Sandra is creating new opportunities for economic and social independence for Nigerian women by helping them join professions traditionally dominated by men, first by building a national network of auto mechanic training programs.
The New Idea
Challenging the stereotypes that limit women and minority groups to low-paying, menial jobs, Sandra is tackling an area traditionally reserved for men – auto repair. Her goal is to promote sustainable positive change in the socioeconomic circumstances of the poor and vulnerable people in Nigeria by demonstrating their ability to master a difficult skill, simultaneously securing their economic future and building their self-esteem. She breaks this stereotype by training successful female mechanics across the nation, many of whom come from especially poor backgrounds. She helps her trainees diagnose and fix mechanical problems with a professional touch, and as they master her techniques, she helps them start garages of their own. A career in car maintenance enables women to secure a stable stream of income and establishes them as respected, valuable members in their communities. Sandra crafts her work to open the way for women to succeed not only in auto maintenance, but in dozens of other occupations traditionally dominated by males.
For most Nigerian women, opportunities for meaningful employment are scarce. Educated women have made significant progress in entering the labor force, but their less-privileged peers remain unemployed at much higher rates. Lack of opportunity for training and apprenticeship, combined with discrimination, exclude women of limited formal education—the majority of the female population—from promising careers. The result is severely limited opportunities for women to earn their own money, increase their self-confidence and start their own small businesses.
Blue-collar professions in particular have tended to discourage and discriminate against women, despite the national shortage of trained workers in these trades. Very few women are able to forge careers as carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, electricians, and other skilled laborers. Moreover, there are no systemic efforts underway to recruit women to these types of work. Many programs teach women vocational skills, but do not challenge the traditional division of labor; preparing women for work such as sewing and washing. The labor market would benefit from an infusion of committed, well-trained professionals in blue-collar careers, but the potential of many women ready to serve, remains untapped.
These problems persist and are compounded by the perception that women’s work is not as valuable as men’s work. For the most part, women lack the opportunity and the confidence to prove this perception wrong; to prove themselves as capable and prodictive. They sell vegetables at market, assist with office work, and care for children; performing these tasks with great skill. However, these traditional roles do not showcase women as skilled and capable laborers ready to lead the market workforce. As Nigerian girls grow up, they will define their career aspirations by what they see achieved by their mothers’ generation.
To dispel the notion that women cannot succeed in traditionally male jobs, Sandra trains female auto mechanics in her program, the Lady Mechanic Initiative. She offers a three-and-a-half-year course to women of all backgrounds, drawing several recruits from her partnership with a national organization for former sex workers and child laborers. Her course teaches students the fundamental skills of diagnosis and repair, and how to build customer loyalty through friendly and efficient service.
Sandra also emphasizes ethics in her trainings, uniting her trainees in the mission to establish a reputation of quality workmanship for women mechanics. Where male mechanics have earned a reputation for inflated prices and shoddy workmanship, Sandra’s workers maintain an image of professionalism and value customer care. Her approach has attracted dozens of repeat customers to her garage and those of her students.
When trainees enter the Lady Mechanic Initiative, they receive overalls, a starter toolkit, and a small stipend. They also receive a comprehensive, fully illustrated diagnostic guide designed by Sandra herself. Sandra finds accommodations near the garage for the trainees whose homes are far away, and arranges factory internships to show her apprentices how cars are first put together. As graduates leave the program, Sandra arranges for small loans and technical support to help them start their own businesses.
Putting a public face on her efforts for empowerment, Sandra and her apprentices periodically take to the streets of Lagos, introducing the Lady Mechanic Initiative from the beds of trucks that cruise through town. Their approach is anything but dull or quiet: the novice mechanics are known to shout slogans like “Ladies, get ready! The Lady Mechanics Storm!” into loudspeakers on the course of their parade. Sandra backs up this outreach effort with the fanfare of brass bands, and offers free T-shirts for the first 50 women to sign up for her short auto safety course. She uses these public appearances to demonstrate that women can perform blue-collar jobs with pride and skill to match any man.
Now that her original training program has grown stable and strong, Sandra has begun introducing her methods to new populations across Nigeria. She appeals to the best mechanic workshops—currently male-run, of course—in each of the country’s 36 states, offering them small financial incentives to take in women. Garage owners have proven willing, even eager, to accept trainees through the Lady Mechanic initiative. Several already knew and respected the initiative by the time they were contacted. Sandra also plans to start franchise garages under the umbrella of the initiative and has recently secured a garage site in Abuja from the Nigerian government. As the network of participating garages grows, Sandra or a representative from her technical team will visit periodically to monitor progress and help each garage maintain the high standards of the original.
Sandra helps even women who will never become mechanics to learn more about cars and auto safety. Basic mechanical skills and knowledge become vital along some lawless stretches of highway where breakdowns and flat tires can lead to robbery, harassment, or even rape. Sandra gives free lessons through radio and television, hosting a weekly call-in program along with the chief executive of Sandez car care. With invited experts, they offer practical information on topics such as road safety, police intervention, and highway codes. Sandra and her apprentices also offer car safety classes to several businesses, creating a revenue stream to help cover operating costs and support the initiative’s growth and expansion.
Sandra’s dream of becoming an auto mechanic took shape from stories her father told of the women he had seen repairing cars during his travels in the United States. Sandra decided that if American women fixed cars with such skill and pride, then Nigerian women could do the same. Her mind made up, she convinced her father to enroll her in a workshop for mechanics. After her high school let out every afternoon, she would go to the garage and stay there until it closed.
As the only girl in the workshop, she was ridiculed by her male classmates at the shop, and even by little children who saw her walking home in her overalls. She forged ahead despite insults and jibes, enrolling at the Auchi Polytechnic in 1989 to study mechanical engineering. Again, she found that she was the only female in the class. After graduating from the program in 1991 as the first Nigerian woman to be certified as an auto-mechanical engineer, Sandra found jobs with the state-owned Bendel Transport Service and the Nigerian Railway Corporation. As soon as she could, Sandra opened her own garage in Lagos, established a solid customer base and began to bring other women into her profession.