Why Are Women So Underrepresented in the Retail Automotive Business?

I was doing some research for an article I was working on for BestRide.com, and came across Ward's Top 100 MegaDealers ranking for 2014, which comes out every March. The first thing I noticed when I scrolled down the list of dealer principals is they're almost exclusively men. Just five women stand out on that list of 100 in 2014. You can argue that most businesses aren't friendly to women in leadership positions, but there are half as many women leading Ward's Top 100 as there are in the top 100 companies on the Fortune 1000 list.

That's just the start. From dealer principal right on down to the lowest position on the sales floor, women simply are missing in action. According to CNW Marketing Research, women only hold 13.4 percent of all sales positions at any given car dealership.

You have to pick "Major League Baseball Team Owner" to find a category less populated by females. Even when you factor administrative positions into the mix, women occupy only 21.4 percent of all positions in an auto dealership.

It's not like women don't own cars, and it's not like they aren't actively involved in their purchase. Women now have more drivers' licenses than men, according to a study by Frost & Sullivan. An NBCUniversal poll suggested that women were the primary purchasers of 60 percent of all new cars, 53 percent of all used cars, and have at least some influence on 85 percent of all auto purchases.

And it's not like women can't sell big ticket items. At the retail level, women make up 43 percent of the real estate industry (though they're underrepresented in leadership positions in that industry, as well.)

And it's also not like they feel more comfortable buying cars from men. In 2010, CNW Market Research asked women if they were more comfortable buying cars from women or men; 47.3 percent of women suggested that they'd be much happier buying a car from someone of the same gender.

At least on the surface, a career in retail auto sales seems like it would be a good fit for women, who often need the flexibility in their schedules that auto sales can offer.

Stephanie Holland thinks its partly because the industry as a whole is just starting to recognize the power of women in the car market. "Until women are included in the top-level decisions, chances are good that the new cars and messages will continue to be off-base," she says. On her She-Conomy blog, she made mention of the fact that at auto shows around the country, cars are usually flanked by women in less-than-professional dress. "If you are charged with effectively connecting with the female market, consider putting female marketers in charge - not short dresses. While this might be appealing to men, the majority of women will assume your car cannot stand on it's own. That you need gimmicks to attain their attention. Quit trying to market to women through male lenses."

The OEM side of the automotive business seems to at least be trying. Since 2001, General Motors has run a dealership development program specifically for women. Ford and Toyota have followed suit. Of course, GM has also placed Mary Barra at the very top of the org chart. But more than a dozen years later, the fact remains that automotive dealerships are almost exclusively staffed by men.

The only way an automotive retail career becomes more attractive for women is that leaders in those dealerships actively encourage women to work there. In an article entitled "Closing the High Tech Gender Gap" for the MIT Technology Review, Sangeeta N. Bhatia -- winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for technology wrote, "It's worth noting that the people in my life who have seen more for me than I saw for myself, who believed in me and promoted me, were mostly men."

That's exactly how the gender mix changes at the retail automotive level: By encouraging women to take part, and promoting them when they succeed.