a 2021 report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, nearly 60 percent of women participate in the labor force, which begs the question: Why aren’t more women working in automotive and collision repair shops where we so desperately need help?
A large reason for the lack of female technicians is simply…the lack of female technicians. Young women often don’t pursue careers in the automotive and collision industries because they don’t see other women in those roles, leading them to believe that there’s no place for them. Of course, that’s totally untrue. While women are different from men, those differences are a strength when leveraged properly!
Women think differently. Their focus on efficiency and accuracy tend to be huge assets for shops, not to mention the fact that female consumers are typically more comfortable visiting shops that employ women. But defying the odds and being the only woman in the room comes with its own unique set of challenges and fears.
Overcoming the fear of being different is never easy – just ask any collision repairer whose negotiations with insurers have been quelled by the claim that they’re “the only one!” – but fortunately, some women are comfortable being uncomfortable; they didn’t allow their fears to subdue their aspirations to join this industry. New Jersey Automotive talked to a few of the amazing women who’ve found a home in New Jersey collision shops and other industry businesses about their experiences working in a male-dominated industry, the benefits of diversity and how shops can attract more female employees.
Ironically, Danielle Molina (Perfect Bodies Collision; Passaic) found her passion for auto body by accident – quite literally! As a college student, she got into a crash which forced her to take a leave of absence from her job. Unable to sit still at home, she lended a hand to her mother who worked at a shop.
“I saw the need for quality shops and the potential to start a great career. My short leave in 2012 turned into a permanent position, and I opened my shop by 2015.”
In the beginning of her career, Molina found it easy to blame challenges on her gender.
“My ego didn’t believe it was a lack of knowledge, but I had to grow past that. Sometimes, we simply don’t know enough. It’s easy to chalk up those experiences to being a woman, but when you place blame outside yourself, there’s no call to personal action. Even if being a woman is the reason for a challenge, there’s nothing I can do to change it, so I focus on the things I can control: my knowledge, skillset and experience. We get to choose how we perceive things, and I’ve decided to see these challenges as opportunities to grow.”
Her gender offered one large advantage for Molina:
“I don’t feel pressured to be naturally good with cars because people often assume women just don’t know. The bar being set so low is almost helpful, as it allows me to always operate from a beginner’s mindset. I learn something new every day, in large part because I feel free to admit if I don’t know something and I also feel empowered to find the solution. Being curious and asking questions gives me an advantage. When I think about how far I’ve come, I can’t discount the value of my team…Perfect Bodies is a ship on wheels, and we’re all wheeling forward; I work for them as much as they work for me.
“Networking can be difficult as a woman in this industry since we don’t necessarily fit into the ‘boys’ club,’ but I’ve been blessed to find great mentors, like Charlie [Bryant, executive director of AASP/NJ]. Women excel at building a community, and by being humble and eager to learn, we can earn a seat at the table by virtue of proving our knowledge base.”
Nicole Sigrist (Collision Restoration; Fairfield) grew up in a “car family” with a father who collected antique cars. Shortly after graduating high school, a family friend hired her to answer phones at a collision repair facility, where she worked for seven years, learning parts ordering and realizing her love for the challenge of filing third-party claims for customers and disputing police reports.
In 1995, while Sigrist was searching for a new job, her father ran into Eddie Day, owner of Collision Restoration, who was seeking help in his shop. Sigrist “learned everything here. I always had a thing for cars, and I’m lucky to have found my niche. I loved it then, and I still love it!”
Sigrist agrees that acceptance in the industry really boils down to demonstrating what she knows.
“The guys I work with don’t think less of me because I’m a woman; I’ve gained their respect because I know what I’m doing. When someone doesn’t know their job, it’s obvious. You have to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and then find someone to help you improve your skills.”
Despite being knowledgeable, Sigrist has faced her share of doubt:
“When I began estimating in my late 20s, I had certain customers – mostly men – who didn’t want me to look at their cars. I was offended, but I proved myself. Now, one of those customers specifically asks for me when he comes to the shop.”
