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Women Still Experience Sexism When Buying A Car—Here’s How To Combat It

'There’s a lack of trust in the service lane, as women are often afraid they’ll be taken advantage of.'

Man and woman shaking hands in at a car dealership

(Photo: mediaphotos/iStock)

Tara Leigh Smith was recently invited to a car dealership customer appreciation event in Toronto. When she politely declined, the male caller asked if she wanted to check with her husband first, despite her car being registered under her name. For Smith, it triggered memories of buying the vehicle from a salesman who practically ignored her and continually deferred to her husband, despite being told repeatedly Smith was the buyer.

Buying (or leasing) a vehicle is the second-biggest purchase a person makes, after real estate. Even when men and women make major purchase decisions together, women make the final decision 80 percent of the time. Single women have more financial power than ever and female drivers make up nearly half the driving population in Canada—so why are women still recipients of disrespectful or sexist microaggressions while buying or servicing a car?

Dee Murphy, who’s based in Ottawa, worked for ten years in a dealership. She says she witnessed frequent sexism there, including male sales associates ignoring or patronizing female purchasers, calling them names, and hitting on them. Unfortunately, these are not isolated occurrences. During a recent car shopping experience of her own, Murphy had a male sales rep walk away after she questioned his pricing, telling her to have her husband give him a call instead.

To empower herself and other women, she created The Liminal Place, a website where women from any industry have a safe space to discuss challenges like these and encourage one another to speak up and take action against the sexism they encounter. She notes that the auto industry continues to be male dominated—according to Women In Automotive, fewer than 20 percent of automotive retail jobs across Canada and the U.S. are held by women. Murphy thinks some dealership employees cling to tired stereotypes of women.

Megan Adam of Nanaimo, B.C. once dealt with a dealership finance rep who called her “Mrs.” She told him she preferred “Ms.” and he responded, “Aren’t you married?” Adam told him she was, but didn’t use her spouse’s name, yet he continued using “Mrs.” She eventually had to ask for all her paperwork to be corrected before she would sign it.

Sadly, female consumers are often hesitant to do anything about the affronts they experience. An unequal number of female employees at dealerships and service providers can be isolating for female customers, making it harder to stand up for themselves in inappropriate situations. Many worry it might be held against them in pricing, or they’re painfully aware that walking out and going elsewhere will most likely lead to more of the same. Having more women holding authority in the auto industry encourages female buyers to speak up against offensive words or actions.

Some women have even brought a male family member or friend along. Toronto resident Kim Shiffman (who’s editor in chief of Chatelaine’s sister title, Today’s Parent) and her brother visited three dealerships shopping for a new car for Shiffman. She visited a fourth alone and was offered $4,000 less than the others had offered for her trade-in vehicle. Shiffman didn’t plan on disclosing that she got better offers elsewhere, but when the low-baller sales rep followed up on his sales pitch via text to her, she told him and got the dismissive response she expected—“Sorry to hear that. Have a nice day.”

“It seems too big a coincidence to blame it on anything other than sexism,” Shiffman explained via email. “It’s really sad I had to schlep my brother along just to avoid [it] sexism. I didn’t actually need his help.”

After 26 years of experience, Susan Gubasta has attained what few women have in the auto industry; she’s the president of a dealership, has served as the first female head of Trillium Automobile Dealers Association, an umbrella organization of nearly 1,000 new-car dealers in Ontario, and was the first female president of the annual national auto show in Toronto. While Gubasta points out that the auto industry has come a long way in gender equity, she also agrees there still aren’t enough women working in dealerships and auto service providers, which can make it tougher for female consumers.

“[Women buyers] might be nervous they’ll be taken advantage of by ‘slimy sales guys,’” Gubasta says. “But in most cases, the right person is there to help them find the right vehicle at the right price. It’s not always like it used to be.” She recommends researching your dealership or service centre of choice to ensure there are female employees, and then specifically asking to deal with one.

As with many aspects of misogyny, much of the responsibility for improvement still (unfairly) sits on the shoulders of those experiencing the issues. Also not helping is the fact that there’s a dearth of data on gender-specific dissatisfaction from auto industry clients. Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) is a provincial regulator for auto dealerships. Maureen Harquail, its COO, says that while OMVIC does receive and help resolve consumer complaints, they’re not tracked by gender. Each province has a similar regulator, and they all have a code of ethics for dealer employees that states any kind of discriminatory behaviour is a violation of the code. Yet Harquail says she has no recollection of these regulators holding discussions on the topic or offering dealerships any training specific to gender neutrality practices. She notes it could be an important topic for their Canada-wide conferences.

The internet may be the easiest way to minimize sexist interactions with salespeople. Christine Mitchell owns and operates The Car Lady, a business that aims to educate car owners and help people buy vehicles. She was a licensed technician for 21 years and knows about industry sexism; she left her mechanic’s job because at that time, it was impossible to find maternity coveralls during her pregnancy. Mitchell also feels sexism has declined greatly since she started in the industry. However, she offers educational workshops at dealerships to empower car owners with general knowledge on the operating and servicing of their vehicles, to hopefully make service appointments less intimidating. The Car Lady can also be hired to facilitate an entire car purchase process on behalf of clients, eliminating contact between a customer and dealership.

For women who prefer to do their own legwork, Mitchell says education is integral and most of the auto brands provide excellent information online about their product offerings.

Finally, in addition to the Car Lady, there are several Canadian sites like Clutch that conduct online car sales.

As for servicing vehicles, there are also sites offering female-centric educational resources on car ownership, like AskPatty.com.

“I observed a gap in communications between the auto industry and women consumers,” said Jody DeVere, a car industry speaker and trainer who created the site, in an email. “There’s a lack of trust in the service lane, as women are often afraid they’ll be taken advantage of.”

To help, AskPatty.com’s female experts answer service-related questions to help readers have some understanding of their vehicle’s problem before they speak with a service centre. Informed customers are less worried about being deceived or patronized, and—for better or worse, are often treated with more respect by sales and service reps. The site also provides reviews of dealerships by female consumers, albeit more American dealers than Canadian.

While some sexism may fade as older dealer employees with outdated beliefs retire, Murphy urges women to voice complaints about sexist service to the auto brand’s customer service department, or in a Google review. Brands don’t want reputational damage, and dealerships don’t want negative reviews online for all to see. Clearly not all employees of all dealerships and service centres are terrible; the majority are great employees who want to do their jobs well to satisfy their clients. Bringing concerns about inappropriate interactions to light will allow the industry to (hopefully) facilitate changes like better tracking of gender-specific customer service issues, the hiring more female and non-binary employees in all roles and the creation of gender-neutral best practices.

After all, happy customers benefit dealers and service centres too.

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