Auto mechanics: One of the final glass ceilings for women

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Evolution isn't just a theory in the world of auto mechanics.

Your father's Oldsmobile with the heavy-metal components has given way to computers on wheels. The grease monkey has evolved into an electronics engineer.

But one thing that hasn't changed: It's still a field dominated by men – at least for now.

Mr. Goodwrench, meet Ms. Bagwandeen.

Tiffany Bagwandeen, 24, a mechanic at Orlando MINI, does not see herself as a pioneer – she's just turning fond childhood memories into a career.

"It started with my dad," she said. "My first car was a salvage, a Honda Civic 2002. Watching my dad fix it up it is how I got interested."

Though Bagwandeen modestly deflects the pioneer role, the numbers say otherwise. She is the only woman among nine mechanics at the Mini Cooper dealership, which is a rarity in having even one, based on a spot check of dealers.

Across I-4 at Fields BMW, all 27 mechanics are men. "I haven't had any female applicants that I can remember," said service director Joe Allegra, who's been at the dealership seven years.

"Currently we do not have any female technicians," said Robert Scheiner, operations director for Orlando Infiniti and three other foreign-car franchises. "In 15 years, I've had two."

Like Orlando MINI, Tropical Ford in south Orlando has one female mechanic on a team of 16 – a number consistent with national trends. According to the latest data (2010) from the U.S. Department of Labor, 2 percent of small-engine mechanics were women. Less than 1 percent of bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists were women.

The image of the oil-smudged male mechanic with his nose under the hood is so deeply embedded in the American tapestry that garages have been overlooked in the drive for gender equity in the workplace. If Gloria Steinem ever stormed the barricades of Firestone or Goodyear, I missed it.

"The grease monkey is a mindset a lot of people still have," said Scheiner. But the dearth of women getting their hands dirty belies their critical role outside the service bays.

"I have women who are parts people, service consultants who are women," Scheiner said. "My best service consultants are women. Consumers coming in for service work trust women more than men. Women just relate better to people."

A growing number of young women like Bagwandeen would rather fix parts than sell them. In that way they're making the same sort of journey in auto repair that women have made in the corporate world, moving from the secretarial pool to the executive offices like a character in "Mad Men."

Bagwandeen graduated from college with a degree in computer programming and began looking for a job in the field. Then one day she saw a TV commercial for automotive training at Universal Technical Institute in Orlando.

"I took a tour and decided I had to do it," she said. "It was just something I really wanted to do."

When Bagwandeen decided to follow her heart, enroll at UTI and venture into the male bastion of auto repair, the chief skeptic was the man who taught her everything she knows.

"My dad discouraged me at first," she said. "He was scared for me."

It's worked out well for Bagwandeen, who has been at MINI Orlando just over a year. "She's done a great job," said service director Bryan Menihan.

Andrea Ridgeway hopes to join her someday soon. A 27-year-old Iraq War veteran whose main job was maintaining diesel engines, Ridgeway has nearly completed her training at UTI. Her ambition is to work on Mini Coopers and someday have her own dealership.

Like Bagwandeen, she is carrying on a family tradition.

"My mother knew how to work on her car," Ridgeway said. "She was a jack of all trades. Women working on cars is not new. Women working on them professionally is new."

Ridgeway is the only woman in a class of 18.

"I don't think women are afraid to do this," she said. "They just haven't thought about it."

gdawson@tribune.com or 407-420-5618.

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