Gender & the Automotive Showroom

A recent article in Autoblog reported on a salary survey conducted by Automotive News regarding the average pay of car dealership employees. The headline – “What Car Dealership Employees Earn: Lots of Money” suggests that working in auto sales is a lucrative career. The article bolsters this claim with the assertion, “multiple respondents […] submitted comments noting they entered the business for the money.” While Autoblog notes that women in the profession make considerably less than male counterparts, the disparity is attributed to a problem with the survey’s methodology rather than any gender inequity within the system.

Jalopnik covered the news with a slightly different take. The article put the significance of the $74,000 pay gap into context by comparing it to the $74,580 income of an average American household. The author notes that the salary gap percentage – 66 cents to every dollar earned by a male dealer – is 17 percent less than that of women in other jobs. The article reveals that when asked, only 6.3 percent of men in dealerships surveyed believe the industry “is not welcoming to women” compared to nearly one third of female respondents. As successful car dealers put in an average of 55 hour weeks, asserts Jalopnik, “the world of car dealerships is truly the exemplary  old boys’ club, rewarding long hours and grueling working conditions.” The article cites the response of a 25-year veteran in the business; as she confessed, “I have never been so disrespected and unappreciated in my life. I am mansplained to constantly by customers and coworkers.”  Rather than dismiss the $74,000 pay gap as the product of questionable research methods, Jalopnik uncovers responses from the study that provide insight into conditions that influence the incredulous gender pay inequality.

In 2000, sociologist Helene Lawson authored Ladies on the Lot, a comprehensive study of 49 women who worked in car sales from 1987-1999. Although this project was conducted over a quarter-century ago, the conditions under which the women worked, and the obstacles they faced in the field, are eerily similar to those referenced in the recent Jalopnik piece. As Lawson argues, women entered the field for the same reasons as men – they were attracted to the work for the possibility of a high income; they sought car sales as a way to achieve the “American Dream.” However, once on the job the women were subject to sexual harassment, isolation from male colleagues, criticism for perceived “inadequacy,” exclusion from professional training, lack of mentoring, and admonishment for “feminine” style selling techniques rather than the male intimidation practices preferred by male colleagues. As the author notes, the expectation that they would work 12 hour days and 60 hour weeks was problematic, particularly for women with children who required child care. Male managers often positioned female dealers in the back of the sales floor with lower priced vehicles, which negatively affected commissions. Working in car sales, the author asserts, “involves long hours, high pressure, questionable ethics, no salary guarantee, and little job security” (Sacks 780). As Lawson reports, while female dealers who adapted more aggressive, ‘fast-talking’ selling techniques and sacrificed family and social life for the job were happy with the money they earned, the overwhelming majority of women in car sales wound up “chasing an elusive dream of autonomy and economic sufficiency that was just out of their grasp” (Mahar).

Kurt Russell in Used Cars

Despite the claim of “faulty survey methodology,” the revelation that women in automotive sales earn one third less than male peers indicates conditions that exist within the car dealership culture are disadvantageous if not inhospitable to women for a variety of reasons. While women have made inroads in many aspects of the automobile industry over the past 25 years, today’s $74,000 pay gap within the car dealership collective suggests that gender equity has a long way to go. Or as Jalopnik’s Bradley Brownell blatantly concludes, “the American dealership network system is broken and awful.”

Brownell, Bradley. “The Gender Pay Gap At Car Dealerships Is Way Worse Than The National Average.” 22 Jan 2024.

Huetter, John. “Auto Retail Professionals Make Great Money — But Men Make an Average of $74,300 More.” 20 Jan 2024.

Lawson, Helene M. Ladies on the Lot: Women, Car Sales, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. Roman & Littlefield, 2000.

Mahar, Karen Ward. “An Unbelievably Bad Deal! Women Sales Agents and Car Dealerships in America.” H-Net Reviews, 2001.

Sacks, Nancy Lee. Review of Ladies on the Lot by Helene M. in Gender and Society (Oct 2021) 779-781.

Williams, Stephen. “What Car Dealership Employees Earn: Lots of Money.” 23 Jan 2024.

Safety and the Woman Driver

Numerous studies on automotive preference have determined that more so than men, women put a priority on safety when choosing and operating a vehicle. Although the female driver enjoys performance, handling, and design as much as her male counterpart, the cultural expectation that women are ultimately responsible for children’s well being requires that women consider safety first in automotive choice. This focus on women as safety-conscious in automobile purchase and use has existed since the early auto age and has continued until the present time. Women were, in fact, responsible for many of the current safety features all drivers take for granted. Female engineers and designers invented or contributed to the development of turn signals, brake lights, windshield wipers, rearview mirrors, instruction manuals, and GPS. In turn, female automotive consumers prioritize safety features such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control. In a study of masculine and feminine automotive behaviors, Smart et al note that as drivers, women reported using turn signals, seat belts, and driving lights more frequently than men. As caretakers, the authors suggest, “women might be more concerned about the safety of themselves and their passengers than their male counterparts.” Women’s determined concern for safety – as inventors and consumers – has not only made them more responsible drivers than men, but has also pressured auto makers to incorporate safety features in automotive engineering and design.

