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Tired of being laughed out of automotive classes, these girls are fighting back

Athena Racing gives girls the tools they need to overcome stereotypes, bullying and harassment.
For girls who love cars from an early age, programs like Athena Racing can be game-changing.
For girls who love cars from an early age, programs like Athena Racing can be game-changing.Courtesy of Athena Racing
/ Source: TODAY

Kristen Finley fell in love with cars as a kid, working by her dad’s side in the garage. When she started high school, Finley was thrilled to see an auto tech program with a full shop as a class offering, and she signed up immediately.

Not everyone in her class was happy to see a female join their ranks, though.

“When I was in the shop, a group of boys would crowd around me and demand to know if I knew what I was doing,” Finley told TODAY Parents.

By the time she reached her senior year, every time Finley raised her hand or helped the teacher diagnose a vehicle issue, the boys would call her names or get in her space while she was working on a car, taunting her. Even worse, some of her female classmates piled on, accusing her of taking the class to call attention to herself.

“I thought I could ignore it and it would stop, but it didn’t,” she said. “I was afraid that if I reported the harassment to the teacher, he wouldn’t believe me or would think I was weak. I didn’t want to take the risk.”

As a teenager in high school, Kristen Finley faced harassment and ridicule in her auto tech class.Courtesy of Kristen Finley

Ford Motor Co. offered her an internship, but two weeks before she graduated, some of her classmates spread rumors that Finley was sleeping with the teacher to get into the program. The harassment was taking a toll on Finley, and she found herself dreading the class she once loved.

She quit, giving up her internship and removing herself from the class.

Now 24, Finley is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media studies at California State University, Monterey Bay, and working with Athena Racing, a new racing and development team for high school girls in San Diego, California. Loxley Browne, the founder of Athena Racing, announced the inaugural 2019-20 team of teen girls in late October. She said her goal is to build young women up so they won’t be subjected to the same kind of sexism and bullying that Finley experienced.

“When you are knocked down so many times, it becomes easy to doubt yourself,” Finley told TODAY Parents. “I used to love going to auto tech class, yet I would walk in thinking, ‘I can’t raise my hand. I can’t turn a wrench without harassment.’”

Working with experts in mechanics and driving gives the Athena Racing team members an advantage that will expand their careers.Courtesy of Athena Racing

Dozens of high school sophomores, juniors and seniors completed a rigorous Athena Racing application process comparable to applying to a major university. Those who were shortlisted for tryouts interviewed with professional driver Hannah Grisham and San Diego State University Aztec Racing President Dani Phan. They also participated in track “chalk talk”— training about the track, generally using illustrations — with off-road pro driver Chris Nunes. Then they had a chance to race against the clock in time trials on the K1 Carlsbad kart track.

The 10 chosen participants attend their regular high school classes during the week and also complete an hour of study on racing-related topics and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects each day.

Life as a teenager is a blur for the girls who tried out for the inaugural 2019-20 Athena Racing team.Courtesy of Athena Racing

Other automotive programs exist for high school girls across the country, such as the all-girls automotive technology program at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and another that is in the planning stages in Livingston, Louisiana. What makes Athena Racing special, Browne said, is its emphasis on teaching girls how to be poised, articulate, polished professionals on and off the track — a powerful antidote to bullying and mistreatment.

“I want (these girls) to have a safe environment to learn,” Browne said. “They’re the coolest, smartest young ladies you can possibly find.”

She said she still sees young women fighting against stereotypes.

One of the new Athena Racing team members, Marissa Olivares, had a kind and encouraging teacher for her auto tech class. That teacher even helped her to find a job in the industry. But once she started the job and expressed her passion for being in the shop, she was told she wasn’t strong enough.

Marissa Olivares loves getting her hands dirty and improving her skills in Athena Racing's intensive one-year extracurricular program.Courtesy of Athena Racing

“I’ve been told I should give up on the automotive field by boys, co-workers and random customers,” Olivares said. “Female customers would question and test my intelligence just because I was a girl, which gave me an even worse feeling than having a man question my ability.”

Browne said she wants these girls to grow and learn in a place where there isn’t any bullying, and they’re surrounded by a “sisterhood” of like-minded women who want them to succeed. That in itself is so important, said Finley, noting that if she had that kind of support when she was in high school, she wouldn’t have backed away. In fact, she wishes she had known back then what she knows now.

Marissa Olivares loves learning everything she can about working on cars as an Athena Racing team member.Courtesy of Athena Racing

“Some women just like cars because cars are awesome, and that should be understood and accepted,” Finley said. “I think that stigma is taught, and once it’s no longer taught, we can all move on.”

Browne couldn’t agree more.

“Cars don’t know if you’re a man or woman,” she said. “So why does this turn into a boys’ group?”

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