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The Answer To The Car Industry's Sexism Problem: More Women, More Men In Heels

"If you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men."
The Answer To The Car Industry's Sexism Problem: More Women, More Men In Heels
Illustration: Vicky Leta
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When I transitioned genders from male to female, fewer things changed than most people would anticipate. In the car enthusiast realm of my life, there were hardly any differences: I kept my slammed Honda Accord Aerodeck and played the stereo as loud as it would go, as I always had. I continued seeking out weird foreign-market cars that charitably could be described as “bad ideas”.

The only real change I noticed in my auto hobby was that I became less important to automotive businesses and events; shops I once trusted with my strange JDM import cars (unaware that I was a repeat customer) stopped giving me the service I was used to when I presented as a man. Parking lot discussions at hobbyist meetups became instantly unwinnable lectures. Car shows became more overtly hostile. This held true even when I wasn’t noticed as a trans woman, leading me to believe that what I was encountering in my unique A-B testing was entirely sexism.

Image for article titled The Answer To The Car Industry's Sexism Problem: More Women, More Men In Heels
Image: YCC/Volvo

One glance at the auto industry verifies my beliefs: As of 2018, only eight percent of the industry’s highest-level executives were women, and in the U.S., only a quarter of the broader automotive workforce is staffed by women. Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, became the first woman to ever run a major automobile company in 2014, a mere 128 years after the birth of the automobile. The downstream results of this are plain to see; one study of women in the auto industry showed that 65 percent of women report being sexually harassed at work, and another survey of women in the field showed a consistently declining belief that the industry was getting better to be part of.

Women And Cars Had A Promising Start, Sort Of

It didn’t always seem destined to be this way. While Karl Benz is widely considered the father of the automobile, it was his wife, Bertha, that took the first long-distance trip in his Patent Motorwagen, in a publicity stunt that likely saved the Benz company and proved the abilities of the early automobile. While she was legally unable to take credit for the Patent Motorwagen, because German law in the 1800s didn’t allow women to hold patents, she was integral to its creation. (As a bonus, she invented brake pads in the middle of a 62-mile road trip, which is monumental on its own.)

Columbia Victoria Electric Phaeton on a desert, sandy landscape
Photo: Victoria Scott

In the early 20th century, the Columbia Motor Car Company — the first American manufacturer to ever sell more than 1000 cars, and a powerhouse of the 1900s automobile industry — advertised heavily to women, with ads that featured women driving electric carriages with their husbands riding shotgun. The company unfortunately failed to adapt to changing economic winds, and it — like the rest of the early EV startups — was gone by the mid 1915s.

The triumph of dirtier, more complicated internal combustion vehicles over electric cars, combined with the Great Depression and the return to traditionally gendered roles in the workforce after the relative liberation of the Roaring Twenties meant that driving and vehicle ownership became the traditional domain of men.

If It’s Pink, It’s For Women, Right?

Unfortunately, as a result of these trends, for most of the 20th century, automotive design, manufacturing, sales, and advertising remained almost entirely male dominated pursuits. Car culture reflected this, and so did its products. Women were an afterthought for most of the 20th century leading into the modern era; for decades, one of the only examples of an ostensibly women-first mindset in product planning was the commercially failed Dodge La Femme.

The Pink and Cream Dodge La Femme complete with thick white wall tires in an industrial garage space
Photo: Stellantis

The La Femme was a clearly masculine vision of what a ‘50s female driver desired; it came only in a two-tone pastel paint job (heather rose and sapphire white), with pink interior trim. Its sole additional features when compared to the Royal Lancer model it was based on were a matching raincoat, purse, cigarette holder, and lipstick. Anything remotely useful — extra storage space for the purse, more comfortable seating, hell, even a dash mirror to help put on the lipstick with — was absent on the full-size Barbie car.

It lasted two years before Dodge discontinued it.

(Author’s note: I would rock the hell out of a La Femme, but unpacking my reasoning requires graduate-level gender studies courses.)

GM Damsels of

The only useful cars of the era that might have been designed with eye towards female buyers would likely have been from GM. In the ‘40s, design pioneer Harley Earl started hiring women to work as designers under him; by the ‘50s, he had an entire team of female industrial designers to help sculpt concept cars and design interiors on production vehicles, with promising results.

