Guest post by Jen Phillips: Delusions of equality

 Or, On buying a car while female.

I bought a new car last month—a sweet little hybrid Ford C-Max to replace the less-efficient SUV I’ve driven for the past 12 years. My husband and I communicated openly about the financial elements of the process, but as I was to be the primary driver, I did my own market research, test drove several vehicles, decided exactly what I wanted and how much I wanted to pay for it. I went in alone to make the purchase, feeling supremely confident that the experience would be relatively quick and painless, as thoroughly prepared as I was.

Hours of facile sales psychology and a heavy dose of sexism later, I had what I wanted, but at considerable cost to my delusions of equality. The sales associate persisted in trying to guide me toward a particular car based on color rather than the more substantial features I knew I wanted, even after I told him repeatedly that I didn’t care what color it was as long as it wasn’t white. Immediately after this revelation he showed me a white car, claiming that it was actually a beautiful sparkly pearl color—couldn’t I see it glistening in the sun? Seriously. When drawing up the paperwork the sales associate/manager team repeatedly got the math wrong in the dealership’s favor, and blinked at me reproachfully when I challenged the calculations. I can’t say for sure whether these and numerous other miscues were due to rank incompetence or to their presumptions about my level of consumer intelligence based on my gender or appearance, but either way it was a sorry state of affairs.

I made my husband a co-signer on the sales agreement so that both our names would appear on the title. Hubby came in at the end of my two-hour negotiations, just to sign the finished papers, whereupon everyone involved ceased communicating with me altogether and spoke only to him.

I survived the experience unscathed, and, if I’m being honest, I had a bit of fun calling them out on their slimy behavior while I was in there. The look on their faces when I whipped through the sloppy math was pretty priceless. And I do love the car. That said, I think it tells a really sad story about our culture that someone with my socioeconomic and professional status who is also well-informed about the product will still receive the default assignment of ‘easily duped bimbo’ the minute I set foot inside a car dealership. And just to clarify that last, I don’t mean to suggest that I would expect different or special treatment because of any status. Rather, I know I am more privileged than the majority of car-buyers, and if ANY woman had a chance of being treated equitably, it would be someone like me. And still – no! So how do women who aren’t as well-off or educated get treated when they need to buy a car, I wonder? I think the answer would probably make me physically ill.

I’ve since been back to the dealership several times, alone, to pick up the car, drop off some paperwork, and collect the license plates. I wrote the checks, my name came first on every document. It could not be clearer that this is MY CAR. Nevertheless, today a customer satisfaction survey arrived in the mail addressed to my husband. Only his name appeared on the envelope. And so it goes.


  1. says

    First, congrats on the new car! The C-Max looks really nice. My last car purchase was a 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo about a year ago, (that particular car because I wanted a stick-shift, and I liked its looks, specs, price, and handling), and it was an annoying experience of the stereotypical sort you had to deal with. Even so, I brought a (tall, large, extroverted, male) buddy and we still had to wade our way through that crap for hours.

    In my case, it was a $500 or $800 or some crazy expensive mandatory add-on to the sticker price for their dealer applied car polish / sealant stuff called Resist-All, that was mysteriously not included in the price on the Hyundai website where I’d been stalking all the dealerships in a 50 mile radius for the exact color (orange) and configuration that I wanted for months. Long story short, after some drama and threatening to drive 25 miles to the other dealership that had that particular color (both dealerships being about 35 miles away from my home), the two of us talked the sales dude and his boss down to the retail price plus $150 for the Resist-All (which was actually well worth it to me for that price, anyway, since I would’ve otherwise spent my own labor putting something like Nu-Finish on it, and it has so far protected the paint and the seats nicely).

    It’s annoying that buying a car in the U.S. is still this needlessly dramatic and adversarial experience, and then on top of that it sucks that female buyers get this big heaping dose of sexism on top of that. If you’re fortunate enough to work for a big enough company (or through auto clubs like AAA), you can often get a pre-agreed discount price, which I recommend because then it’s the most friendly and easy time and you deal with completely different and usually super friendly sales people.

    The other thing that’s funny is that I think men care just as much as women about getting the right color, or leather seats, or upholstery, or whatever (I know I am!), and women are just as likely (or more, according to some study I read recently) to spend time researching and figuring out exactly what specs they want (engine, etc.) so it’s silly to stereotype women as being vain and also ignorant of mechanical stuff.

