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Why automakers care about women

Published: September 3, 2014

Why automakers care about women

By Jill Ciminillo, Auto Matters Editor

DETROIT -- I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I've never had a bad car-buying experience.

But many women do. Sales guys talk down to us and ignore us. They show us "pretty" colors, and steer us away from manual transmissions. And sometimes, rather blatantly, they lie to us.

Well, ladies, I'm pleased to say, those days are fading into the sunset.

And it's not because automakers and dealers have finally realized that women are people, too. Nope, it's because we control the purse strings.

During its annual Ford Trends Conference in June, Ford Motor Co. explored trends that the auto industry neither influences nor controls. This year, one of the hottest topics at the conference: It is clear that a feminine age is emerging.

As Chantel Lenard, US Marketing Director for Ford Motor Co., set the stage for the "Female Frontier" session, she rattled off a series of stats that were a bit mind boggling:

  • More than 80 percent of household purchases are controlled by a woman in the United States.
  • Women control $20 trillion of consumer spending. In five years, that number is estimated to go up to $28 trillion.
  • 67 percent of US companies have women in senior management positions.
  • More women are enrolling in college -- and graduating -- than men.
  • There are more single people in the world than married couples.
  • There are 172 women on the "billionaires list" in 2014, with 42 women being added in the past year.
  • There are 2 million stay-at-home dads.

This clearly reflects a societal shift that has left both men and women struggling with traditional versus emerging roles.

One of the panelists, Jenna Wolfe, news correspondent for NBC Today, was raised outside of the US and has always struggled with the gender roles imposed on her once she moved here in high school.

From being a student athlete to being one of the first female sports reporters, she pretty much decided to ignore those gender roles.

"It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be allowed to do something that someone else would be able to do," she said.

But that didn't make it easy.

She's been blocked from locker rooms when all her male counterparts were given first access for athlete interviews. And she's crawled on floors to get in front of the male journalist mob just to get the interview.

But she didn't give up as she aggressively -- and successfully -- found a way to get the story.

Another panelist, Jennifer Senior, contributing editor to New York Magazine and author of "All Joy, No Fun," pointed out that women are waiting longer to get married and have a family. In fact, the average age women are now having their first child is 30.3.

This means that women are likely taking leave from a good job when they decide to start a family. Which then opens up the conversation about gender roles.

Who is the primary parent? And how do you divvy up household chores fairly?

It is this new struggle, then, is what is now helping to define the trend of the feminine age. Since, according to Senior, 4 out of 10 women are the primary bread winners, this begins to account for the 2 million stay-at-home dads and the $20 trillion of consumer spending that Lenard cites.

The lone male panelist, John Gerzema, author of "Athena Doctrine," has done research in 26 cities around the world and takes a more global view of the emerging feminine trend.

As he delved into what people think are good qualities for leaders, he discovered a fundamental shift. In today's world: Aggression and pride (more male-centric qualities) are perceived as less valuable traits than loyalty, collaboration and patience (more female-centric qualities).

I'm going to grossly oversimplify Gerzema's findings, but the gist of what he discovered is that two-thirds of the world believe the world would be a better place if men thought like women.

With more women in a position of power and the shift toward a more nuanced leadership that includes both masculine and feminine attributes, it's easy to see how this societal shift is occurring.

But how does all this relate to the auto industry?

It all goes back to the money and the very simple conclusion that if you want to get a man's money, you've got to go through the woman first. Well, at least 80 percent of the time you do.

So, as Lenard points out, in order to accomplish this, the auto industry needs to understand what a woman wants and how she's going to shop for a new car.

Generally, men are more interested in features, technology and innovation. But women are looking at the car within the narrative of their lives. They want to see it in context and more often than not, it will provide a solution to a problem.

A prime example of the differences in how men and women look at a car is with power ratings. Men look will look up horsepower and torque numbers and stare at 0-to-60 mph times so that these numbers can be compared to competitors. Women simply want to know that the vehicle will have enough get-up-and-go in order to pass on the highway.

Looking at the problems women have, Ford has implemented some interesting solutions in their vehicles. She often walks up to the vehicle with her hands full? What about a kick liftgate? She's shorter than a man and has a hard time checking blind spots? What about a rearview camera and blind spot monitoring?

The interesting thing is that as they provide the solutions women want, they're also creating the innovations and technology that men want.

Win. Win.

Oh, and probably the most important reason why automakers care about women these days? As Lenard pointed out at the beginning of the panel: There are now more female drivers than male ones.