Women Sit in the Driver's Seat
A gleaming red door opens gracefully. The 12-cm stiletto heel of a black patent leather shoe rests on the asphalt showing the sculpted calf of long, flawless legs, framed by an elegant evening dress with a vertiginous slit that leaves little room for the viewer's imagination. A white woman of surreal beauty leans out and, with a seductive gaze, stares at the picturesque view in front of her, letting her long golden ringlets wave on the roof. She is perfect, just like the automobile she came out of.
She is the prize you will get if you buy that car. She is its ideal accessory. Get it and you will get her too: it is a guarantee.
Does that image seem familiar? I am sure you have seen it a million times before. The mass media are saturated with those pictures. As a result, it is hard to do away with them when the words “woman” and “car” appear in the same sentence. Decades of tacky commercials and women’s objectivization have led to the phoney connotation in the collective imagery of women as accessories for automobiles.
The automobile industry uses the portrayal of sensual, materialistic, and naïve women to sell cars. In its marketing strategy, women are also cunning “car predators”, using their beauty to seduce men behind the wheel.
Yet, automobile entrepreneurs may not know that their narrative of the woman accessory, which so far has seemed quite compelling, could not be further from the reality of the facts (I am referring merely to Western societies).
It is about time, to tell the truth.
Something called Women’s Empowerment
Sure, the road is still long and all uphill. We are only at the beginning of this tortuous journey but already far enough from the starting point to notice surprising results. For about a century now, in the West, the myriad efforts by which women have been striving to free themselves from traditional power structures, secure equal rights, and remove gender-based discrimination by law are giving some positive outcomes. Women are gaining more and more agency. They are no longer confined to their household and are often the breadwinners. Women nowadays even outnumber men in universities: in Europe, at bachelor’s and master’s levels, respectively 54% and 59% of the students are women1. In the United States, about 36% of women aged 25-34 are highly educated compared with about 28% of men that are the same age2. Academic degrees grant women access to those jobs that once belonged only to men. They are true competitors in the job market and yes, even though the gender pay gap is still wide open, they earn enough to afford cars. And cool and expensive ones as well. Because why not.
In sum: women’s empowerment is granting them an ever-larger space in society, as well as increasing purchasing power.
… this does not seem to be entirely understood by the automotive industry, which still has a long way to go to catch up. The relation “male seller - male buyer” is still the driver of its business model.
My dear car salesman, here is news that may be of more concern, however. You may not have realized it yet, but 65 per cent of car purchases are made by women and 85 per cent are influenced by them3.
Yes, you got it right: women buy more cars than men. Yes, women - literally - drive the car market.
It is therefore about time to dismantle the myth.
A Structural Mismatch
My dear car salesman, if I were to ask you bluntly what women look for in a car, what would you answer? Let me guess: aesthetics, luxury, enough space between the front seats for their Gucci purse?
The very irony has it that it is just the reverse. Women are actually more utility-minded while men more image conscious. Women prefer non-luxury brands and mostly care about durability, affordability, reliability, and safety. Men by contrast love to show off in their luxurious sporty cars. They are more drawn to a vehicle’s design, layout and use of technology.
How comes? The reason has socio-historical roots. Namely, patriarchy is the cause. For centuries women have been considered an appendix of men, they have been enclosed in domestic walls, as mothers and devoted wives. They have been kept in the shadow, forced to deny their individual potential as ineluctably dependent on men. Only within a couple of decades of the most recent history, more and more women have started to free themselves from those fixed roles and gained their independence. However, the legacy of such a centuries-long history of repression is still weighing on their shoulders. It is still lingering in people’s mindsets. Hence, women do not perceive yet equality as something given. They have come a long way to sit on that board chair, to stand in that university classroom, to lead that unicorn, to speak out on that parliamentary assembly. They are aware that, just contrary to men, they cannot take for granted where they are standing today. They do not forget the myriad obstacles they have encountered. And definitely also not the countless times they had to prove themselves and justify why they occupy a “man’s position”. Women are also very conscious about the value of money they earn, of the sacrifices and perseverance it took them to get it. Therefore, they spend it much more carefully. They thoroughly inform themselves and take into account all the pros and cons of a certain product before investing their valued earnings in it. This explains why women mostly do not care to show off their fancy cars, but rather they want to make sure they can accompany them a long way throughout their journey of independence.
