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Changing face of automotive could give women a chance to 'fly', says Automechanika panel

The panel at Automechanika Birmingham's Women in Automotive Innovation debate

Women looking to forge a career in the automotive sector face many of the same challenges they faced 30 years ago, delegates at Automechanika Birmingham were told.

But recognition of the need to employ more women, appeal to female customers and the wider evolution of the sector could soon deliver far greater opportunities, according to commentators speaking at the event being held at the NEC, Birmingham, this week.

A panel of influential female figures from the sector shared their experiences of pursuing a future working in automotive and the efforts they have made to try and improve the retail and aftersales market for women customers during yesterday’s opening debate on the Keynote stage.

The five strong panel, which included a consultant, director and campaigner among its number, all agreed that the sector was still in need of change, despite efforts to employ more women in senior positions following the findings of the Government’s gender pay gap reporting exercise.

Caroline Lake, founder of Caroline’s Cars, said that she was initially pushed into a career in marketing – despite a love of hands-on mechanics – but founded a female-friendly maintenance business through sheer determination.

“I was working in marketing and starting importing cars from Japan as a side-line,” she explained.

“I really wanted to learn more about the cars I was working with – get my hands on again – but really struggled to find any mechanic who would take on a female apprentice.”

Lake said that she eventually persuaded the owner of a garage which she regularly used to take her on for a period on an unpaid basis.

She said: “I was the butt of a lot of jokes but after I spent four years there, working every spare moment I could afford, I was eventually offered a job.”

Lake said that her employer at the time had admitted entering her into the MOT qualification tests “as a joke”, but added that it soon became apparent that her presence in the business had worth.

“Women would come to me to ask about their car and it became apparent that there was a niche for a female-friendly garage.”

Norwich-based Caroline’s Cars was later born and as well as providing servicing and MOTs in a female-friendly environment, Lake also coaches women (and men, as a result of popular demand) in basic car maintenance.

But she said: “There was no encouragement for me to enter the sector. I believe that many young women looking towards a career in automotive now would face exactly the same challenges that I did 30 years ago.”

Consultant Steph Savill advises the industry on how better to employ women and deliver a better service for female customers and is the founder of the Foxy Lady Drivers Club, a not-for-profit online platform for approved garages.

Savill said: “At present there are 11.8 million women who own cars in the UK. We are known to buy half of the cars and influence 80% of sales but what I hear from women again and again and again is that we fear being ripped off and patronised.”

Savill questioned the unregulated nature of the independent garage sector, in particular, and suggested that women wanted extra reassurances about the aftersales operations that they visited.  

Jane Russell, co-founder of the London-based Russell Automotive Centre, agrees and has made it her business’s mission to make aftersales less intimidating for women customers.

She set up the business with her husband, a former Volkswagen Master Technician, and immediately saw the need for the focus on a female-friendly approach.

Russell said that the strategy has paid dividends and should be emulated by others.

She also believes that the time has come for a far greater influx of female employees into the automotive sector.

Russell said: “The developments in the sector right now dictate that the time is right to for more and more young women to enter the automotive sector.

“It’s no longer going to be about picking up a spanner, it will be about logging into a computer.

“That change is going to be great for women coming into the industry.

“Those getting on board now, perhaps through IT and engineering, are really going to have the opportunity to fly.”

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