    From your story, it sounds like the most annoying aspect of being a woman buying a car and getting annoying or sleazy tactics, is that the salesman (*) is using some sleazy sales tactic (I’m sure he would likely have pushed a man towards that same color car, if that’s the unpopular color that he’s trying to offload), but then I imagine (not having been there) that you probably got to experience the joy of that extra condescending tone of voice that let’s you know that he’s not talking straight with you as an educated car buyer, but he’s using his other script for the naive female car buyer who he assumes doesn’t know anything about cars and is shallow and easily swayed but what passes for a car salesman Jedi mind trick.

    * I’ve never interacted with, or had my parents interact with, a car saleswomen (vague memories of buying a 1996 Saturn as a college freshman aside), although the person who fills in the DMV paperwork and prints out all the contracts on the dot matrix printer is invariably a woman.

  2. says

    P.S. Random car-buying tip, if you have a PS3 and the car(s) you’re interested in are featured in Gran Turismo 6, it’s well worth it to buy one of the Logitech wheels and test drive them all for as long as you want in the privacy of your own home w/o an annoying sales droid (and invariable the scent of their cologne/perfume/BO) next to you.

    Second best simulation is Forza Motorsport 4 for Xbox 360, which I used to test drive the Veloster Turbo (best thing Hyundai did, as far as hooking me in, was commisioning the DLC for their car, and building a friendly website) or the new Forza for the Xbox One, but for some bizarre reason, Microsoft has a crap selection of wheels, the physics model of GT6 is an order of magnitude better, and they fixed the myriad flaws in GT5, so IMHO that’s the way to go if you really car about handling (and in my case the engine sound, steering, and gear ratios).

    Either way, once you go into the real-life dealership, it’s time-warp to 1960’s Mad Men. :-/

  3. zibble says

    Car dealerships are such an awful place. I think the predatory nature of the business attracts a lot of overgrown frat boys. It’s difficult enough going in with any kind of social anxiety, I can’t image dealing with that overt sexism on top of everything else. I’m glad it sounds like you at least put those guys in their place – sales is such a smarmy, servile profession I imagine you could get a good result from being as openly disdaining of them as they are of you, the customer, secretly.

  4. Jacob Schmidt says

    The other thing that’s funny is that I think men care just as much as women about getting the right color, or leather seats, or upholstery, or whatever (I know I am!), and women are just as likely (or more, according to some study I read recently) to spend time researching and figuring out exactly what specs they want (engine, etc.) so it’s silly to stereotype women as being vain and also ignorant of mechanical stuff.

    Amusing to me: It’s not often I see women caring about the aesthetics of a car. I see men, on the other hand, go on at length about how aesthetically pleasing a car is with barely any mention to it’s mechanical capabilities (beyond some mention to it’s speed or power).

  5. jenBPhillips says

    Jake Hamby, yeah, all that. I actually did walk in with a written agreement from the dealer that they would match a certain price that a dealership in a larger city 100 miles away had offered. It didn’t stop them from trying to flimflam me.

    On the topic of stereotypes, this guest post started out as my whingeing on Facebook about the customer survey that came addressed to not-me. One friend posted this Forbes article in response:

    “It’s a very male culture. They’re family businesses, and they’ve been owned by men for a long time, so that’s part of the culture,” says DeVere. As part of her job she travels around the country, training car salesmen to build better relationships with women. She’s used to the boys’ club vibe–she worked in the male-dominated technology industry for years before moving to the automotive industry in 2000. She became president of the Women’s Automotive Association International, and later launched

    Still, she wasn’t prepared for the locker-room antics of car salesmen. During one training presentation to a large group of salesmen recently, she explained the importance of careful listening with women customers. “Men and women communicate differently and can misunderstand cues and singles,” she said. “Men need to learn how to listen, and why. It makes women trust you and creates a relationship.” Meanwhile, a group of salesmen in the back was whispering, shuffling papers and giggling.

    “When the Q&A time came, they asked me inappropriate questions, which I’m used to. I used humor to deal with it.” At the end, she cleaned up the literature and found the men, all in their 40s, had drawn crude cartoons of her with labels like “”

  6. otrame says

    I had a very similar experience a few years ago. Now it’s almost time to buy a new car and I am DREADING the experience. So much so that I am trying to come up with some way to get out of it…make my poor 180,000++ car last a bit longer.

  7. Robert B. says

    Sounds like you have some material to use on that customer satisfaction survey, Jen. I wonder if you should just print out this post and staple it to the form, or if you’d prefer to indulge in some more blistering terms.

  8. Onamission5 says

    My spouse was listed as a second contact person in the event the auto mechanic couldn’t get ahold of me on either the house or my cell numbers. I made the appointment, I brought the car in, I filled out and signed the paperwork. Guess who the mechanic calls first? It sure wasn’t me. In fact, they did not call me at all until spouse told them to, and spouse didn’t tell them to until I asked him to please ffs do not take over my car repair decisions just because the mechanic expects you to. It never occurred to him that they hadn’t even tried to get ahold of me but had called him instead. I had to show him both the house and cell phone caller id’s before he believed that I hadn’t just missed their calls, it just seemed so unbelievable to him that that would be a thing people still do in the year 2013.