Growing up in a car family isn’t quite the same as growing up in an auto body shop. Debbie Tallman (Rico’s Auto Body; Robbinsville) began working in her father’s shop in 1975 through her high school work program.
“My parents raised two daughters, so I always tell people I am the son that my father never had. I considered going to college to become an elementary school teacher, but Dad encouraged me to try it for a year. I didn’t know anything about cars when I started, but I stuck it out. This is a difficult business with ever-changing technology, so you have to be willing to learn new things.”
Tallman has certainly learned a lot from her time in the shop.
“I’ve found the best way to take care of customers is simply asking myself, ‘Would I accept this repair if it were my car?’ A good team that works with you is vital, and I always praise my guys for being one of the reasons we’ve been in business this long. We treat everyone with respect and expect the same in return, but as a woman, you have to work hard to earn the respect of some men in this industry.”
Cackie Scott (Valtek; Paterson) married into the industry in 1992, and coming from a background in industrial food production, financial planning and electrical equipment sales, she was accustomed to working in male-dominated industries. While she faced some hurdles at first, she has also experienced some kindnesses that wouldn’t be extended to a male counterpart.
“Many were very kind when I was learning the ropes. Some employees have cursed me; others have liked me. The employees who have problems with women were weeded out long ago. Our current cohorts are helpful and respectful, and I appreciate their skills. They know they can do their jobs, and I’ll do mine. New suppliers sometimes hesitate to speak frankly with me, but they get over it. Desk review people are probably the least cooperative, but that’s the definition of their job.
“Appraisers have mostly been men, but I try to understand their constraints and make their job as easy as possible. Female adjusters tend to be very reasonable. Adjusters and customers have become much more comfortable with me writing estimates over the past 30 years – and so have I! Some customers apologize for cursing and hold my ladder while I climb around their trucks; I actually think my age bothers them more than my gender.”
In 1985, Joanne Peotter and her husband opened Peotter’s Autobody (Summit), starting with only five employees. She began her industry career by doing the shop’s bookkeeping and payroll, but as the business grew, her duties expanded into estimating, parts ordering and running the frontend. Although her husband passed away 10 years ago, her children have been involved in the business since they were little, and they’ve joined their mother in running the shop.
Although Peotter has certainly encountered obstacles along her journey, she believes, “You’ll have challenges to deal with no matter what job you do, but in dealing with customers and adjusters, I’ve found that they don’t treat me differently once they realize I can clearly explain how we have to repair the car. Four women work in our office, and they are all knowledgeable about cars.”
Since women influence up to 85 percent of automobile purchases, it stands to reason that they also determine where to take a vehicle in need of repairs. Female customers often find comfort in dealing with women working at shops due to insecurities about their own lack of automotive knowledge as well as misperceptions related to the propensity of repairers taking advantage of that deficiency.
“Having women in the shop makes it easier for female customers to come in,” Peotter suggests. “We make it easier for all customers though because we take the time to explain the repair process in a way they can understand.”
“Many women are relieved to deal with a woman,” Sigrist contributes. “They find it comforting. Dealing with mostly men can be intimidating, especially in this type of environment where they’re already on edge.”
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Molina quotes Theodore Roosevelt. “That’s especially true of female customers, and anyone with an advanced EQ (emotional intelligence) will try to make a connection before trying to make a sale. Women typically are more comfortable with EQ and building relationships because they understand what makes people tick. Knowing about people is huge, and that’s one of the main skills we learn by growing up female.
“We have to remember that our customers are trusting us with one of their largest investments as well as to ensure their vehicle is safe; after all, they’re putting their families in a metal tube that flies down the highway at speeds that the human body can’t survive on its own. They want to trust that you’re doing the right things for them.”
Employing women in the shop – as technicians, estimators, detailers, painters, mechanics, managers or any other role – benefits the business in many other ways as well.
