On Being a Girl in Automotive School

I’m two weeks into automotive school. Well, technically 6 school days in, since I started on May 22nd and got vacation for Memorial Day and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, cutting the four-school-day week down considerably. But still, 6 days is half of a course in my program, since every 12 days we’ll have a final and move up to the next class.

I am the only girl in my current intro class. There are a handful of other girls in the school and I’ve seen a few at lunch, but none are in my class. This in itself wasn’t something that I considered remotely problematic; I don’t mind standing out, and being a girl makes me memorable, and you want to be memorable in a field like this. Far more nervewracking was the fact that everyone in my class had experience working with cars whereas I was a complete newbie.

That’s still an issue that I’m dealing with, even though I’ve quickly risen to the top of the class with my book-smarts and grades on all the written quizzes and assignments. I am slower with tools because of a) having never used them before and b) needing to use my entire body weight to operate something that my shop partner can use with one hand.

I know that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for not being the fastest with, say, a 3/8 drive ratchet or a torque wrench, seeing as I’d never even heard of those tools and certainly never used them until a few days ago, but I am used to excelling, and I know that as a girl, I need to excel in this in order for anyone to take me seriously. If I were a guy, the raw strength would make up for some of the doubts employers might have when looking at me, seeing that I could be useful in other ways, for lifting and grunt work. But I don’t have raw strength; I’m barely 5’ 2”; I’m thin and I was told by one of the guys at lunch that he thought I was 19.

Babyfaaaaaaaaaace.

Which leads me into the other gender issue that I obviously knew I’d have to deal with — numerous personal interactions with guys, generally without any women around to back me up. Me against the world, dun dun dunnnn. And that makes it sound antagonistic, which it’s not, because everyone I’ve met has been nice to me. There has been no outright hostility from anyone. (When I told that to a friend, she responded, “that’s good!” before adding, “Our standards are really low, aren’t they.”) And plenty of people have been really friendly.

For instance, I remember being somewhat freaked out at lunch on my first day, after sitting in class all morning and feeling overwhelmed by all the new material I knew nothing about, and a Haitian guy in some other class sat down at my table and haltingly told me not to worry: “You gonna make it. Look at me — I barely speak English and I doing okay.” And that was exactly what I needed to hear.

And I’ve also somehow befriended the guy in the class with the most car experience and he’s been enormously helpful, giving me tips and offering me advice and information on all sorts of things without me asking for any of it.

And the guys in the lunchroom have a domino tournament every day and they were happy to deal me in. I actually won one game, though the exact rules of scoring that they play by are kind of a mystery to me.

But it’s not that simple. It never is.

Basically.

So far there’s only been one super creepy incident — when I went to refill my water bottle at the water fountain on the first day, a smallish guy was already there and he insisted on letting me fill it before taking his turn. That was unnecessary but nice, but then he had to go ruin it by staring at me unblinkingly the whole time and speaking in this weird monotone that some guys use when they’re trying to be slick or suave but don’t know how. He told me his name, and I told him mine (it was on my ID tag anyway) with my brightest chipper voice and smile so that he wouldn’t know how creeped out I was, and then when I finished and turned to go, he said, in that slow, deep, deliberate monotone, “Sarah. I hope we stay friends.”

Dude. You let me fill my water bottle. That does not make us friends. Especially not with the bonus leering.

 

And then there’s the condescending and sometimes downright weird sexism that I encountered from some of the administrative staff. The very first time I visited campus, my admissions representative kept saying to me what a “nice girl” I am: “You’re a nice girl, aren’t you? Just a nice girl. I can just tell. You’re a nice girl. A nice girl.” He did this in the midst of selling the school to me as hard as he could, but I seriously can’t figure out what kind of sales pitch that is supposed to be. I am, however, 99.9% certain he didn’t say the same thing to the prospective male students who came to tour the school. (And he did it again once I enrolled a few months later: “We’re gonna take good care of you, because you’re a nice girl. A nice girl.” I can’t even.)

Suuuuuuure.

A different male administrator didn’t say anything nearly that weird to me throughout my enrollment process, but on my first day he passed me in the hallway the first time I wore my oversized uniform shirt, and he went, “Aw, you look so cute.” Which is, well, wildly inappropriate, but I just smiled instead of saying anything, because a) he’s in a position of authority and I do not want a fight, and b) I’m still trying to find the balance between how much to use my cuteness to get students and faculty to like me and be more patient with me than they would if I were a guy, and how much I should really draw the line and say no, that’s not okay.

