//Chaya Milchtein of Mechanic Shoppe Femme runs automotive classes from her website. Photo courtesy of Milchtein.
Chaya Milchtein was in search of a new car when she went down to a local dealership. To her dismay, the 26-year-old and her wife had to endure being treated “like dirt beneath his feet,” by a salesperson she said reeked of toxic masculinity. However, something surprising happened when he went in to retrieve the keys for their test drive.
“He came out like a different person. And he looks at me and he goes, ‘The guys inside said you’re TikTok famous for cars.’ And I’m like, ‘I mean, I guess,’ and then he started trying to get me to take a video of him or whatever.”
Milchtein took two lessons away from this encounter. First, this salesperson was capable of treating customers with respect. And second, he wouldn’t unless there was the possibility of real consequences from mistreating his customers.
A Milwaukee-based automotive educator and speaker, Milchtein runs a website called Mechanic Shop Femme. She has been involved in the automotive world since 2013 when she picked up a job as a service advisor at a Sears department store. Today, she offers classes that teach students the fundamentals of car ownership. Not a mechanic, she touts herself as a “mechanic interpreter for regular people” on her website.
“I help teach people how to think about cars, car maintenance, car repairs and car ownership,” she said. “But I also give people the tools to where they can find information. And I also teach them that foundation that they’re missing.”
That foundation is lacking for a reason. Car ownership is more than picking up the keys and driving off the lot. What factors must be considered when buying a used car? How does a new owner approach automotive maintenance? These subjects, at first glance, might appear to be received knowledge, but as Milchtein points out, perspective matters. Automotive matters have long been the province of men, knowledge passed down from fathers to sons. However, what happens when someone falls outside heteronormativity?
“Somebody once commented on one of my posts—I really wish I screenshotted it—but it was teenager, and he commented that his parents were too busy, trying to make him essentially ‘not gay,’ to teach him the fundamentals of being an adult,” Milchtein said. “And that he’s learned more from me than he’s learned from his parents.”
Milchtein said her generation has many parents who aren’t accepting of their children’s queerness. Parents may also unknowingly add to the knowledge gap, assuming their gay son, for example, would only want to pursue dance or fashion rather than learning about cars, trade skills or topics deemed more “masculine” or “straight.”
For queer people, this creates an environment not conducive for automotive education. Both queer people and women are too focused on survival to pick up adult skills that other kids have the luxury of learning, she said.
This leads to one of Milchtein’s guiding principles: queer people first. While her classes are open to people from all sorts of backgrounds and identities, and Milchtein has been lionized by feminist outlets, she wants to render her space specifically for queer people who were never exposed to any meaningful sort of automotive education.
As a result, all her teaching materials are gender-neutral; the only exception is when something specifically applies to women. The other benefit of embracing a gender-neutral curriculum is that it includes other people who may not have had exposure to automotive education. Driver’s-ed and purchasing a car are expensive moves, often out of reach for families occupying the lowest rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. Therefore, these groups may lack generational automotive knowledge.
Gaining crucial knowledge that should be the bedrock of car ownership isn’t the only challenge that exists for queer people or women.
“The overarching umbrella over the whole thing is this extremely toxic, hypermasculine industry that makes people that aren’t part of that industry incredibly uncomfortable,” Milchtein said. “Specifically, women and queer people who can be talked down to could be insulted, could be catcalled or hit on, could simply be scammed when going into a repair shop or when going into a dealership because of space that’s been created and the fear of that space.”
Milchtein said people falling outside the industry norm are taught that they don’t know anything about cars and that cars aren’t for them, that mechanics are the experts and regular people are not. Therefore, a fundamental lesson she teaches to her students is to trust themselves. Navigating a dealership or shop is simply a matter of trusting one’s gut.
Exceptions to the toxic mechanic garages exist, such as smaller mom-and-pop shops. However, the negative experiences that many queer, woman-identifying and trans people have at these places prime them to expect mistreatment at locations that may otherwise offer them good customer service.
“I mean, how can I explain how you can be a good person? You just have to be real and honest and share your own experiences and take people’s concerns and fears seriously,” Milchtein said. “People are scared that their cars are gonna break down, that they’re gonna die because their tires blew out. Don’t prey on that fear.”
Aside from making shop lobbies safer and more comfortable for everyone, fostering more inclusion in this industry would also close a knowledge gap that Milchtein sees looming on the horizon.
Despite 39,000 fewer technicians entering the industry every year than are needed to sustain it, Milchtein said that the industry fosters a sense of disinterest and disdain for learning the new technologies behind hybrid or electric vehicles. It’s even become politicized in some ways, she said, with some mechanics believing that working on electric cars makes one less of a man. This looming knowledge gap will only exacerbate the service shortage as electric and hybrid vehicles become more popular.
Milchtein said the solution is to foster inclusion and enhance the workforce with people who aren’t traditionally associated with the industry. Women only make up 3% of mechanics despite being 50% of drivers. The average mechanic is over the age of 40 and has 19 years of experience. A more diverse workforce can sidestep some of the stigmas and attitudes that have ossified the repair industry, and prepare workers to service the vehicles of tomorrow.
Successfully diversifying the industry will take more than paying lip service to inclusion, she said. It’s not just having a workplace harassment policy: It’s actually enforcing that policy; it’s shutting down that hypermasculine toxic culture in the shop right away; it’s ensuring that actions and communications taken when handling situations are made in the goal of creating a safe, happy and healthy work environment.
Milchtein said this approach will help mechanics to stay on the cutting edge of the industry, rather than focusing on the false, gendered perceptions of new technologies. “Ultimately, it’s gonna help with all kinds of stuff. Not just with hiring women and queer folks, it’s gonna help your customers be happier,” Milchtein said.
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