LARAMIE — The women getting their hands dirty with hydraulic fluid or oil at WyoTech have something in common: They have a passion to fix things.
They also have a few other things in common. They represent a tiny percentage of students and faculty. They’re pursuing careers in an industry that historically tells women, “We’re not looking for a receptionist.”
They’ve all been asked questions such as, “Is there a man I can talk to?” or “Does your husband know you are doing this?”
Many of the female students and faculty at the private auto mechanic and diesel technical trade school in Laramie also share membership in Women of WyoTech. The school-sponsored organization provides a social network for female students and helps women navigate the culture of the automotive trades.
The school schedules four teaching units a year in core programs, automotive and diesel mechanics, and collision repair, as well as specialty options such as chassis fabrication and street rod.
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Typically there are 600-800 students enrolled at any time, mostly male. The number of female students has ranged from seven to 36, said Jessica Romero, WyoTech Career Services spokesperson.
With help from organizations such as WOW, Romero said she hopes to see the percentage of female students increase. WOW had been an active organization in the past, and was reinstated this spring.
“It was always a group set up as a support system to give females a voice,” she said.
One of the voices in WOW belongs to Kathrine O’Rourke, a founding member of the new WOW.
O’Rourke has been at WyoTech for a year and has gone through most of her main coursework. She is now studying advanced diesel mechanics.
In her early 30s, O’Rourke is not only a female student, but older than many of her other classmates.
“At 33, I dropped everything,” she said. “I was in retail management and wanted something completely different.”
O’Rourke said she hopes to open a heavy duty truck shop as her new career path.
“When I first got here, there were 90% men in the industry, but I realized how many of us (women) there were,” she said. “Still only 3% of the school, but enough women to band together and support each other.”
With some classes having only one or two women, it was difficult to know how many were at WyoTech, she said. WOW allows female students to meet and network.
Since forming the group, O’Rourke said the support has helped her feel more confident.
She initially joined WOW for the social connections to other female students, she said. Meeting weekly, they would have meals together, work on fundraisers or take trips.
O’Rourke said an additional benefit of WOW is an opportunity to let other women, those who wouldn’t usually think about a trade career, know that there is a place for them there.
O’Rourke initially felt that there was a cultural attitude that tells women they shouldn’t be leaders.
“Boys would disrespect women because they weren’t used to women telling them what to do,” she said. “I’m a shop lead now. They may mess around, but I know they listen.”
In addition to students, faculty and staff at WyoTech can join WOW.
Janelle Ogden, a 2014 WyoTech graduate, is now a tour guide at the school. Learning as a minority gender meant having to “pick and choose your battles,” she said.
“It means laying down boundaries for people,” she said, adding that both men and women at WyoTech are exposed to the value of learning to work with different kinds of people.
Those boundaries are reinforced with training in consent and sexual harassment and a zero-tolerance policy for overstepping those boundaries, Romero said.
“Knock it off or you are kicking rocks,” said Amber McGowan, an instructor in diesel technology/fluid power and electrical, referring to a quick expulsion policy if sexual harassment is discovered.
Even with rules in place, fitting into an environment as a minority group can take some work, she said. That’s why the support from WOW is valuable.
“Stereotypes will always exist. You can either spend all your energy trying to avoid them by being something you’re not — which is a stereotype itself — or you can use them to your advantage,” she said. “It’s OK to like baking, shopping or whatever, as well as tearing engines apart. There are no rules saying otherwise.”
As an instructor, being taken seriously has been fundamental to doing her job as a teacher.
“You start out thinking you have to do at least as good, or better, than your peers to be taken seriously,” McGowan said.
Working with WOW helps some students who think they can’t or shouldn’t be in the trades, she said, adding that it’s OK to ask any questions.
“You can ask me anything and I will walk you through it,” said Nicole Porter, who teaches engine management systems and refrigeration.
“Women in trades in general, we are breaking a lot of ceilings and a lot of stereotypes,” O’Rourke said. “I’m trying to get women outside of the trades to see ‘that’ if I can do it, you can do it, and have one step up toward the industry.”
There has been a change in the industry even in the past 10 years. Now, women are running shops, Romero said.
That is a welcome change for Porter.
“I remember my first (job) application was at a Jiffy Lube,” she said. “When the manager came out he looked at me and said, ‘I’m looking for a technician, not a receptionist.’”
Since then, Romero said, women are finding companies not only accepting, but WyoTech graduates are finding more small and large operations reaching out to women.
“It is an amazing time to be a woman headed out into the trades,” she said.
Kaylana Fratz and Courtney Trent, students cutting fabric and vinyl in a trim and upholstery class, added that they see the reach of WOW extending beyond the female students at WyoTech and beyond the school.
“It’s not just our women students but women faculty, and we’re still here for our guy friends and community, for empowerment for all,” Fratz said.