Local women make strides in male-dominated industries

TURNING WRENCHES: Allison Walker, also known as the Wrench Woman, works as a mobile auto mechanic and is one of several local women making their way in traditionally male-dominated fields. Photo courtesy of Walker

You might think that Allison Walker’s love of cars was handed down from a family member or mentor.

“I’ve always been a car fanatic,” remembers Walker. “I would ask my friends’ parents about their cars: ‘What kind of gas mileage are you getting? Do you have the four-cylinder or the six-cylinder?’ And they were happy to answer my questions. But then definitely their head would kind of turn a little bit.”

But looking back, the 44-year-old chalks it up to destiny.  

“I have a really, really big family, and no one is into cars. But everyone was aware that I was a ‘car girl.’ My first memories are car-related. And so, it was kind of like fate,” she says. “This is just what I was meant to do.”

That passion to understand the inner workings of vehicles led Walker into auto repair, an industry that sees few women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up only 1.4% of the industry in 1999. But by 2022, that number rose to 12%, signaling that the industry is slowly recruiting more female workers.

Walker is among a line of local women whose passions drove them to learn new skills and edge into traditionally male-dominated fields. 

Open for business

Walker, who offers mobile car repair under the name the Wrench Woman, says she is both self-taught and certified with Automotive Service Excellence, one of the highest levels of certification a mechanic can receive. Walker, originally from Mississippi, has been in Asheville for just over a year. She says that she found immediate success after she began working for herself as a mechanic in 2013.

“I knew I had the aptitude for it. I always wanted to work for myself. So, I just started putting ads on Craigslist, and it took off like wildfire,” says Walker. “Honestly, I’ve never even remotely had a problem getting business. I’m really happy to be doing something that I’ve been obsessed with my whole life as my career.”

The notion of a hobby-turned-business is also true for Tracy Germer, founder of Handy Ma’am, an Asheville-based minor repair business. Germer says that she found herself doing repairs around the house while working as a stay-at-home mom and came up with the idea while moving to Asheville from Washington state. 

“I was actually visiting family on our way to Asheville, and they had a handyman over doing stuff around their house,” remembers Germer. “I noticed that everything that he was doing, I could do.”

That gave Germer the confidence to launch Handy Ma’am last year, Germer says that she’s had a steady flow of business doing everything from minor repairs and furniture assembly to changing light bulbs. 

“My favorite jobs are what people call like the honey-do list or like a punch list, like when you have a lot of unrelated things,” Germer says. “I just love spending a day doing those types of repairs, and I’m still learning a lot in every area.” 

Roughly a quarter of repair and maintenance jobs were held by women in 2022, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Germer says that she learned many skills by observing handymen hired at her own home. And while her grandfather was into handiwork himself, her male cousins were most often the ones who were taught new skills, which Germer attributes to the strict gender roles of the time.  

“He’s a wonderful man; that’s just how it was back then,” Germer says of her grandfather. “And now he’s really impressed with me.”

Boss women

But while women may be making strides in such industries, sexism and patronizing still abound.

Jenny Kallista has 30 years of experience as a bicycle mechanic and founded the Appalachian Bicycle Institute in 2010, which teaches bicycle repair and maintenance. She says she never let gender stand in the way of her passion for cycling. 

She says her field is well suited for women, although few work in it. “I do think that women tend to have better dexterity and attention to detail. Those things are key when you’re a bicycle mechanic,” Kallista explains. 

Still, over the years Kallista has found herself not being taken seriously at work or acknowledged for her years of experience. While she hasn’t had issues as an instructor at her school, she recalls instances of sexism when she was working as a mechanic in bicycle shops. 

HIGH GEAR: Jenny Kallista had 30 years of experience as a bike mechanic before opening the Appalachian Bicycle Institute, which offers classes in bicycle repair and maintenance, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Kallista

She remembers one occasion when a man walked up to the service counter where she worked and asked to speak with a mechanic on staff.

“And there I am, standing in my apron with a wrench in my hand and a bike behind me and grease under my fingernails,” she says with a laugh. “It’s like, what about what you see in front of you tells you I’m not a mechanic?

“I’ve had women actually kind of push back against the idea that there I was the person that was going to be working on their bikes,” she continues. “So, sexism goes both ways and comes from different directions. It’s not always black and white.”

As an auto mechanic, Walker also has experienced sexism in her industry. Before working for herself, Walker says she tried working in mechanics shops but was constantly patronized. “They treated me like I was a novelty, which is weird because I have years of experience and I’m certified,” Walker says. “They’d be surprised that I did something quick. I’m like, ‘Really?’”

Walker adds that while some may think that she primarily serves women, most of her clientele are men. “Honestly, part of it, I think, is because [men] are probably attracted to me. I hate to say that that’s a component of it.”

That component has led to a few unwanted advances and situations over the years, but most people are respectful, Walker says. 

“[Men] have asked me out for lunch. Don’t do that. I don’t want that dynamic at all. It’s rude,” she says. “Thankfully, it’s mostly been a lot of respect. I can’t complain too much about that, but there’s definitely some areas for improvement.”

Germer, for her part, says most of her clientele are single women, though some men have hired her as well. In her first year in business, she’s only had one interaction in which someone questioned her work. That said, Germer adds that being a woman in the repair industry nevertheless leads people to make assumptions about her and her abilities.

“Because I’m a woman, I’m gendered no matter what. People have expectations based on my gender. They’ll say, ‘You must be a badass!’ and I’m like, ‘Well I mean, kind of,’” she says with a laugh.  “But really, women can do this, and men can do this. One gender is not better or worse than another. It’s just different skills, different experiences, different ways of doing business. And it’s not even that different. It’s just people.”

Generational knowledge

All three women maintain that women and girls should leave the notion of gender roles behind and follow their interests.

Germer advises women who are interested in doing handiwork to start small and to take inventory of the skills they already know, even ones that may seem too minor to list such as changing light bulbs.

“Just know that many of the skills you already possess are actually going to fit the needs of someone out there,” Germer explains. “So, whether or not you think that it’s important enough, don’t devalue the skills that you already have when you’re getting started just because somebody has a need for that.”

Meanwhile, Kallista says that her classes at the Appalachian Bicycle Institute are often filled with women who are interested in learning the craft and becoming self-sufficient. She explains that while men currently make up most of the industry, women who are interested in learning more are welcome, and the field is growing.

“Cycling, and mechanics especially, is certainly male-dominated, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily because the men are trying to keep women out because there’s plenty of women who have found great success. I’m a prime example of that,” says Kallista. “Work on as many bikes as you can, as often as you can. This is a profession that is born from experience, and it takes a lot of experience to become good at it.”

Walker sounds a similar note, maintaining that women shouldn’t be afraid to do what they love.

“First of all, don’t second-guess yourself. A lot of women are like, ‘Should I be doing this?’ Like they’re questioning themselves or questioning their abilities. I did, too,” Walker maintains. “But just go for it. Push hard and go for it. And don’t question it. Because if you love it, then you’ll be good at it.”


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