woman-mechanicOne evening last fall, as I was walking my dogs, a car drove by and as it did, its tire blew out. I could hear the flop, flop, flop sound as the car slowed and then stopped at the entrance to my driveway.

Peeking in the passenger side window, I asked, “Do you need some help?” The young woman driving was on the phone and you could tell her anxiety was high. Not only did she have the flat, but she was also on the job delivering pizza.

She finished her call, rolled down the window, and said, “Yes. My boyfriend can’t get here for a while. My boss is sending someone to get the pizzas.”

I replied, “I can help you change your flat tire. Pull into my driveway.”

As we got started, I was shocked to learn she didn’t know she had a spare in the trunk. I had to show her where it was located.

Seeing that she was around 19 or so, and obviously didn’t have a clue about changing a flat tire, I thought I’d make it a teaching moment. I had her pull the manual from the glove box and read along as I showed her how to use the jack and remove and replace the tire.

We were done in about 20 minutes. She thanked me, jumped in the car, and drove away.

To this day, I still feel good about fixing her flat. But, the experience also set me to thinking about my own experiences. I’ve been fixing things since I was very young. Why did I know how to fix a flat tire and she didn’t? Why was I comfortable getting my hands dirty?

More important, I wondered if it was time for me to share my experience and wisdom with younger women in order to encourage them to take on traditionally male jobs in manufacturing.

To start this process, I recently joined SME (formerly, Society of Manufacturing Engineers). The chapter to which I belong is the first in the nation to sponsor a high school chapter; this excited me, but I was a little dismayed to see the members were all young men. Where were the young women?

Developing mechanical aptitude in girls

Getting young women interested in and allowing them to excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and careers is a well-discussed topic these days.

But while STEM in schools is good, it’s even more important that parents of young girls go further and encourage them to tinker from a very young age.

When my son was growing up, for example, he would ask for my old computers, phones and other electronic devices so that he could take them apart. His bedroom was often full of circuit boards, cables and the hollowed out shells of devices.

By the time he was 10 or 11, he was upgrading memory in our laptops and making other small repairs. One time he completely replaced the disc drive in his MacBook — an advanced repair. At some point I stopped maintaining our in-home network and put him in charge.

All that tinkering paid off. Today, his summer job is go-fer at his school’s IT department. He’s thrilled!

Unless they have an enlightened father or mother, girls aren’t encourage to tinker like this. As the young lady whose tire I fixed shows, many girls aren’t taught to use tools or to make simple repairs around the house. I think this is because it’s expected we’ll marry someone who will do it for us. (It could also be that fixing things simply isn’t valued in our disposable society.)

Encourage tinkering

Parents of girls can do quite a bit to encourage tinkering and by extension, help develop their daughters’ mechanical aptitude and self-confidence, both of which will serve them all their lives, no matter what their career path.

Instead of encouraging girls to play with dolls or other gender-specific “nurturing” activities, parents can give young girls blocks, puzzles, LEGO, and other “open-ended” toys that build thinking and aptitude skills.

Young girls can be taught to use basic tools, such as screwdrivers, pliers and vice-grips, and help parents make simple repairs around the house.

Older girls can be taught how to read instruction manuals and home repair books. Knowing what to search for on YouTube is good, too!

Girls and boys should know how to change a lightbulb or light fixture, where to find the electrical panel, how to turn off the electricity, fix a simple toilet mechanism, change the oil in the lawn mower or vehicle, fix a flat tire, and other simple repairs.

Then, allow girls, and boys too, to tinker and make mistakes. Growing up, my son made many errors, some of which did cost money as I had to call in the “geeks” to fix his mistakes.

Give girls the support they need to take on vocational jobs

Even more important than tinkering, however, is giving teenage girls support and encouragement if they express interest in a vocational career, whether it be auto mechanics, “the trades” (e.g. plumber, electrician, etc.), or manufacturing.

By support, I mean that parents and others need to help these young women develop a thick skin and self-confidence because yes, they will encounter bullying and sexist behavior. Rather than run from it, they have to stand up to it, push back, and move on.

While still very low, the number of women in what used to be traditionally male jobs is growing. As I drove through Pennsylvania on my vacation a few weeks ago, I was heartened to see women on road crews pulling their weight. When I visit my manufacturing clients, I see younger women working on the production floor and women running the companies.

All of this is good. But still, only 27% of women comprise manufacturing jobs, and it’s due in part to women not knowing they can do these jobs and then being encouraged to do so.

What do you think? Whether you’re male or female, were you encouraged to tinker from a young age? If you’re a parent, do you encourage this skill in your children? I’d love to hear your comments.

And my experience? I’m a product of Title IX. I was one of the first girls to take woodshop in 7th grade once the law went into effect. It’s where I learned to use tools and to build things. I’ve always been mechanically inclined and still do my own home repairs whenever possible. Recently I replaced a broken dryer vent. I was quite proud of that one. 🙂

Dianna Huff is the founder and president of Huff Industrial Marketing, a full service agency that tackles a host of marketing and communications challenges for manufacturing companies.

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