It’s complicated. More on this later.

Mostly, what I’ve had to deal with, and anticipate having to deal with most, are very well-meaning, friendly guys saying stuff that they mean to be complimentary, that they don’t realize are in fact sexist.

Like I mentioned befriending the guy who turned out to be the most knowledgeable one in the class. I had no clue about that when I met B. at orientation; he was just friendly and easy to talk to, so we talked, and talked again while waiting for class to start on the first day, and sat at adjacent desks, and so out of anyone in class, we’re probably the best friends in that room. It’s been a bonus that he’s got experience and from Day 1, B. basically took me under his wing and doled out all sorts of practical tips and reassured me that there was once a time when he knew nothing about cars and that I’d catch up.

That was all really great stuff to hear on my first day, and I could see how serious B. is about his career and about school (he wants to get 100s on everything and get all the iron-on patches they give you for your uniform to signify the A’s you’ve gotten), and I was glad to have made a friend, or at least an acquaintance, who was as dedicated to school as I was and who was fun and could easily carry a conversation.

But then, after a whole day of just being friendly and helpful and professional, B. had to go and say, “You know, it’s really pretty sexy that you’re doing this.”

Sigh. I just wanted to facepalm everywhere. But I just shrugged it off.

Because it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t already get why a comment like that is demeaning. Because there are situations in which I would not mind a guy finding out what I’m learning to do for a living and saying that it’s sexy. A woman doing blue collar work is a inevitably a symbol of strength and self-sufficiency, so I’d hope for their sake that guys have the good sense to find that attractive. And plenty of people find it attractive when a guy can fix a car, and I’ve got no problems with that.

But not in school. In school, we’re supposed to be peers. We’re supposed to be equals. You’re doing the same work I’m doing, and I doubt you consider it sexy when you do it — it’s just work. Being called sexy from within the industry diminishes my professional standing. It makes my work somehow different from yours; it “others” me. If an outsider looks at me and my work and thinks it’s sexy, that’s different. I’m already “othered” in that situation, by virtue of working in a different job with all the exoticism that entails. But if you’re in the business, find other ways to compliment me.

Trust me, it’s not hard.

Look, I could tell B. liked me. I’m not one of those people that can’t see someone’s interest unless they declare their intentions with flashing neon signs and smoke signals. He clearly thought I was smart and funny and interesting, and I also happen to be a cute girl. So I knew, and I also knew that I was unequivocally not interested back and did my best to communicate that to him without outright telling him to forget about it. I mentioned in one of our very first conversations that I only date Jewish guys (which B. is not), and also that this is a very stressful time for me and I’m not really interested in dating anyone at all at the moment. He didn’t seem to grasp the significance of the Jew thing until a couple days later when the topic of kosher food came up somehow and I started explaining just the bare bones of kashrut rules, and he was astonished by how complicated it is and said, “No wonder you prefer to only date guys who are your religion.” YES.

 

I thought that was that, and even smugly congratulated myself on finding an ingenious method of scaring off non-Jews without hurting their feelings, but the next day this happened:

B.: “I’m gonna take you out someday.”

Me: “Oh really. Why?”

B.: “Because you’re beautiful.”

Me: “So?”

B.: “And I want you to know that I know that you’re beautiful.”

Me: “I know you know I’m beautiful. You have eyes, don’t you?”

I feel like these were lines that must have worked for B. in the past and that’s why he said them, but just no. Compliments on my beauty are not gonna get you a date. Like I said up there, find something else to compliment.

Be creative. I’ve known a lot of smart and articulate guys who’ve given me excellent compliments, so I have high standards.

Not that good compliments would have made any difference in B.’s case, since I had already made it clear that he wasn’t what I’m looking for. In case my response came off as more flirtation than rejection, I clarified to make things crystal clear:

Me: “Look, I think you’re a great guy and I enjoy your company, and don’t be offended, but like I said, I don’t date guys who aren’t Jewish, and besides, I don’t think you’re my type.”

At which point B. backtracked and said he only meant “take me out” as a friend and that I was reading too much into things, and I probably should have let him save face with that but I couldn’t help myself:

Me: “Then what does me being beautiful have to do with it? You’re not friends with ugly people?”

B.: “No, I’m – I’m friends with all kinds of people.”

Me: “Uh-huh.”

I don’t usually give guys such a hard time, but I really needed B. to get it. I don’t think B. is the type who gets rejected much — he’s tall, strong, has a symmetrical face with dark skin and very white teeth that give him a great smile, and he’s intelligent and friendly without giving off any creepy vibes — but he handled it okay.

