In the US and China, women typically make up less than a third of new EV buyers. Automakers around the world are having a tough time getting women to embrace EVs. It’s hard to understand, as studies show that environmental issues and climate change are more important to women than men.
What’s inhibiting women from identifying with the EV culture, and what can automakers do to welcome women into the EV family?
An acknowledged EV gender gap has existed for the last decade. When I first started writing about EVs for another publication in the mid-2010s, it was made clear that the audience was white males, aged 25-50. Period. Writing for women interested in EVs was just a niche market.
Fast forward to 2022. A Morning Consult survey concludes there is a gender gap when it comes to EV interest, with 53% of men showing interest versus 47% of women. The IEA Global EV Outlook doesn’t even refer to women as an audience.
The EV audience has shifted in the last several years. Now the consensus is that younger, more ethnically diverse, and more progressive adults who also tend to be more concerned about climate change are the primary target audience for EVs. IEA data reveal that many consumers don’t fully understand some of the key benefits of EVs, and therein lies one of the many barriers to getting women to embrace EVs.
The Culture of EVs & Women
“Don’t let them pressure you,” family members advised women who head to an auto showroom. “Watch out for tricks,” urged friends. “They won’t take a woman seriously,” cautioned coworkers.
Many of you don’t remember GM’s Saturn line of vehicles or the automaker’s decision to recreate the car buying experience so it would be friendly to women. Recognizing that auto dealers operate in a traditionally male industry, from their service departments to their showrooms, Saturn consciously reinvented the buying atmosphere for women. No-haggle pricing used at Saturn was popular with women because it disarmed the negotiating process. Computerized inventories were accessible on the internet. Women were cultivated as salespersons. The Saturn shopping experience was stress-free — I know, I owned a couple and loved them.
Saturn’s demise was a loss to women auto consumers.
In 2001, the GM Center of Expertise on Diversity, a marketing and sales organization, was formed to deliver products, services, and programs that appeal to women and other underrepresented groups. GM’s research revealed that women were interested in safety, visual appeal, easy entry and exit, heated leather seats, remote starting capability, adjustable pedals and steering wheels, child-friendly seating configurations, and unique storage capabilities. Training was provided to dealerships on diversity and how expectations of underrepresented groups may differ from those of the typical white male buyer.
Did this training transfer to manufacturing and selling EVs — for GM and other automakers?
76% of buyers in the largest US EV market, California, still identify as male. “We have not really seen a change in terms of the gender split,” says Scott Hardman, a researcher at UC Davis who studies consumer attitudes towards EVs.
Theories about Why Women Don’t Embrace EVs
The earliest EVs at the turn of the 20th century were associated with conservatism and femininity, as they were easy to operate. Women drivers liked their cleanliness and simplicity; men mocked EVs’ lack of power.
Today, variables such as being male, being a parent, having a college education, living in urban areas, and having had previous EV experience influence positively to the adoption of EVs.
Importantly, the transition from internal combustion engine (ICE) to EV is shown to often be conditioned by general well-being — income, household size, or ownership of more than one car. According to Pew Research, women in the US continue to earn less than men on average. Among full-time, year-round workers in 2019, women’s median annual earnings were 82% those of men. With less income come fewer opportunities for women to purchase what had been — up until recently, at least — high end EVs.
“Women tend to be a bit more pragmatic in terms of their buying decisions,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of Insights at car industry research company Edmunds.
EVs are often considered computers on wheels. “Most women are not as concerned with the status of having the latest and greatest, the coolest gadgets,” Caldwell notes. A 2021 study found imparting consumers with EV technological knowledge and usefulness may be an effective way to enhance their awareness and willingness to use EVs.
Moreover, the role of women in the decision to adopt an EV as the family car should not be ignored. It is possible that the historical habit continues to exist where households register their EVs in the name of a male family member, or that the man buys the EV but the woman is actually using it in equal proportion.
“Automakers are realizing that women play a key role, not just in buying the vehicles but influencing others like males to buy vehicles,” says Marc Bland, chief diversity officer at research company S&P Global Mobility. “I would think that the EV industry should be looking at and catering more to the women who are slightly earlier adopters than the more hesitant men.”
Laycee Schmidtke, an expert in automotive marketing, notes another barrier to getting women to embrace EVs. “Women with families are looking for something that can serve that family,” and currently there are few EV options with 3 rows of seats.
Also, women who have doubts regarding the performance of EVs in areas like range and recharging at home need to gain confidence through hands-on experience. Modeling and 1-to-1 training can help women identify with driving electric and make the EV experience feel much more approachable.
Safety in charging continues to be important to women who can’t charge at home: underground or poorly lite charging stations may be perceived by women as dangerous areas.
And then there’s toxicity in online EV communities, which tend to be dominated by men; these informative spaces can be off-putting to women. (Note: Although CleanTechnica has many productive comments after our articles and is moderated well, I admit that I often hesitate to join in with the post-publication chats due to occasional vitriol in these traditionally male spaces.)
What Automakers are Doing to Change the Car Culture
An exposé in Wired recently described how automakers are trying to diversify the image of EVs and encourage more women to buy electric. Adaptable and reconfigurable vehicle interiors make EV rides more comfortable and travel safer — a factor that women, in particular, identify as highly important, according to McKinsey’s Center for Future Mobility.
US carmakers say they are trying to persuade more women to go electric by featuring them regularly in marketing. Several EV commercials and online content now star a woman. Like the following Chevy Bolt commercial, recent Ford, Audi, and Cadillac EV commercials, among others, showcase women behind the wheel or narrating the EV experience.
Early Ford F-150 Lightning commercials showed the benefit of bi-directional charging with a woman surveying a power app on her phone.
Award-winning singer and actress Janelle Monáe surveyed the various perspectives of luxury that surround the Audi RS e-tron GT.
The all-electric Cadillac Lyric shows director and actress Regina King in control of her life and electric vehicle.
As a woman who loves driving an EV, I hope that more automakers reconsider women as an important audience.
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