    I’d switch mechanics, but it wouldn’t make a difference, IME.

  9. says

    Sometimes I just give up and hand things over to my husband. Because the day only lasts 24 hours and my nerves usually considerably less.

    The intersting thing about our car dealer/mechanic is that it’s 50% owned by a woman.
    When the old car dealer went bankrupt, the chief accountant, a woman, and the chief mechanic, a man, decided that rather than being unemployed and using up their life-savings slowly, they would rather invest them and start all over with their own business. The business name is their combined last names.
    As family businesses go, her husband started working there as well and is the chief car salesman.
    And most people who go there act as if he owned half the business and she was the secretary or something, “helping her husband”

  10. Maureen Brian says

    I think I may have cracked this one a few years ago but it was entirely by accident.

    Daughter does the research, identifies the right dealer, can afford the payments but needs me to come along as I’m going to guarantee those payments – she having no credit record, me being an owner-occupier and middle aged. I think the last helped.

    Depths of winter and we arrive at the place in Dulwich, substantially-built daughter in boots, jeans, duffle coat and cropped hair. Oh, and topped with a traditional working class cloth cap, fashionable among the left-wing denizens of Peckham that year. All proceeded well with no bullshit, no flim-flam, no drivelling on about colour, no problems at all. We filled in and signed the forms, collected the keys and off we went. No hassle at all.

    Only as we were leaving the yard did I realise, when he betrayed it with a single pronoun, that the salesman had really thought the offspring was a young man. I was careful not to react!

    So that’s the trick, folks. Go in disguise!

  11. says

    The last time I bought a car was in 1999, and my boyfriend accompanied me. The first honda dealer I went to, the guy refused to talk to me. I was fuming. When my boyfriend and I got back in the car, I mentioned how mad it made me that they guy insisted on talking to him even though I was buying. He just shrugged and seemed to think it was no big deal.

    I refused to go back to that dealer and decided on a different make and model. I can’t say that I enjoyed buying from the other dealer, but no one tried to up-sell me (i bought a previous year’s model in whatever stupid color was available) they guy offered me all the BS warranties and add on items but told me before he started that I was free to say no to everything and he wouldn’t push me on it but he is obliged to offer, and he was true to his word. It wasn’t horrible but I’m still dreading the day my 15 year-old car bites it.

  12. fork says

    It’s not just in the man-sphere places like car dealerships. I had several emails back and forth with the manager of an inn. When I booked, there was a problem with my credit card. As it was a new card, I set it aside, thinking I’d call the credit card co. later, and gave my partner’s credit card info. That wouldn’t go through either. Turns out the manager didn’t know what security codes were for. Once we got that straightened out, I made the reservation on my card.
    So there was one brief mention of my partner. The email confirmation for the reservation came addressed to him. When we arrived at the inn, the staff couldn’t find my reservation as everything had been switched to my partner’s name (we have different surnames).

  13. albo says

    I never do the negotiating when buying a car. My wife worked customer service for years, and is the master of not giving in. She knows nothing about cars–that’s my job, thenI turn over the rest to her once we pick it out.

    Salesmen don’t want to negotiate with a middle-aged mom with two teenagers who’s heard all the stories and have had all the cons tried on them.

  14. B says

    My wife has bought cars by herself and says she just determines what model she wants and faxes offers to near by dealerships. The first to contact her and say they will sell at her price gets the sale. Not sure if she obfuscated her gender, but she swears by that method to reduce time spend with sales folks.

  15. rowanvt says

    I had a salesman try to tell me that the 50,000 miles on the 2 year old car we were test driving was “low”. We were at a stop light and I turned to him and said “My last car had 19K at 3 years. THAT is low.”

    The guy didn’t even say anything to me after that and just finished everything up with my grandfather, who was there precisely because he’s male and wouldn’t get bullshitted.

  16. jenBPhillips says

    Ha, rowanvt, they tried the same thing on me, with a certified used 2013 model of the car I was interested in with 30K miles on it. This was after the sparkly white paint snow job, but before the long, desolate slog through the bargaining process, which really wasn’t ‘bargaining’ as much as it was me insisting that they honor their written promise to match the other dealership’s price. And it still took two freaking hours of my life. I pretty much fit the description of “middle aged mom with two teenagers”, and I fielded everything they threw at me, but it pissed me off that I had to play the game at all. It was mentally exhausting to be that much on my guard, watching for the next ruse. It’s an absurd, embarrassing (for them) ritual.