Yet although women’s influence has ultimately resulted in safer vehicles, the primary benefactors of these improvements are male drivers. As an IIHS [Insurance Institute for Highway Safety] study concludes, even though crashes involving men are more severe – due to behaviors including speeding, alcohol-impairment, and drowsy driving – women are more often critically injured or killed in crashes of equal severity. As late as 2019, crash test dummies were modeled on a male body; the female crash test dummy did not exist. As Consumer Reports asserts, “that absence has set the course for four decades’ worth of car safety design, with deadly consequences” (Barry). Although the majority [71%] of crash deaths in 2017 were male, females are at greater risk of death or injury when a crash occurs. As CR reports, it is well understood in the industry that male and female bodies perform differently in crashes; however, “the vast majority of automotive safety policy and research is still designed to address the body of the so-called 50th percentile male—currently represented in crash tests by a 171- pound, 5-foot-9-inch dummy that was first standardized in the 1970s” (Barry). Although regulators requested a female dummy in the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2003 that NHTSA developed one for crash test use. However, rather than reflect the physical differences between male and female bodies, the ‘improved’ dummy was just a scaled-down version of the male model. As Consumer Reports notes, although advances in automotive safety have helped all vehicle occupants survive crashes, “decades of damning crash statistics and pleas from safety advocates have not been enough to change the rules to make vehicles safer for women” (Barry). In 2022, a group of researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute introduced a new female crash test dummy – the first to represent the average women since car crash tests were instituted over a half century ago.

This lack of attention to female bodies by auto manufacturers became tragically evident with the introduction of airbags. In the late 1990s, once the installation of airbags became compulsory, women and children were dying in low-impact collisions that shouldn’t have been fatal. As Eve Epker of Forbes notes, “the culprits were the airbags, which aimed to keep a male in the 50th percentile of height and weight in his seat – and didn’t adjust their force for a woman or a child.” Consequently, rather than keeping women and children safe, the airbags were actually leading to an increased number of fatalities in the non-adult male population. What these two examples demonstrate is that despite society’s emphasis on the importance of women as family caretakers, the auto industry continues to produce auto safety innovations that “benefit men and men only” (Epker).

Women are not only less safe when involved in crashes, but a recent report in the New York Times reveals that women endeavoring to escape an abusive partner are often stalked and terrorized through the use of apps that remotely track and control cars. As author Kashmir Hill notes, “modern cars have been called ‘smartphones’ with wheels because they are internet-connected and have myriad methods of date collection.” Former partners with automotive access [and violent histories] can not only track the female driver but can control the vehicle’s functions. Abusers have been known to follow, stalk, and surprise their victims. Heaters and air conditioners are also remotely turned on to make the victim uncomfortable and feel as though she has lost control. Writes Hill, “domestic violence experts say that these convenience features are being weaponized in abusive relationships, and that car makers have not been willing to assist victims.” Auto manufacturers have denied responsibility for harassment and have evaded taking any kind of action, citing joint phone, car ownership, or insurance policies as impenetrable barriers. Judges have dismissed auto companies from lawsuits, often questioning the victim’s reliability. As one such official incredulously remarked, “it would be ‘onerous’ to expect car manufacturers to determine which claims of app abuse were legitimate” qtr. in Hill).

Women possess over 50% of driver’s licenses in the United States and influence nearly 85% of automobile purchases. Yet throughout automotive history, a concern for women’s safety and autonomy has been a distant second to that of the man behind the wheel. One can only hope that with the rise of women in the ranks of automotive decision makers, women’s interests and influence will be considered seriously and action will be taken to keep women out of danger when in the ‘safe haven’ of the automobile.

Barry, Keith. “The Crash Test Bias: How Male-Focused Testing Puts Female Drivers at Risk.” 23 Oct 2019.

Carlier, Martha. “Number of U.S. Licensed Drivers by Gender” 14 Mar 2023.

Covington, Taylor. “Men are more confident drivers, but data shows women are safer.” 20 Dec 2022.

Esker, Eve. “Fasten Your Seatbelts: A Representative Female Crash Dummy is Here.” 12 Sep 2023.

Hill, Kashmir. “Your Car is Tracking You. Abusive Partners May Be, Too.” 31 Dec 2023.

Irmantus, B. “The Psychology Behind How Women Choose Cars.” 7 June 2023.

McElroy, Nicole Gull. “Women Buy More Cars. So Why Are the Designs So Macho?” 6 Dec 2023.

Smart, Birgit, Amanda Campbell, Barlow Soper, and Walter Buboltz, Jr. 2007. “Masculinity/Femininity and Automotive Behaviors: Emerging Knowledge for Entrepreneurs.” Journal of Business and Public Affairs 1 (2): (n.p.).

Wood, Johnny. “Can the World’s First Female Crash Test Dummy Make Driving Safer for Women?” 7 Dec 2022.