Mechanics of change

National Women’s Day in August provides us with an opportunity to honour women in the automotive industry, says KERRY DIMMER; especially those who are pioneering a path in automotive technical specialisation.

If these were the ’70s, we’d be writing about how women tend to dominate in clerical and service roles, while men have the edge in craft, operator and labourer positions. How is it that, two decades later, we still have occupational sex segregation in South Africa, a country with employment equity laws in place to ensure women are not excluded from any workforce, boardroom or even Parliament?

Changing The Rules

What’s more surprising is the reaction of men when they hear that a woman pilot has just flown them halfway around the world or that their car maintenance or repair was executed by a female.

Women aren’t surprised; they are proud of one another’s achievements. It’s been a long road to emancipation and they’ve worked hard to prove that they are as equal to any task as any man is.

When a female mechanic working within the confines of a male-dominated field such as the automotive industry is asked whether she is a lesbian (yes, just like that) simply because she has quite competently repaired  a car, she could be justified in being angered, but might just as easily be amused. After all, this isn’t about sexual inclinations; it’s about the quality of the work.

While we accept that there certainly are differences between men and women, they are not the sorts of differences that would prevent either from performing well in a chosen career.

Stephanie Vermeulen, SA’s emotional quotient (EQ ) guru and the author of Stitched-up: Who Fashions Women’s Lives?, claims that the main difference between the male brain and the female brain is how they are moulded by their social environments.

“A traditionally raised female brain will develop quite differently from the brain of a modern woman who is pursuing a challenging career,” Vermeulen explains. “Likewise, the brain of a male farm worker will look quite different from that of a male astronaut. Now that schoolgirls are encouraged to do maths, science and pursue more technical interests, the so-called gender differences in the brain are no longer obvious.”

But the idea of gender equality in the workplace may be less likely to be accepted by males who belong to a generation that has become accustomed to (or been brought up with) the traditional idea of women in softer roles.

“Well, it’s time such men joined the 21st century and understood that there is no career left that they can claim as ‘male’,” says Vermeulen. “Many women are passionate about motor cars, so why shouldn’t some of them work in that field?

“Any woman who is following what she wants regardless of her social conditioning is writing the rules she wishes to live by, and men should worry more about being successful in their own careers than whether successful women are playing by the ‘rules’ or not.” In fact, there are no rules anymore, and the industry understands this well.

The MERSETA has been very influential in the careers of women. What the statistics are telling us is that, so far this year, 1 048 women have registered for or are working in automotive jobs or apprentice technical positions. Currently, the industry has embraced 95 female motor mechanics, 46 spray-painters, 34 diesel mechanics, 33 automotive electricians and nine automotive body repairers, as well as a few female automotive machinists and vehicle body builders. The biggest growth sector is that of female spray-painters, where the industry has seen a 16% increase.

Automobil catches up with four women who are debunking the industry’s stereotypes.

Playing With Colour

Two women spray-painters from vastly different backgrounds recently entered the WorldSkills South Africa competition, both finishing in the top four of the spray- painting  category.


Portia Mtshweni, employed by Barloworld Coachworks in Isando, is just 21 years  old. Portia realised she would never be satisfied working in an office, and so, prompted by her love for equipment and her interest in her cousin’s studies, she signed  up  for  mechanical  engineering  at Ekurhuleni West College (EWC). “Getting dirty was my thing,” she says. “I was far more interested in joining the boys and playing with cars growing up than doing girly things.”

Except for baking, that is! Initially, Portia had thought that she would become a master baker or a chef, but it is her brother who is now pursuing a culinary career. During her studies at EWC, Portia was exposed to spray- painting. It was a challenge that appealed to her, and she was able to pursue it with the help of a MERSETA apprenticeship. The three-year curriculum involves a series of practical tasks combined with theoretical study. Qualification can be achieved in less time and this is Portia’s goal.

At the time of choosing her career, Portia knew no other woman doing spray-painting. “At first my male colleagues couldn’t believe that I was doing a job they thought was just for men. But they have helped  and  encouraged  me  enormously. My parents have been very supportive too. All the girls doing well at the competition prove that women are equally as good at spray-painting as men!” she says.

Portia believes that women are ideally suited to spray-painting, because colour matches come easily to the female eye.


Monique Swanepoel, 20 years old, competed alongside Portia in the WorldSkills South Africa competition, where she came second in the spray- painting category. Monique was also not interested in an office job, and she was determined to work with her hands after finishing school. During school holidays, she worked at her uncle’s business, HJ Bosch & Sons, in Pretoria, where she was exposed to all manner of auto body repair work, office work and spray-painting.

With her love for art, spray-painting came naturally to Monique, and when her uncle encouraged her to apply for an apprenticeship at his business through the MERSETA, the decision  was easy. Monique says she is aiming to qualify next year, and after that she is  considering  including  motorcycle airbrush work in her portfolio of talents.

Monique says that, in this industry, passion for your work is essential. She says her courses are not difficult, but require dedication – and that it helps if you have the support of family, which for her comes from a father and sister who are exceptionally proud of her achievements. On being a woman in the industry, she says: “It may be a man’s world but that shouldn’t stop us behaving like women. I like the idea of being a tomboy during the week and a real girly girl on weekends.”

What is particularly encouraging about both Monique and Portia’s goals is that, ultimately, they both want to start their own businesses. Monique has a clear picture of owning her own workshop and Portia wants to satisfy her love for both baking and spray-painting by owning a couple of businesses.


Irene Mzimba was listening to a community radio station when she heard that Protea Tyres in Nelspruit  was offering learnerships. There were no jobs available in the paramedic field she had trained in, so she thought she’d apply simply to keep herself busy. “I was surprised that I, as a woman, would be able to work in the tyre industry, because I thought it was something for boys. But here I am eight years later, a qualified tyre fitter and now technical assistant,” Irene says.

Irene was mentored by Protea Tyres owners Hendrik and Elizabeth Janse van Rensburg. Elizabeth saw a bit of herself in Irene – someone with a passion to learn and a need to understand every aspect of the business. “We’ve taken her from fitment and tyre identification through to the sales and surveys side, a role that was always held by a man. This requires the understanding and identification of tyre problems, knowing tread patterns, tyre sizes, rims and so on,” says Hendrik.

“While this role is heavily administrative, with lots of data processing, it’s something that requires skills beyond technical knowledge. Irene has thus also had training in the softer skills of business, such as emotional  intelligence.”

Irene says she now has a need to learn more. “I haven’t planned anything, but I know that I can do everything a man can do in this industry, so there will be more opportunities along the way.

“I’ve also established good friendships in the industry and realise that our workshop can’t do a good job without what I do; if the paperwork is wrong on the outside, it won’t be right on the inside. I’ve made people like my dad and the Janse van Rensburgs very proud, and I’m excited by what still lies ahead.”

Hendrik says that tyre work can be physically challenging for a woman, especially when it comes to truck and bus tyre fitment, but consideration is given to slighter females by allowing them to work with smaller tyres.


In a study undertaken in 2011 to identify scarce skills in the automotive sector, it was found that there is a substantial need for general motor, diesel and motorcycle mechanics, panel beaters and spray-painters. These are all jobs that might have been considered to be reserved for men, but no longer.[/sociallocker]