Women and Cars: a long-standing history

For many years now, automakers have been trying to attract women; they do this by expanding their product offers and developing their designs, those range between rounded design, colour variations, sales of electric cars and many more. In order to decrypt the special relationship women have with this traditionally male sector, Yoann Demoli, PhD in Sociology, specialist in automotive offers closer look. (1)

Do women and men have the same look on cars?

When we asked if they enjoy driving, women respond twice as often as men that they do not like to drive. If getting older makes men less likely to enjoy getting behind the wheel, it does not seem like a decisive factor for women: their dislike of driving seems independent from the age, however, men and women mostly say that they love to drive (75%).

Men and women have different uses of cars. Looking at the indicator of the distance travelled by each gender, we see that men drive about 20% more than women on average. Such differences are found between all individuals, even if their course or their demographics characteristics are very different.

Given the very different qualities of men and women’s car fleet, I think that men and women differently weigh what they can expect from a car (comfort object, subject of achievement, aesthetic object or utility object).

The story that connects women and cars underwent many changes, can you tell us more? How has that story changed?

I would classify the link between women and cars in five different periods over the history.

1. Motoring, traditionally a male sector

It is known and it is obvious that cars are on the men side. Originally conceived as a performance tool by engineers, cars became an exploit machine for men. However, women, since the invention of the automobile, did not have a passive role. Experts often speak about the important role of pioneer women manufacturers. Bertha Benz is mentioned frequently in the history of cars. While her husband worked in the workshop of one of the first vehicles with internal combustion engines, she decided to use the prototype to take her children to see their grand- mother, a few tens of kilometres away: this was the first time the car was used for personal reasons, a private visit, for sociability. Initially, Bertha wanted to prove that the invention of her husband could have some autonomy and was ready to enter into production. While men thought about race, women thought about family practice: the history of the car, it is also the history of women drivers and their innovations. This is the pioneers phase in the shadow of men, and often their husbands.


2. Driving: a privilege of the middle class women in the late 19th century

With the diffusion (still low) of cars during the nice time, the first women drivers appeared, if they are mostly passengers, they can also take the wheel. Historians (cf. Alexander Buisseret) have correctly described the motoring pioneers, including two names, the Duchess of Uzes, the first woman to have her driver’s certificate (it is also the source of a law passed in 1907 for the wife to have her own salary) and Camille du Gast, the first woman to drive racing cars. If women begin to take the wheel, they have specific characteristics: they are women belonging to the middle class or the upper middle class. As a result, there are women who get access to the mobility provided by cars, a phenomenon produced by the mass distribution of the bicycle. This is the distinctive phase of cars in women: having and driving a car is marginal and limited to women of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.

3. From 1945 women take over the wheel

The analysis of the post-1945 period remains. This is the time when women begin to socialize with driving. Until the 1970s, the rate of license detention of women converges to that of men (without equalizing it). Women born during the baby boom, like their male counterparts, are more and more numerous to get their license; except that they pass the license later than men and that the social gradient is stronger for women than for men. (For men, the license rate of workers is certainly lower than the one of executives, but for women, between workers and executives, the differences are much higher). This is the time of mass socialization of women to drive.

4. Women work and drive their own car

The fourth phase is the acquisition of own car: the multi-equipment took off in the 1970s and allowed women to drive more frequently on a daily basis. Such developments are, related to the dynamics of employed women: more and more women take the wheel as more and more women are employed. This is less true for men: the possession a car for men since 1970 is less related to the activity (more and more retired people or students, have their own vehicle).

5. Mass motorization of women

Women born in the late 1970s began to have their ownership rates closer to men; I think that as young women were encouraged by their mother to get degrees, they performed better than their male counterparts; they were strongly encouraged to take the wheel. Generations of women who have experienced an incomplete car broadcast at the time, have particularly valued the access to driving for their daughters. This is the mass motorization phase of women.

The female population is obviously not homogeneous, have you started in your research, to distinguish the different purpose in which women use car for?

We find among women the social logics that structure the car usage in the society. I have focused my interest on a strange variable, the vehicle weight. What we see is that with comparable socio-professional category, the weight of women cars is less than that of men, which hardly seems surprising. But when comparing women cars, we see a social gradient weight quite dramatic: on average, executives’ women cars are heavier than their counterparts’ in intermediate professions and themselves heavier as those of workers… For both men and women, the car seems to be a social marker. Concerning social marker, I studied the ownership group of 4×4, and among this group, I identified a significant proportion of women – about 30%. Women can also find the logic of conspicuous consumption around the car. The use of cars is different in different social groups. If more women executives get driving licenses, they use their cars less than their working counterparts. If this is mainly a result of the distance from home to work, it does not explain everything.

Can you tell us about your investigation of automobile behavior of men and women results?

In our male-dominated society, women are left out of the most advanced technological objects. In an airliner, men are in charge of the dashboard, while the women are dedicated to the care of passengers in male worlds that have opened to women, the most sophisticated tools are often in the hands of women (Air Force, intervention brigades of police etc…). However, the car had a mass that made it a particularly interesting gender subject.

