Wednesday 20 September 2017

Of cars, women and the Bard

In early June in England, 14 women from 12 different countries made motoring history. By Sandy Myhre

Caroline Duval (France) Sue Baker (England) LouAnn Hammond (USA) Sandy Myhre (New Zealand) Dr Ralf Speth (Germany, JLR) Charlene Clarke (South Africa) Carla Ribeiro (Portugal) Sevil Okumus (Turkey) Ylle Rajassar (Estonia) Ian Callum (Scotland Jaguar Design Director) Marta Garcia (Spain) Renuka Kirpalani (India)
Caroline Duval (France) Sue Baker (England) LouAnn Hammond (USA) Sandy Myhre (New Zealand) Dr Ralf Speth (Germany, JLR) Charlene Clarke (South Africa) Carla Ribeiro (Portugal) Sevil Okumus (Turkey) Ylle Rajassar (Estonia) Ian Callum (Scotland Jaguar Design Director) Marta Garcia (Spain) Renuka Kirpalani (India)

Sandy Myhre

The occasion was Jaguar receiving a trophy for the F-Pace winning the 2016 supreme award in Women's World Car of the Year. The women motoring writers meeting in Stratford-upon-Avon on June 1 are all on the jury of the only car awards in the world voted entirely by women.

If a collective of women motoring journalists doesn't seem like an earth-shattering event, it's sobering to realise that not since the motor car was invented around 150 years ago, have that many women motoring scribes been in the same room at the same time. Given it was held in the birthplace of William Shakespeare, one wonders what he might have penned to mark the occasion.

In 2009, the World Car of the Year (based in New York) had 45 judges on the panel. Not one was a woman. It was the catalyst for the commencement of Women's World Car of the Year but it wasn't as if women weren't car customers before then. Rather, the motor industry and motoring media were sluggish off the mark to recognise their buying power and, yet, the market is massive.

An oft-quoted statistic says women make the final decision in as much as 80-85pc of all car purchases and even if she's not the actual buyer, she's highly influential in the decision-making process.

In a Harvard Business Review article in 2009 entitled The Female Economy, authors Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre declared that women drive the world economy. "...In aggregate women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined, in fact, twice as big..."

Still, as many of the journalists on the jury of Women's World Car of the Year will attest, a female viewpoint isn't always taken seriously and for many women, approaching a car dealership still seems as pleasurable as a trip to the dentist. It could possibly be the approach of sales men (or more likely, the non-approach) as Belinda Parmar, chief executive of Lady Geek so aptly put it: "The car sales industry is like the tech world was 10 years ago; nervous boys at a school dance trying to avoid making contact with the girls."

That may account for the rise of online 'dealerships' and 'pop-ups' in shopping malls where store 'angels' direct enquiry to the website of the exhibiting brand. It won't suit everyone but as Brad Tuttle pointed out in Time.com, some cultures are keener on web purchasing than others. He says 75pc of Brazilians and 90pc of Chinese would buy a car in an online auction, versus 45pc of Germans and just 35pc of French.

Still, if women are under-represented on the forecourts, they're a growing force as motor company executives. In 2013 Barb Samardzich became the CEO of Ford Europe, followed by Mary Barra being appointed CEO of General Motors, the first woman to head any motor company in the world. She is now chairman of the board.

Today, although the industry is still a male bastion, there are numerous women designers and engineers. They're the ones who created better internal storage space under flip-up seats, introduced easier access for children, put in easy-clean seat coverings and (in the case of the new Mustang a few years ago) insisted the jack be on the non-traffic side of the car.

There are still some blips, however. No-one today would dare produce a pink-painted car like Dodge did with the La Femme in 1955. Volvo had an all-woman design team for the YCC in 2004 but it was a prototype, even if some features found their way into other models. SEAT launched the Mii last year with 'jewel-effect rims' and 'eyeliner headlights' to a social media outrage.

The motor industry is, however, nodding to the shifting nature of customer demand and sales figures. A new car launch was once the exclusive domain of (mostly) male motoring writers but today nearly half those attending could be bloggers, both male and female.

The first company to specifically host women motoring journalists was Jaguar, in 2010, when the XF received the first-ever Women's World car supreme award at a Jaguar boutique showroom in Knightsbridge, London.

Ford of Europe hosted jurors in Cologne when the Ford Fiesta Ecoboost won the major award in 2014. In 2016 eight of the women jurors were in Gothenburg to present the trophy for the Volvo XC90 winning the title. Jaguar, in hosting the largest-ever gathering of women motoring journalists in England this year, is continuing a tradition.

Let's get back to The Bard, with words from Henry VI that the motor industry could do well to heed.

"She's beautiful, and therefore to be wooed; She is a woman, therefore to be won."

Sandy Myhre is from New Zealand and is founder and managing director of Women's World Car of the Year and proudly points out that three of her great-grandparents were Irish.

Sunday Independent

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