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Patrice Banks is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
By now, very few industries remain completely untouched by feminism. Yet, every woman knows about that one glaring holdout: car maintenance.
Always male and almost always brusque, car mechanics have a universal way of alienating women – whether they’re overcharging us, condescending to us, or forcing us to wait in a fumy garage surrounded by greasy dudes. Even though female drivers outnumber male drivers in the U.S., we’ve largely accepted this reality. Many of us even tell ourselves that we don’t belong in the mechanics industry, or that we have no business going under the hood, ever.
Not Patrice Banks. She does it all in heels.
Banks is the founder of Girls Auto Clinic in Philadelphia, where women – and men, for that matter – can access a woman-run, customer service-friendly garage. The newly launched space is staffed entirely by women (cleverly called "sheCANics") who provide car service and maintenance education workshops. While they wait, customers can even enjoy a manicure or blowout at the in-house salon called Clutch.
So much nicer than a fumy garage!
It's such a simple idea that would appeal to millions. Yet, Banks seems to be the first female mechanic ever to make a splash, delivering TED talks and earning nods from media outlets and celebrities like the Washington Post to Harry Connick Jr.
“I’ve looked for female mechanics to help me online, and I couldn’t find anything. Just stock images of female mechanics, or women working on cars in sexy bikinis,” she recalls. “There are only something like five women throughout the whole country who own their own shops.”
"When I learned how to work on cars I realized ‘wow this stuff isn’t hard!!' Women don’t know that because there’s nobody speaking like them. The industry is run by men."
Banks stumbled on the idea a few years ago when a (male) mechanic tried to sell her a new air filter. Knowing little about cars at the time, Banks had a feeling she was being swindled, but she wasn’t sure. She wound up declining, but the incident stuck with her. As an engineer, Banks was accustomed to solving problems on her own every day. At the mechanic, however, she felt uncertain. She hated it.
“I was one of those women who hated taking my car to the dealership. Anytime I heard a noise or saw a light, I’d ask a guy to come tell me what to do,” she says. “When I learned how to work on cars I realized ‘wow this stuff isn’t hard!!' Women don’t know that because there’s nobody speaking like them. The industry is run by men.”
If there’s ever a woman you want on your side, it’s Patrice Banks. She’s larger-than-life and extremely determined, almost to a superhuman degree. Born poor to a single mother, she learned to be resourceful. She was the first in her family to graduate high school, where her interest in math and science led her to study engineering at Lehigh University. Though she is a woman and biracial – two anomalies in engineering – she excelled in the cellular analysis lab at DuPont for more than a decade.
But the car thing kept luring Banks. She heard more and more complaints from women about the terrible state of customer service in car garages. She'd discovered a void in the market, not to mention female independence. It was time to start a movement.
Patrice Banks teaching a workshop.
"It was an incredible opportunity to address these people who were being left out, not heard, and not having their needs met," she says. "I wanted to empower women to become sheCANics - to be savvy, empowered, not afraid to talk like a mechanic or take charge of their cars and lives."
While working at DuPont, Banks went to night school for car maintenance. She was the only woman in her class. There, her high heels became her legacy and logo.
“I had to go right from work to school. At work I wore slacks and heels. At school we had to wear dirty clothes, so I mixed them up. One day I was under a car pulling out a starter, and someone took a picture of my heels sticking out. It was perfect," she says. "I sometimes get pushback for making the industry look bad, like I'm trying to sexualize this because I wear red heels and tight black pants. I'm not trying to be sexy...I am sexy. I just like heels."
Girls Auto Clinic branding, inspired by Patrice's iconic red heels.
Unsurprisingly, her journey has been riddled with unbelievable sexism. While at school, Banks offered to work in garages for free to gain experience. She was rejected a number of times – once because the boss’s wife would get jealous, and another time because the customers “wouldn’t like it.” She describes mechanic culture as unequivocally macho: the dirty jokes, the cursing rage attacks, the abject condescension toward women. Once while Banks was speaking to a group of teenage boys at an automotive high school, they started grilling her with questions to make sure she had a clue about cars, cutting her down before she even got a chance to speak.
"They were challenging me because I'm a woman. A 17-year-old girl without experience who might not have my passion who might be a little insecure - this is what she has to face. This is the culture," Banks says. "Most of them drop out and go to a diferent profession, or go behind a desk."
But Banks didn't drop out. Even more motivated to make a change, she endured. She graduated from night school, quit DuPont, and worked full-time on Girls Auto Clinic. She taught workshops, blogged, delivered lectures, and built a social presence (imagine that, a mechanic on social media!). She recently built her main space in Philadelphia, where the clinic is thriving.
While she doesn't have the resources to expand (yet), she hopes to make Girls Auto Clinic a national brand. Currently, non-Philadelphia sheCANics can enjoy Banks' book The Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide, a friendly car maintenance manual to be released on Simon & Schuster next year.
"My ultimate goal with Girls Auto Clinic is to reach every woman driver, whether it’s through our products, services, or resources," she says.
Check out Patrice Banks' TED talk below!