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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Make-up mirrors, pin-ups, mansplaining: Why women still find car buying miserable

Other industries have improved. Why are car dealers stuck in the 1950s?

Images from Adobe Stock; Globe staff illustration

Starting around 2015, I had money in the bank and the need for a new car. But for five years, I couldn’t will myself to walk into a dealership.

With all due respect to the good guys in this business (whom I have never met), I could not face the prospect of the not-good guys who wanted to condescend to me while taking my money.

I could not face being taken for an idiot, or being asked where my husband was. I could not face another salesman showing me the makeup mirror, and I couldn’t face him in the passenger seat as he mansplained on and on about things I didn’t care about.

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So I continued to drive my rusty clunker, and my money stayed in the bank, instead of doing its job to stimulate the economy.

In her book, CustomHer Experience: The Importance of Tailoring Your Brand Experience to the Female Consumer, author Katie Mares reports taking two months and visiting seven dealerships before buying a car. When she finally did, she was not even that excited about the car but had finally been treated as a sentient being with money to spend.

I am a business professor, so the pervasiveness of women’s negative experiences when buying cars presents a puzzle. With the season of Presidents’ Day car sales upon us — a tradition that apparently started in Massachusetts — we should contemplate why companies are leaving billions on the table as women dread spending their money on cars they actually want and need.

For some silly reason, my daughter’s favorite bedtime story as a 4-year-old was the chronology of Mom’s cars. We’d start with the Fiat 850 spider, with a manual choke, circa 1972, then move through the VW “Thing,” the Pontiac Firebird, and then our little yellow Sunbird. With my first real job, I bought another Fiat, a tiny red two-seater. But at nine months’ pregnant, I parted with the sports car, and the next in line were the practical cars of parenthood, Honda Accords and Chevy minivans. By this time in the story, my daughter would be asleep.

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What is remarkable is how little has changed. Over 50 years as a clueless, broke teenager, a harried mom, and an almost retiree, the purchase of each of these cars was an offensively gendered customer experience.

I still have a knot of rage for the Pontiac dealer who sold me the Sunbird. After driving it for a couple of days, I got caught in a rainstorm and found that the windshield wipers didn’t work. I pulled over and waited for the storm to pass. As soon as it did, I drove back to the dealer. “The windshield wipers don’t work,” I said. “Are you sure you know how to work them?” Mr. Explainer asked. “Yes.” Embarrassingly, my first instinct had indeed been to question my own windshield wiper prowess. But I had pulled out the manual, followed the instructions, and nada.

Mr. Explainer got into the car and turned the dial. Nada for him as well. “Well, don’t worry honey,” he said. “It’s not raining now.”

Given my decades of perspective, the phenomenon is even more puzzling: In virtually every other aspect of life, I have watched as the world lurched — unevenly but steadily — to a better place for each generation of women. The world of my youth, where 94 percent of American doctors and lawyers were white men and the term “sexual harassment” had yet to be coined, now seems as far away as ancient Rome. But in the auto showroom, very little seems to have changed.

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The business imperative for women’s participation in the economy has always been compelling. Women control nearly $32 trillion in worldwide spending. Blocking women’s access to employment opportunities or advancement prevents organizations from accessing the best talent, and running women off with Mad Men-style harassment hits corporate profits and the broader economy. In 2021 alone, according to Statista, women bought 40 percent of new cars in the United States and 51 percent of used cars.

But perhaps the profit motive was never enough to effect change. Maybe the legal and legislative battles that allowed women into law and medical schools, or enabled sexual harassers to be fired, needed to be fought for real progress to be possible. But respect in the auto showroom cannot be legislated, and maybe that’s why the doctors and lawyers trying to purchase cars today can encounter a world from the 1950s, and why, according to a survey published in 2022, nearly half of Gen-Z women worry about sexism at the dealership.

The industry has taken note of the challenge and the opportunity, with seminars and training designed to capture more of the money that is sitting on the sidelines. Yet, somehow, even these efforts are often cringe-worthy.

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“Heels and Wheels” — a conference launched in 2011 to “honor” women’s purchasing power in the auto industry and promote road-testing by women — is progress, I guess. But the conference logo features a stiletto heel that would be impossible to drive in, or walk in for that matter. And while women-friendly spaces in the industry seem helpful, they might also create a preacher-choir dynamic.

Unfortunately for the conference — and the industry — Wheels and Heels magazine bears a similar name and features nearly naked stiletto-heeled models lying on the showroom floor propositioning red convertibles. Even CustomHer author Katie Mares can’t seem to resist the innuendo — her chapter focused on women’s economic power is titled Women on Top. Somehow, even with good intentions, putting women and cars together often results in ick.

Eventually, I overcame my aversion to dealerships and bought a new car, because I really did need one. My life-math suggests I might buy another two or three cars, to the tune of maybe $150,000. But, if I just can’t face it anymore, maybe my money will just stay in the bank.


Pietra Rivoli is a professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.