How do women take ownership of an object that is traditionally located on men side? What does the equipment tell us and what use does it have on the equalization of men and women movement, a particularly legible movement at the end of the Second World War?

I had a few surprises:

1. Driving License: a social marker

The possession of a driving license in men is quite old (for the generations born since 1930, nearly 8 out of 10 men), while among women, it’s very late and cleaved socially. The driving license has been for long a social marker for women than for men.

2. Women: 4×4 amateurs

I studied social properties of 4×4 drivers, quite an interesting segment. I expected to find fewer women driving. However, nearly a third of 4×4 drivers are women. Among these, we identified two conductive segments: highly qualified women (senior managers) or independent on one hand, and fairly affluent women employed and inactive in households on the other hand.

3. Women have latest cars in comparison with men

In terms of seniority and purchase mode, the vehicles of men and women differ very little. Women and men brand new vehicles as often: it shows parity. It is a surprise. Moreover, on average, women vehicles are slightly younger than those of men. For the moment, I have not been able to statistically clarify this intuitive finding.

4. Women pay more attention to the requirements of sustainable development

I am also interested in the characteristics of the models of vehicles, depending on their level of risk and the level of pollution. Here, the situation is very clear: women have less pollutant and less dangerous cars than their male counterparts, even when the structure effects are been looked at, segments of less polluting and dangerous vehicles are more feminine. Driving relatively less than men in lower consumption vehicles, women seem to adopt a car use more « citizen » than men – which would seem to justify logical advertisements specifically oriented women.

While in the past, advertising in the automotive sector were addressed only to men, we now note unisex campaigns or targeted women, why this change?

With the rise of multi-equipment, more and more women in couples have their own car and they choose them. If the car of women has historically been a second hand car – it changes from the husband’s aging car. In fact, women have a special role for the car usage within their family: they often take care of the daily commute (studies, leisure), and when the children become adults, their car is often shared by other members of the family – this is less true for father cars. This central role of the woman’s car as a family car, paradoxically, leaves the woman choice of vehicle. Moreover, the mass of women allows them incomes that allow them to be more autonomous when choosing their own car: Studies show that the decision to buy a car and the choice of model are increasingly guided by the woman and less by the man in a couple.

Some studies claim that the electricity market is an opportunity to target the fairer sex, what do you think?

This idea is not new: it was already a concern in the early twentieth century. While we hesitated on the type of energy that cars could have at the end of the nineteenth century, the electric car was a car that would primarily be constructed for women. Vehicle quieter, less prone to breakdowns and dirt, the electric car, which the models are sold in the United States, would naturally be for women, as it appears in advertising campaigns (including analyzed by Virginia Scharff). Vehicle that has less autonomy would be more easily extended to women, since it has less mobility in a context where social control exerted on women is still strong and in addition, unlike other models, it’s vehicles that often have a hood: women are as well protected and resettled in a private space. The re-emergence of an old idea baffles me: « naturally » there is not cars that are especially provided for women as the trends are in the direction of convergence of purpose between men and women.

What advice would you give to automotive companies wishing to respond to the expectations of women’s car, in terms of product and in terms of communication?
I leave my role of sociologist observer’s here to criticize imagination and symbols of advertising.

Manufacturer’s advertisements are terribly gendered. If men and women have significantly different vehicles, it nevertheless remains that advertising models must change. It is necessary that in advertisements, men stop being the drivers and that women are just there sitting on the passenger sit. When women are driving, stop adding children as passengers. A woman can also drive! I have unpleasant memories of advertising campaigns: Alfa Romeo and seductive voice, Peugeot and the woman who falls into the arms of the man after a flower pot … However, I understand this position: in a society where the average age of the new buyer is more than 50 years, gender stereotypes are not necessarily good to break.

I was particularly struck by a movie – bad by the way, “the best of friends”. It featured a couple in difficulties which is joining a group of friends. The first scene of the film immediately shows the malaise it is not the man who is driving, but the woman! Among their friends, everything is going well: the man has a big car, which he manly drives. After several adventures, the couple in trouble is doing better and goes to visit their friends. The proof that everything is going well is that this time, the man is the one driving. The first sequence of the film is the reverse of the last, gender roles are filled and they can easily be seen inside the car. This film makes me want to explore some analyzes that I have not yet discussed: during trips, who is driving? For 30 years now, are women taking more control of the wheel, when going on a trip with their partners? Which routes are typically male or female, in a family? I think the campaigns aimed at women can emphasize the « citizenship » of car models.

Manufacturers must articulate differently the quartet that I’ve mentioned (car comfort, style car, success, useful car), men are not the only ones looking for a beautiful and powerful car, the same way that women are not only seeking for  the comfort and utility.

Interviewed by 


(1) Yoann Demoli is a doctoral student in sociology, specializing in the automotive sector. His thesis is entitled « The social uses of the automobile in France from 1980 to the present day. » He is a member of the Sociological Observatory Change Science Po http://www.sciencespo.fr/osc/fr/content/yoann-demoli-1 nike air max

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