Women in the auto industry: Determined to make a difference (and inspire)
JOHANNESBURG - Five women in the automotive industry, all accredited members of the Motor Industry Workshop Association (MIWA), an association of the Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI), spoke to us about what they love and don’t love about the industry, and how they see the industry evolving.
SEBOLA MAHURA, who works in admin and marketing at KGK Motors, says it was a dream to join the automotive sector. Her job keeps her on her toes and she loves this, along with interacting with clients and learning something new every day.
“It inspires me to want to learn and achieve more and grab every opportunity,” she says.
Her excitement wanes though when asked about people’s reactions to her job: “They don’t believe a woman can know anything about cars. At work, my advice or opinion is often not trusted by a client because I’m female, so I always make a point of demonstrating whatever it is to them, to show I’m capable.”
Strong, fearless women are what the sector needs, says Sebola: “Women must leave the perception of it being male-dominated behind and get involved – there are lots of opportunities, from sales and admin to technician work or even panelbeating.”
Her plans ahead include expanding branches nationwide and hosting workshops to educate clients about their vehicles.
“My advice to women wanting to break into the automotive sector - all you need is to find where your passion and skills lie and go for it without looking back. There are no limitations except those you impose on yourself.”
CHANTEL STEYN had to leave her job in the government sector to join her husband at his Car Service City branch in Pretoria in 2018 after the business expanded rapidly within two months of opening. She bought her own Car Service City branch, also in Pretoria, a year later.
The branch was awarded Best New Branch and Best Branch Overall in the franchise in 2019. She was fortunate to experience full support from male colleagues and suppliers, but there is no doubt women are not seen as equals in the industry.
“I’ve often been told ‘what do you know about vehicles?’ when people find out what I do for a living. I tell them you don’t have to know everything about vehicles to manage a business well. Men tend not to take your opinions seriously until they get to know you and can see what you are contributing to the business.
“There is no glitz and glam, so you need to be a strong character. You have to remember customers are your bread and butter, so you must be competitive; always one step ahead of the rest when it comes to customer service and quality workmanship,” she expounds.
Determined to set an example for women by being the best in her field, Chantel also wants to empower women to excel in the industry. She adds that she will always champion excellent customer service and quality workmanship.
“You are the creator of your own destiny, so never give up on your dreams,” she says.
SANDRA CORBETT, co-owner of Kessel Motors, Cape Town, says her passion for business and creating jobs got her and her husband into the motor trade: “I believed our strong business acumen could be adapted to any industry, so we embraced the challenge and bought our first branch of Kessel Motors – we now have six branches and have learnt a lot along the way.”
While confident and at her best when solving complex employee, customer or even mechanical problems, Sandra admits being discriminated against as a female affected her on a personal level.
“Some customers insisted on dealing with a man. I had to overcome this and push through by equipping myself with more knowledge in the field and providing the best service I could. This has grown my confidence and empowered me in managing all my branches. My family has always been an incredible support.
“Over the years, I have proven that not only can I do the job well but I excel at any given task. I encourage more women to get involved and pursue their dream of either becoming a mechanic or a business owner,” she says.
Sandra sees education as the key to getting more women into the industry: “We need to teach young girls that a career in the motor trade industry is worth pursuing and back this with bursaries, mentorships and study programmes.”
Kessel Motors will branch out even more if Sandra accomplishes her long-term plan and customers will be dealing with more women in her branches too.
“There are definite challenges for women but my advice is to never stop believing in yourself and embrace challenges because these are opportunities for personal growth,” Sandra concludes.
ANGIE LEDWABA, the owner of RA Motors in Polokwane, believes more women should be studying mechanical engineering so that they can make the motor industry “more beautiful and less complicated” for future generations.
“Women are such creative and colourful beings, I am confident we can transform the industry all on our own,” she says.
Angie admits she has had to develop a thick skin to ward off discrimination, but she actually finds the industry fascinating because it is male-dominated.
“I managed my brother’s workshop for 10 years before buying my own, so now I almost feel like I’m giving back in some way. People are flabbergasted by the fact that I am a business owner in such a male-dominated industry,” she says.
“Many don’t take you seriously because they believe they can’t get professional help from a woman. I’ve been discriminated against by dealers who have been in business for a long time, as well as the government and private sectors.”
Angie would like to see more educational workshops being offered to expose women to career opportunities in the industry, and she wants to own an engineering company where she can upskill people in mechanical engineering and then employ them.
TERESA SPENSER-HIGGS, of D&T Servicing, is the MIWA Border Regional Chairperson. “I landed in the industry when my husband opened a workshop and needed someone to do the office work,” she explains. “I guess I was really brought up in it though, as my father and grandfather were also in the industry. All my life I had to hold my own in conversation when the men were talking cars, so I always listened and asked questions.”
“When people ask what I do I say it’s a bit like being a mom - I need to be able to do everything (other than fixing my car myself). My friends, of course, think I lunch and have my nails done all day because I’m the boss’s wife, but that’s far from the truth. Instead, it’s a combination of HR, industrial relations, debtors, creditors, spares, reception, first aid, marketing and social media, to name a few.”
Teresa loves the honesty of earning a living with your hands. “The muscles in our industry are as a result of hard work; they’re not crafted in a gym,” she says.
She has overcome discrimination in the industry with a sense of humour (and silently counting to 10).
“Most men think women know nothing about cars, but the industry is changing and women are more accepted today. They bring a different dynamic to the table. Men may head the industry in a lot of respects but women are the backbone; the infrastructure that allows the head to function properly.”
The future of the industry is exciting, Teresa says, and she is encouraged to see young women choosing related fields of study at colleges.
“There are many opportunities for women - just believe in yourself and don’t let someone else determine your value. It’s important to get your hands dirty while learning everything you can,” is her advice.
“Since I understand the challenges the average workshop faces, I want to be part of the solution and help the industry evolve.”