“Women excel at multitasking, which is helpful in a shop where there’s always a ton going on at any given time,” Sigrist says. “Also, we’re typically more empathetic. If my Nana walked into a shop, scared and in need of help, I hope they would take care of her. Everybody who comes into our shop is someone’s family, so that’s how we treat them…like family. Customer service is huge, so I’ll bend over backwards to make the process as seamless as possible for our clients because I love what I do.”
Tallman shares a similar viewpoint:
“I always take time to educate our customers, and I never push them into any repairs; I have empathy for their situation and explain exactly what they can expect during the repair process. I earn their respect by treating them respectfully. We – women and men – have to work together to accomplish our
goals in any business.”
“A good negotiator is a good negotiator, regardless of gender, age or anything else,” Molina emphasizes. “Whether we’re men or women, people will challenge us when we’re green, and training is essential for all of us.
For shops that want to hire women but haven’t had much success, these industry professionals have some suggestions. Women are naturally curious, so it’s imperative that their environment is nurturing in the sense that someone will answer any questions she may have. Representation is also vital, and portraying the diversity of women in the industry can help attract more female
“It’s important for every type of woman to see a woman like her in this field,” Molina points out. “None of us woke up and instantly became good at this. We learned over time. Other women want to know that they can be who they are – even while working in a shop. It all starts with showing up!”
“Flexibility is huge,” Molina continues. “Of course, this is a hands-on business that requires bodies in the shop, but it’s important to be family-oriented, especially with front-facing female employees who typically carry a large part of the burden at home as well. Until our social contract changes, we need to be willing to meet them in the middle.”
“Adjusting for part-time or flexible days or hours around child care might be advantageous,” Scott agrees. “It’s accepted as fact that the auto body industry is experiencing a tech shortage, and since women are 52 percent of the population, adding them to that pool doubles the chances of finding an employee who fits the business. Not everyone is suited to this trade, but that’s just as true of men as of women. Given a chance, a woman will prove herself – or not – same as anyone else.”
Finding female employees shouldn’t be too difficult, according to Scott.
“Employers in any industry need only to state openly that women are welcome to apply for any positions available…and then pay them equitably. Auto body technician jobs provide an opportunity for women to earn better-than-average wages. The emphasis on STEM curricula has broadened exposure to basic mechanical and electrical concepts, and combined with increasing opportunities in the military and sports, many women already have the skills and the interest in becoming techs.”
With all the challenges thrown at collision repairers, being confronted with additional hurdles related to gender can be daunting. What advice would these ladies offer other women interested in pursuing a career in the collision industry?
“If you’re interested in this field, learn as much as you can and work hard,” Peotter recommends.
“This is a great business to be in if you’re interested in cars, and you’ll always have a job; however, it won’t be an easy career,” Tallman warns. “It’s a hard, dirty job, but if you love what you do, you will be successful in any career you choose.”
Molina offers a wealth of suggestions for other women.
“Get comfortable asking questions. Where you work is also an important consideration: Businesses are more likely to invest in you if you invest in yourself. Seeking mentors and becoming more knowledgeable will help you prove yourself and earn your seat at the table. If you strive to be one percent better each day, you’ll become better at what you do, and that’s immensely satisfying.
“Get past thinking that you’re being challenged only because you’re a woman, but at the same time, when those situations occur, understand that how someone treats you is a reflection of them; your response reflects on you. Realize that you don’t need to ‘grow a thicker skin’ or try to fit in. It’s really empowering to know that this industry needs a woman’s touch. Just keep showing up and doing your best!”
“Besides it being cool to know a ‘men’s’ industry…WHY NOT?! There’s no reason you can’t do it; nothing’s stopping you!” Sigrist encourages. “I made a career out of it, and after 32 years, I still love my job. Learn the job, seek mentors to help you continue growing, and be confident in what you know. Go for it!”
“Just do it!”
…and we agree. As long as that woman is smart, resourceful and resilient, she’ll fit right in with this crew! Happy Women’s History Month!
Want more? Check out the March issue of New Jersey Automotive!