The “Damsels of Design,” as GM’s public relations team nicknamed them, got their own show in 1958, where amenities on concept cars such as childproof locks and lighted vanity mirrors were featured, decades before their mass adoption by the industry. Unfortunately, Earl’s retirement in 1958 and his vastly-more-sexist replacement reportedly made their careers miserable, and the women all lost influence in the design process as a result; shortly after, all but one was fired. Virtually no other company attempted to foster women’s careers in design for decades.

Why Not Walk A Mile In Her Shoes

The modern era has seen some attempts at leveling the playing field of the auto industry, although sometimes in extremely roundabout ways. GM, for example, had Mary Sipes head the company’s full-size truck line in the early ‘00s; her team, however, was almost entirely men. She remained committed to getting her employees to actively consider female buyers, however.

How? A workplace crossdressing event, obviously.

As that Automotive News story (titled “Talk About Your Crossovers”) details, “about 100 male General Motors employees… had to wear skirts made from garbage bags, put on size-11 high-heeled shoes, sport long fake fingernails, and carry purses and baby dolls” in the service of understanding how female buyers experienced their trucks. Mark Cieslak, assistant vehicle chief engineer for full-sized trucks, stated to Automotive News “Trying to get into the vehicle (dressed as a woman) was a very different experience.” Yeah man, you’re tellin’ me.

While the mental image of 100 high heel novices learning to walk in them all at once is a humorous image (it’s hard at first!), the event did end up influencing GM’s product lines. Automotive News mentioned that the center console was redesigned for the GMT900 line of full-size trucks, to better accommodate a purse. I asked GM directly about what other changes had occurred, and a representative told me Sipes’ project led directly to modified door handles and running board designs, as well as changes to second- and third-row seating to allow children to have easier access without parental assistance.

In years since, the company has ensured that focus groups specifically center on women who drive full-size trucks and GM says its design process specifically is centered around more diverse buyers now; the initiative appears to have worked, as Tahoe buyers went from roughly 30 percent women in 2003, when the event was held, to 42 percent women by 2018. Cracking some acrylic nails was all it took, apparently.

(No official word, however, if the event resulted in any cracked eggs.)

Image for article titled The Answer To The Car Industry's Sexism Problem: More Women, More Men In Heels
Image: Volvo

Volvo also threw their hat in the ring with the “Your Concept Car” (YCC) design, which was designed by a team entirely made up of women. It featured outlandish concept attributes — such as gullwing doors — but it also had a push-button handbrake and console-mounted shifter to free up space in the center console, which are now-ubiquitous design patterns; adjustable ride height, also commonplace today, was integrated for visibility and driver comfort.

The YCC was radically different — and less sexist — than the rest of the “cars for women” that the industry had previously come up with, precisely because it had reasonable goals: offer good visibility, offer ease of ingress, require little maintenance, and be simple to park. A consumer analyst that Volvo consulted with was quoted saying “If you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men.” And men and women largely agreed on the features they liked, which were comfort and ease of storage, almost like there isn’t as big a gulf between the sexes as originally thought.

The industry has made some strides forward towards bridging the gender gap in the past decade at long last; roughly 25 percent of industrial design graduates are now women, and the auto industry is beginning to reflect that, with reports from 2013 putting women at roughly 20 percent of GM’s design workforce and 30 percent of BMW’s.

The end result has been more like Volvo’s YCC and a lot less like Dodge’s La Femme; for example, the second-generation Acura NSX’s design was completely headed by Michelle Christensen, who ran Acura’s exterior design department at the time. The NSX — not by any means a “woman’s car” — foretold the future of Acura’s design language (and it didn’t even need an umbrella holder to do so!) Anecdotally, on the writing side of the business, while I’ve had my fair share of events as the only woman attending, I also know a lot more young women entering from nontraditional avenues (such as TikTok and Youtube) that promise to shift car criticism from a solely male pursuit to one with something approaching parity.

The future, in short, is up to us to try to change. In the meantime, I need to ask GM where they found so many size-11 heels.