But that is not the only reason why women’s buying cycle takes about 75 days while men’s is about 604. The purchasing process for women is considerably longer than men’s also because only 38% of women feel confident about buying a car, compared to 58% of men5. Women’s insecurity mainly comes from the fact that they do not feel represented in the automobile industry, which is largely male-dominated. Women make up about half of the labor force but only a quarter of the automotive manufacturing workforce6. The lack of female employees leaves women buyers in the hands of men sellers, who cannot get rid of the backwards selling paradigm I already mentioned above - “male-seller - male-buyer”. These latter ones are simply not capable of understanding women’s needs and wants and cannot avoid patronizing them due to biases and stereotypes throughout the whole selling process.
And now the question is: why are there so few women in the automotive industry?
Too much focus on “cultural fit” - due to unconscious biases, people tend to hire people like them, prejudging others based on their appearance and gender. With such a minority of women in the car industry, this trend continues to persist.
Women are often not given the same development opportunities as their male colleagues - They do not get quickly promoted as men do but must occupy many different positions with little room to acquire relevant skills required for top positions. In other words, women must walk on every step of a long ladder before taking up a leading role. Which is exhausting and often demotivating.
Lack of work-life balance - the automotive industry is made “by men - for men”. Its structure and culture do not take into account the different needs that women have. Well, for instance, how to expect a mother to keep up with the same busy schedule, travel and extra time meetings of a single man?7
As a consequence, many women working in the automobile industry wish to change jobs. They are unsatisfied with their roles, feel discriminated against and just uncomfortable at their workplace. The crushing predominance of men in the sector inevitably precludes an open and inclusive dialogue with women. Women within the industry do not have an active voice, they need to scream to be heard. According to recent research conducted by Deloitte, nearly half of the surveyed women said they would move to a different industry if they were to start their career today, with a lack of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion among the top three reasons to leave8.
So what can be done to adjust the automotive market to a world of reality where women are the key decision-makers when it comes to buying cars?
Introduce a proper DE&I strategy - it is ESSENTIAL!
Hire people of all genders, sexual orientations, ethnicity, age and ability - namely, a diverse workforce able to match the needs and wants of each and every buyer
Support talent and not gender - highly skilled women, or just women open and determined to learn and contribute to making your company grow must be seriously taken into consideration and given EXACTLY the same opportunities as men presenting the same skills!
Give women a real voice to express their needs and concerns
Introduce mandatory training to sensitize men about unconscious biases; training that will enable them to understand and communicate better with their female colleagues and avoid pitfalls when selling cars to women
Knowing not guessing - avoid stereotyping by asking your clients questions about themselves, their lives and how they will use the car
Last but not least: adjust the language and image of your company - avoid presenting women as ‘jewellery’ or a “prize”!
Just a final note for you, my dear car salesman. You are probably wondering why all this is relevant to you. You must be thinking that this has nothing to do with you. Your selling numbers continue to rise. Your employees seem very happy. Your female employees do not complain. Your company is simply doing great. So why bother with this "women issue"? As straightforward as it might sound, it is not because you think you are doing it right that you are actually doing it right. The risky fractures hidden beneath the ice are often difficult to notice at first glance. What I want to point out is that there is always a dichotomy between the perception of the facts and the reality of the facts. Hence, it is crucial to acknowledge this and monitor what the implications are. The fact that your employees do not complain does not imply that they are happy and satisfied. Did you ever bother asking them? Did you ever wonder what kind of health issue Anna had when she took a couple of months off? Did you ever consider if that one time that a client did not come back to you to conclude the vehicle purchase was not because she/he/they did not care enough? A balanced dose of self-criticism and reflection on one’s behavior is not a sign of weakness. To be honest, it is quite the opposite. Self-confidence is a great skill that brings you far in life, but an overdose of it is very dangerous.
We are living in a rapidly transforming time, where transparency, authenticity, and open-mindedness are becoming increasingly imperative for a company to survive. The new generations are more and more obstinate about this. They do not compromise when it comes to respecting fundamental values, inclusion and diversity in the workplace. And do not forget that women continue to walk down the road of empowerment. And they have no intention of stopping, regardless of which other perilous slopes are awaiting them. If you do not think ahead and prepare to adapt to these changes, you will not have a chance to survive. Just as Charles Darwin put it some time ago:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Not convinced yet or are you just interested in learning more? I 💜 challenging conversations!