The female mechanic - the Irish story: ‘You would see the lads thinking I couldn’t do it’
In four years of training around Ireland, Jennifer Tobin didn’t meet another female mechanic or trainee, but she stayed in a career she loves
Jennifer Tobin, Service Advisor at Kia Liffey Valley, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
[This article is part of the monthly Inside Out series on irishtimes.com, marking the European Year for Development 2015]
It’s a familiar back story for many mechanics: a childhood spent tinkering in the garden with dad, taking apart cars, engines and toys and putting them back together again. A love of figuring out how things work typically begins long before a career. The only thing not typical about this particular story though, is that the child tinkering in the back garden is not a boy, but a girl.
The young Jennifer Tobin was considered to be unusual for her choice of “masculine” job, and difficulties, however minimal, still arose because of her gender.
In this, the European Year of Development, The Irish Times is looking at issues, like gender equality, that effect developing nations. However we are also looking at how these issues are dealt with in our own country. We are examining more closely issues like gender equality on our own doorstep and how effectively we “walk the talk” ourselves.
Tobin’s family recognised that her choice of career was unusual but they always encouraged her to follow her dream. She has two sisters, one who works with special needs children, following in the career path of her mother and the other is a full-time mum. Tobin takes after her father though, who is a motor mechanic and helicopter technician and always encouraged her interest in machines.
“He was always out in the garden fixing things, and I was always there beside him, asking questions and trying to help” explains Tobin. “It all went from there really. I wanted to leave school in fourth year and start an apprenticeship but he made me finish my Leaving Cert, which was obviously the right decision”. But school wasn’t always easy for Tobin. “Everyone would laugh at me in class. It was something that they’d never really heard of, a girl wanting to become a mechanic. But I was just me”.
At 18 Tobin finished school and started her apprenticeship. To start with she had a tough time finding someone to take her on. “I sent out about 20 CV’s to different garages and at first no one would even entertain it. I didn’t get a phone call until a teacher put the word out and finally I got a trial down in White and Delahunty.”
Tobin spent the next four years completing her seven phases of apprenticeship between here, Ballyfermot, Dundalk and Cork Training Centres. She was the only female mechanic in all the training centres she attended, and not once did she meet another woman training for the same job. This didn’t really surprise Tobin: “I thought maybe there might be one other girl. But no, just me and the lads”. When asked if she was treated differently she says “You would see the lads think I couldn’t do it. They had a girly stereotype in their head for sure. I often felt they were wondering what I was doing there at all”.
At 22, Tobin had received her qualification when the recession hit. “It was awful timing. White and Delahuntys couldn’t keep me on and that was that. The motor industry was hit and I couldn’t find a job as a motor mechanic anywhere.” Tobin left the trade she had worked so hard to get into and for a few years worked in retail. She was discouraged and says “I didn’t even know if I would get back into it at all. I kept asking myself if it was what I really wanted.” Eventually she decided it was and with the help of a Jobs Bridge programme went back to White and Delahunty, but in a different position.
Now she works front of house as a service advisor, a role also normally filled by men. She enjoys interacting with the customers, and making sure they are happy. She says “Don’t get me wrong, I still love working on cars, I still work on my own and my dad’s, but I also love the customer relations role and dealing with people. I can do both. Because of my experience I know what the technicians are talking about and I am able to explain things to customers really well.”
When asked if she feels this is a more female friendly position that she has slipped into Tobin says “Not at all. Previously I would have never seen a female service advisor, they would always be male. Customers are often really shocked when I explain that I’m a qualified technician and I know what I’m talking about.”
Tobin, like many, doesn’t understand why gender roles remain so defined within the motor industry. She says “Maybe some women feel intimidated because it’s still so male dominated. But if I was to meet any woman who felt like that and wanted to become a mechanic I would tell her to just go for it.”
When asked why she chose the profession despite the obvious imbalance she says, “Why not? Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean my knowledge is any different or that I can’t fix a car.”