Gender equality in the garage

Young female City & Guilds apprentices are burning rubber in the automotive industry and encouraging others to follow suit

18 February 2014 / Be the first to comment

General Motors, one of the world’s biggest motor manufacturers, announced in December 2013 that engineer Mary Barra would become CEO of the company, becoming the first woman to lead a global automaker. It’s a positive move in an industry that has a poor reputation for recognising women in the workplace.

When Amy Rush, now 19, from Cambria in Wales, started her City & Guilds apprenticeship in motor vehicle maintenance and repair three years ago, she was one of just a handful of females on her course. A year later, beginning her Level 2 qualification, she is the only one, and continues to be a conspicuous minority in a male-dominated industry at N & P Autos, the garage owned by her father where she works.

Now, following huge success at the Wales Skills Show and a personal call-up to the WorldSkills Team GB heats, Amy is keen to persuade more young women to take up the challenge. ‘It’s really rare to have any women at all in the competitions,’ says Amy. ‘My tutors told me that no girls have got as far as I have before, but that has just made me push harder because I feel like I’ve got something to prove now.’

Amy won second place at Wales Skills 2013, beating more than 30 men from all over the country in complex challenges that involved fixing electrical and mechanical motor systems and building gear boxes. She then went on to win her heat at the selection round for WorldSkills UK competitions held at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in Warwick, leading to a nomination for a City & Guilds Medal for Excellence and a place in the pre-selection team for WorldSkills Brazil 2015.

‘It was a shock to win but I’m glad I was able to prove that I’m good at what I do, and to be recognised by such an industry leader like JLR was great,’ says Amy, whose achievements are spoken of highly at her college, Coleg Cambria, where just 5 per cent of learners on automotive courses are female.

‘She wiped the floor with the competition this year,’ says Marshall Clayton, Deputy Director of Engineering. ‘She really is something special and it’s her determination that has blown everybody away. She passed her driving test a couple of days after turning 17 and just months later she passed her HGV licence – now she’s working on huge, complex vehicles. Amy is an inspiration to girls her age. Engineering is always perceived to be a male-dominated industry, but Amy is up there with the best.’

It’s this perception of the industry that leading research and vocational education bodies believe is inhibiting young women from entering the sector or sticking with it once they’ve begun courses. A recent survey by Autocar found that just 3.5% of female students would consider a career in the automotive industry, a figure that is recognisably minute for many UK colleges.

David Stewart is Head of Automotive Engineering at Perth College in Scotland, where research is looking into the poor take-up levels of females into these courses. ‘Employers’ perceptions of females are not what they should be, and we see the same story again and again of young women not finding the jobs they want after completing their courses,’ he says.

Worryingly, Stewart says it’s not uncommon for local employers to reject apprentices on the basis of their sex, and in the last three years just one of their female graduates has gone on to work directly in the sector. ‘We managed to get one employer to give a female motor body painter a placement after they refused to take her on full time because they believed she would disrupt the workplace environment,’ he says. ‘It was only afterwards that they realised how good she was at her job and took her on as a permanent employee.’

For Amy, she knows her father’s business gave her the opportunity to enter the industry without many of the disadvantages other females might encounter. ‘I can completely understand why some women are intimidated about even going for an interview at garages where they will be the only female on staff,’ she says. ‘I think that’s why so many of the girls I met during Level 1 of my apprenticeship dropped out or went to work behind desks in the warranty offices of garages, even though they have the basic training for the workshop.’

Initiatives by Government and The Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI), such as the Women & Work programme and the Automotive Careers Champion network, are campaigning within the industry for equal opportunities, but combating negative perceptions is a gradual process.

In the meantime, Amy says, it’s all about young women having confidence and becoming skilled. ‘My advice is just to go for it; get skilled and get working as soon as you can. Once you can prove what you can do, you’ll have the confidence to counter any negativity and the ability to back it up,’ she says. ‘A City & Guilds apprenticeship was definitely the way forward as it gave me the training and self-belief I needed to cope with pressure, try harder and prove to everyone I’m good at my job.’

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