Girl power: Apprentice painter Sam Conley works for all-female company Ms Fix. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
No separate toilet for females, and the risk that a woman might quit if she got married and had babies were among the reasons cited by business owners for not hiring a female apprentice.
A survey of 500 workshops by the Institute of Automotive Mechanical Engineers (IAME) found swearing by male staff was another excuse for not training young women.
But the institute's chief executive, Peter Blanshard, has had enough of excuses. With women making up just 2 per cent of car workshop staff, he thinks it is time for the industry to train more girls to fill a skills shortage, instead of hiring overseas staff on 457 visas.
The NSW Women's Agency is funding a project by the institute to make car workshops female-friendly. The first step is overcoming misconceptions uncovered by the survey.
''Employers are worried about what colloquial language is appropriate. But I don't think the lady will fall down and suck her thumb if they let fly with a few expletives,'' Mr Blanshard said.
One business owner said they were concerned that by the time an 18-year-old woman finished an apprenticeship, she would be ready to get married, so why should he spend the money on training. ''We said, 'Stop!'
''A lot of business owners said they wouldn't put a woman on because the shop wasn't suitable. We asked, 'What's wrong with your shop?' They couldn't tell us.''
The institute will go into workshops to check they are ready for a female apprentice, and then provide mentoring. Mr Blanshard said it was an ''icebreaker'' for employers.
''If the owner wants a female apprentice, we talk to the guys on the shop floor, read them the riot act. The old-school days of the apprentice and the pranks - bury it. We will give them a tune up.''
The reality of the modern car workshop meant the industry needed people who could navigate a computer and had diagnostic skills, not grease monkeys, he said.
The NSW government will spend $200,000 on programs to overcome some of the biggest stumbling blocks to female participation.
Families Minister Pru Goward said 70 per cent of girls did not go on to university after finishing high school, and opening up trade apprenticeships would ''help these young women realise they can do other things beyond those roles traditionally reserved for women''.
The Master Builders Association will run a mentoring program for female building apprentices in January. The head of the association, Brian Seidler, says parents often see construction as a thuggish environment.
''It's convincing fathers that their daughters should go into the industry,'' he said.
Renovation, high-end furniture manufacture, and family businesses would be targeted to train young women.
Sam Conley, 19, had always thought she would become a hairdresser, until a stint in a salon revealed it wasn't just ''playing with hair all day''. She found she didn't like the work.
Her mother suggested she try a pre-apprenticeship course for women wanting to enter the construction industry.
The course covered bricklaying, carpentry and painting. Some of it was hard physical work, but Ms Conley said this did not deter her. ''The first job I did was in North Sydney. It was a big job with heaps of tradies coming in, they were all guys … no problems at all,'' she says.
She now has a painting apprenticeship with Ms Fix, an all-female business.