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Last month, while attending the Canadian International AutoShow, my boyfriend and I fell into a conversation about women and cars.
It’s not an unusual topic for me. I’m Stephanie Chan, the first female editor of Globe Drive, The Globe’s automotive section, and I’m all too aware of my gender’s role, or lack thereof, in the car industry.
That lack of presence is (obviously) not because we don’t buy and drive cars. According to one study, women make up almost half of car buyers in Canada. They also influence 80 per cent of vehicle purchase decisions. And yet, cars still seem like a man’s world.
So if we’re such big buyers, why aren’t there more car ads geared toward us? Why aren’t there more female salespeople in dealerships and women who own those dealerships? And, for that matter, why weren’t there more women at that auto show? (From where I was, at least, it looked like most of the attendees were men.)
Of course, exclusion of women in the car world is nothing new. Growing up, I never got the impression cars were something I should be interested in. I liked them for the purpose they served and, eventually, the freedom they gave me, but I didn’t have a lot of opinions about how quickly a car could go from 0 to 60.
Mostly, I look back and realize that there weren’t many images of cars that seemed inviting to me. Car ads on television always featured stylish men revving pointlessly down an empty street or harried moms hustling kids to soccer practice. Neither of those narratives applied, or appealed, to me.
As it turns out, the ads I grew up watching a decade ago were nowhere near the worst of it. As Libby Copeland writes in Slate: “The idea that women’s interest in cars is a lark, more style than substance, has its roots in the earliest automotive advertising. During the first decade of the 1900s, automakers pitched gas cars to men and electric cars to women, on the theory that electric cars – quieter and slower, too heavy to climb hills, and with shorter range – were more appropriate for feminine sensibilities. Anderson Electric Car Company’s Detroit Model may not have run so well, but as the company told its male consumers, it was ideal for the ‘well-bred’ wife, helping her ‘preserve her toilet immaculate, her coiffure intact.’”
But thankfully, times, they do change, and Copeland goes on to note that “when automakers fail now it’s much more subtle, a matter of the men who predominate in most companies failing to anticipate the needs of female consumers.”
Of course, she’s right. Despite the fact that women are major car buyers, men still dominate the industry. The latest available data from 2016 shows that women accounted for just under 20 per cent of employees in motor vehicle manufacturing and just under 14 per cent of automotive repair and maintenance workers.
It’s the same story at the top. Globally, only 8 per cent of executives in the top 20 motor vehicle and parts companies on the Fortune Global 500 list were women in 2018. In North America, there are just two women at the head of a vehicle brand – Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors Company, and Laura Schwab, president of Aston Martin of the Americas. In Canada, there are none.
Even the journalists who cover cars are mostly men. Of the hundred or so members of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada, only 11 are women, and maybe the way they’re treated has something to do with that. From being mistaken for a plus-one at an automotive event to putting up with crude comments about their bodies, female automotive journalists are often subjected to inappropriate behaviour while doing their jobs (as can be the case, as we all know, in other male-dominated industries too).
But, having said all that, it’s not all bad news. There are positive signs that the industry is moving in the right direction. There’s more coverage of the gender imbalance than ever before. GM became the first automaker last year to have a board where women outnumbered men. During this year’s Super Bowl, some car ads made concerted efforts to present women as empowered – this Toyota Highlander spot comes to mind. In Canada, the AJAC appointed its first female president last year, and female members also won 40 per cent of the organization’s journalism awards in 2019.
The industry’s problem is one of perception, and it’ll persist as long as young women can’t see themselves reflected in the automotive roles around them. And if the automotive industry truly wants to cater to half their market, it makes a lot of sense for us to be represented at every stage of the car journey.
What else we’re thinking about:
I’ve been working on a new video series exploring the future of transportation, and in the process of researching, I found myself falling into the rabbit hole of space travel. Did you know that we found molecular oxygen in another galaxy for the first time last month? Did you hear about the Japanese billionaire who bought out every seat on SpaceX’s first private commercial flight to the moon? And how he made an open call for a female companion to join him? All of this is even more fascinating because I love reading space operas more than any other genre of literature. If you’re looking for some recommendations, I suggest Linesman by S.K. Dunstall, Skyward by Brandon Sanderson and The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series from Nathan Lowell.
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