When Lori Tyler walked into her diesel technology shop class, she unclipped the orange flower in her hair, removed her gold hoop earrings and tied back her blond hair.
The 37-year-old is one of only two women among 42 students enrolled in Eastern Idaho Technical College's diesel and auto technology program. Chrystal Docken, 25, is the other.
Tyler and Docken are among a growing number of women who are breaking the mold. Although women are proving they can handle mechanical jobs as well or better than their male counterparts, their pay still lags behind men performing the same jobs.
Docken has been interested in mechanics since she was 7 years old. Teaching, nursing and other traditionally female occupations never captured her interest. "I like getting my hands dirty," Docken says.
The U.S. Department of Labor says about 3,000 women were working as diesel mechanics nationwide in 2009, the latest year for which data are available. About 14,000 women were working as automotive service technicians. There were 18,000 female welders and fewer than 1,000 female small-engine mechanics.
Of the 25 students enrolled in Eastern Idaho Tech's welding program, only one is female. Females working in welding, soldering and brazing accounted for roughly 4 percent of the field nationwide in 2009. By comparison, female diesel engine specialists made up only 0.8 percent of the field.
The Idaho Department of Labor does not keep comparable statistics, but spokesman Will Jenson says manual labor jobs always have been dominated by men. "Most occupations with more women than men are nonstrenuous jobs," Jenson says. Female-dominated jobs in 2011 included insurance and finance representatives, real estate agents, educators and health care workers, he says.
In working to become a mechanic, Tyler is following a dream. Before going back to school, she was a sales clerk at Walmart.
"It's a perfect fit for me, and I'm so excited to do this after so many years," Tyler says.
Tyler wants to set an example for her 14-year-old daughter, Katherine, who is confined to a wheelchair. "My daughter has spina bifida, so how can I be an example to her if I don't follow my dreams?" Tyler says. "She will have more limitations than I can ever imagine. So, yes, it's a male-dominated field - but I'm not worried about it."
Instructor Don Martin has taught in EITC's diesel mechanics program for nearly five years. Tyler and Docken are his students. He says women in his classes not only have proved they can do the job, but often do it better than the men. Women have more patience in the diagnostic and technical aspects of the job than some male students do, he says.
"I've never had to second-guess any of the girls," Martin says. "I've had to talk to the guys, but I've never had to talk to any of my girls about getting work done."
Yet women in the field still can expect to be paid less than their male counterparts - especially in Idaho. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, in 2011, the average median weekly pay for women is about 78.5 percent of what men are paid for performing the same jobs. Nationwide, women on average are paid 82.2 percent of what men make in a week, Jenson says.
The median pay in 2010 for diesel service technicians and mechanics was $19.64 per hour, or $40,850 per year. The median pay for automotive service technicians and mechanics was $17.21 per hour, or $35,790 per year.
Wilma Scott, who teaches workplace skills in Eastern Idaho Tech's auto and diesel program, says women students must work harder than their male counterparts.
"Guys are so accepted in this industry," Scott says. "When the girls go out to apply to these jobs, they really have to prove that they can do the job."
Tyler knows how it feels when a man doubts her mechanical skills.
"If I am having a hard time doing something, the guy will come over and say 'Oh, let me do it,' but then he can't get it either," she says. "So, I think then they realize it's not just me."
Scott, who has been working in the EITC program for 18 years, says all of the women who have come through it have found jobs in area diesel shops. Docken was hired as a technician at Kenworth Sales Co., a local semitrailer-truck dealer.
The diesel and auto program averages about two women students a year, Scott says, while one or two women enroll in the welding program each year.
Martin remains an advocate for women joining the auto and diesel mechanics industry.
"We will be a better profession if we have more women," Martin says.
Ruth Brown: (208) email@example.com Twitter: @ruthbrown1.
WOMEN MOVE UP IN ANIMAL CARE
When Katherine Shoemaker graduated from Louisiana State University's veterinary school in 1987, women were approaching half of all enrolled veterinary students.
Today, women represent the majority of veterinary students and will soon dominate the veterinarian services field.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, women were barred from even enrolling in veterinary school 50 years ago because of their gender. Today, women represent 50 percent of veterinarians and 80 percent of those enrolled in veterinary schools.
"I think a lot of it is that in the inception of veterinary medicine, even back in the 1800s, it was basically for farm animals," Shoemaker says. "So, it took a certain amount of brawn. Now we have safe and effective sedatives and ways to manage large animals so that brawn becomes less of an issue."
But men still hold an advantage in pay. According to the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, female veterinarians nationwide are paid about 80 percent of what their male counterparts make.
"(It's frustrating because) we do the same work," Shoemaker says. "We do a lot of lifting,. We work the same hours."
Shoemaker thinks the disparity is "just a fact of life."
Jen Mathewson: (208) 542-6751, firstname.lastname@example.org