A Driven Worker: Student Auto Mechanic Breaks Barriers


OIL CHANGE — Palo Alto High School senior Sophie Yang pops the hood of the car at Paly’s auto shop to measure the amount of oil in the car. “I would change the filter and then I would add in the oil and then I would top off all their coolant, brake fluid [and] power steering,” Yang said. Photo: Rahul Shetty

Tire checks and oil changes are just the beginning of Palo Alto High School senior Sophie Yang’s mechanics repertoire.
These are only some of the skills she learned after spending a year working at a Palo Alto auto shop (Verde is withholding the name of the shop) — however, her time at the shop wasn’t only filled with joy, Yang said: Both customers and even her co-workers doubted her ability to work as a mechanic.
During a recent visit to the Palo Alto High School auto shop (not the professional garage she worked at), it was clear Yang knew her way around an engine.
According to Yang, she was initially hired because her demographic as a female surprised the owner.
“He actually pretty much called me back more out of curiosity rather than thinking that I [would] actually get the job,” Yang said.

At first, Yang’s intentions were to make money on the side.

“He actually pretty much called me back more out of curiosity rather than thinking that I [would] actually get the job.

— Sophie Yang, senior

“I just was looking for a job because I want to make a little extra money,” Yang said. “But I also wanted to get a job that would pay a lot and that I felt like, would be worth it.”
Working in the shop, Yang learned unique skills but faced obstacles as the first and only female employee. In the shop, it’s policy to ask for customers’ phone numbers to contact them when work is complete. But, even this policy rule had its challenges for Yang.
“I’d say 60% of the time when it was a couple that came into the shop, the man would be like, ‘No, you can get my girlfriend’s phone number’ or ‘No, you can get my wife’s phone number,’” Yang said.
Unlike her male counterparts, Yang said customers doubted her ability to operate and repair cars.
“Even though we’re in the Bay Area, which is a super liberal and accepting area, people do have a lot of internalized misogyny,” Yang said. “I think a lot of people don’t notice that they have this internalized sexism.”
While frustrating, Yang said that the questioning of customers did not keep her from feeling confident in her abilities.
“I was hired to work here, I am competent,” Yang said. “This is my job. I work on 70 cars a day.”

“This is my job. I work on 70 cars a day.

— Sophie Yang, senior

After working to prove her worth to her co-workers, they soon realized that as a female employee, Yang brought a unique perspective and skillset.
Not only was she the one to create the shop’s emergency plan — fire hazard escape routes and other paperwork required by the government — but she was also the person customers turned to when they did not know what was being done to their car.
She said she also entertained the children of customers and explained how their car was being fixed.
“My boss ended up realizing if a kid likes coming to our shop, usually the parent will return and usually you get more loyal customers,” Yang said.
Reflecting back on the time that she worked at the auto shop, Yang said she can think of many great memories she made and skills she learned, but ultimately she said she feels like her journey toward gaining the trust of her coworkers and customers was the most valuable thing she learned.
“[For] a lot of customers really, I could see their attitude changing towards me,” Yang said. “The most rewarding part of the job was to see people starting to respect me, at least in the industry.”