But being rejected didn’t stop him from giving me compliments on how sexy I am or other very gendered compliments. What do I mean by gendered here? Basically, if you can easily imagine a straight guy saying it to another straight guy, it’s probably not a gendered compliment. Like, “Good job!” or “Impressive” or “Nice!” Gender-neutral, non-sexual, can be directed at anyone, male and female alike. B.’s compliments to me were things like, “I’m proud of you,” or “you’re fascinating,” or “you make it hard not to like you.” Things that I really can’t picture him saying to another same-aged, same-sized dude, which (spoiler alert) I am not.

I’m the one with the cape.

I finally asked him not to call me sexy or describe my work as sexy, and this exchange happened:

B.: “But I just mean it like validation, to let you know that you’re doing a good job.”

Me: “Then just say I’m doing a good job. You wouldn’t say that a guy, would you?”

Him: “No, he’d think I’m homosexual! He’d think I’m hitting on him!”

Me: “And are you hitting on me?”

Him: “No!”

Me: “Then don’t say it!”

Him: “Does it make you uncomfortable?”

Me: “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable; it’s just not necessary.

And he seemed okay with that. Then I tried to push my luck the next day asking him not to say certain other things he said and he wound up asking me why I hate men.

Sigh.

And it’s frustrating, because I don’t want to misrepresent myself as being more uptight than I am. There are tons of jokes made in class about “lubing things up” and “not putting them in dry” and it’s hilarious and I love it. I joked with B. that he lets me do a lot of the work on the engine because he likes watching me, and the instructor overheard and said, “Is that so?” and I said, “Well, who wouldn’t?”

And maybe saying things like that is a mistake and makes people think other remarks are acceptable when they’re not. I don’t want to act like I don’t want anyone to talk about anything remotely sexual around me, I don’t want to call “inappropriate!” on every little thing, I don’t want to burn potential bridges. I definitely don’t want to seem ungrateful for everything B.’s done to help me so far, but at the same time, his help does not earn him the right to say certain things to me, any more than it earns him the right to touch me, which he does a bit more than I am honestly 100% comfortable with. But I haven’t stopped him yet, or any of the other guys who’ve casually touched me, because I worry about male entitlement and whether they will be insulted if I tell them not to. Which is absurd, to be concerned about other people’s feelings more than my own right to personal space and comfort, but like I said, I’m only six days into this and I’m worried about starting things off by burning bridges. I hope I haven’t burned any with B.

This = Bad idea.

The weird and contradictory truth is that in a male-dominated setting, invoking my sexuality myself makes me feel empowered, but having it invoked by the men around me feels demeaning. It’s the only thing I have that they don’t and when I control it, it gives me back some of my power. But when other people use it, I lose that control and consequently that power. I’m at such a disadvantage here for not being male; my instinct is to try to recoup some of that with whatever nebulous power comes with being female.

What I’m asking is this: If I don’t have the advantages I can get from maleness and physical strength, isn’t it only fair that I use some of the advantages I can get from being female and cute? (I’m not talking about sleeping with people here. I’m just talking about being a cute, feminine presence. Using my girlness to gain likeability, since, as I am fond of saying, true power comes from likability, because if people like you, they’ll willingly try to do anything you ask.) But at what point do those things cease to be at all advantageous and just invite people to think they can treat you condescendingly and make inappropriate remarks at you? Where is the tradeoff between likeability and respect? Can you have a sufficient amount of both? Is this a harder balance to achieve as a woman than it is for a man? Is it better to just draw the lines from the start and almost certainly get a reputation for being a bitch, just so that everyone’ll leave you alone and respect you? Is that even real respect? Where’s the middle ground and why is gray area so hard to navigate??

 

So yeah, when people ask me how automotive school is going, all of these things come rushing to my head and I can’t figure out how to distill all of them into digestible, conversational chunks. All I can think to do is write ‘em all out.

Here. HERE ARE ALL MY LADY FEELINGS ABOUT AUTOMOTIVE SCHOOL.

This is the seventh page of this post in Microsoft Word. So if you ask me how school is going and I say, “…Interesting. Complicated,” and you don’t get why I’m not exploding with details or jumping for joy or whatever it is you’re expecting that I’m not doing — this is why.

 

____

Like my thinky thoughts? Want more of them? Consider donating and commissioning more, via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — and thanks for reading! And you can keep up with me on Twitter @FloatingSpirals and never miss a post 🙂

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