    Sure, I could have just walked out (although they did actually take my keys away at one point, placing the new car fob next to my hand to make me start to think of it as “mine”—-uuuuuuggggghhhh!) but it was the only day I had time to spend on car stuff, and it needed to get done. Unfortunately, our market isn’t really large enough to engage in the lowest-bidder approach that B suggests, unless one is willing to drive hours out of town (I wasn’t).

  17. sceptinurse says

    The last time I bought a car I was very fortunate. I had researched it and knew exactly what I did and didn’t want. When I got there the salesman started with the color gambit so I whipped out my list and told him what I wanted. His response was oh, okay, let’s go to the other lot then. I probably won’t be that lucky next time. Since I now have silver hair I’m sure I’ll get the condescension on two counts instead of just the sexist approach.

  18. rnilsson says

    New-fangled thing is to buy a long range battery-powered electric car, off the ‘Net. Car dealers are sooo R.M.Nixon (1960).

    Trouble is, Tesla is a little bit on the expensive side as to actual outlay*. On the other hand, there is very little maintenance, very low fuel cost (especially if you are in a position to install Solar-tricity) and exceptional safety. The US testing agency didn’t have enough points to give, so Tesla Model S got a straight 5* rating. So far, after over a year’s production of over 20’000 Model S, there has been zero casualty or serious injury. Yes, 3 cars got overheated after serious high-speed accidents (one of them at ~100 mph going straight through a concrete roundabout and into a tree, wheels fell off and flames occurred) but nobody was hurt and all 3 owners immediately ordered a new car to replace the used-up ones. Meanwhile, there are on the order of 250 conflagrations each day in USA in the “normal” fossil-fuel kind of cars, many of them fatal and some of them even spontaneous, but only those involving celebrities or heroism are ever mentioned on the media. Petrol is very flammable. Ford recently had a 7th (or was it 8th) recall of a new model due to a blaze hazard.

    So, do the calculations. Maybe wait 3-4 years until the more affordable Tesla Model E comes out. Or check out the “leasing” offer, which is actually a combination of a low-interest bank loan and a buy-back guarantee after 36 months (in USA only, as far as I know), to fill the gap.

    Moderate insurance rate due to low risk of injury (though parts are still expensive after fender-benders; human parts are even more costly!). No oil and filter change, no muffler, no spark plugs, no emission control (zero emission!) just new rubber, wipers, brake and coolant fluids and the annual checkup. Service is not a profit center at Tesla. You get a full “tank” every morning, five seconds to plug and unplug – no more waiting at noxious gas stations in any weather for expensive fuel. And for the occasional long trips there are (or soon will be) SuperChargers, for free!

    Just configure your own dream car on-line, fill out all the paperwork on-line, pay on-line and get it delivered once it is custom-made to your specs! And it’s spacious too. This guy runs weekend errands with his Tesla Model S, across Norway, in winter, for profit:

    Disclaimer: I have invested in TSLA shares and I want a Tesla for myself soon. Hopefully one will pay (part) of the other. 🙂

    Sorry if I went in over my head here. But it is a compelling car and concept. Don’t just take my word for it:

    * In many locations there are substantial subsidies available, like a tax rebate of up to 10’000 dollars as well as other benefits. YMMV.

  19. chigau (違う) says

    rnilsson #18
    If you are not and advertising ‘bot, did you notice what the topic of this thread is?

  20. Dave Ricks says

    I’m very sorry to read about the bad experiences here. I like to think the manufacturers got the memo at the corporate level 20-30 years ago that women have money and buy cars, and the corporate level does market research worldwide to understand the interests of their demographics rationally, and the sexism is at the dealership level (and as noted here, family ownership can keep a culture going for decades). Then again, the finance office system is weird for everybody.

    When I bought my present car (in Jessi Lang’s video), my dealership sales associate told me I would get a customer satisfaction survey from corporate, and he told me, “You know how this works; anything less than 100% is failing.” So we may have more power than we realize.

    In my case, I wrote I was very happy with my sales associate – by name – closing the deal by spending from his personal profit to pay the service department to swap the yellow Brembo calipers for silver and the sueded steering wheel for leather.

    Conversely, if we fill out the surveys with clearly stated negative feedback, the dealerships may be more afraid of that than we know. Corporate should be unhappy with dealerships going native with their brand.

    Anyway this thread is a good excuse for this ad.

  21. rnilsson says

    My apologies again for running away with the topic (which was actually car shopping and awkward experiences with sales people, so not too far away!) but this is something I do ponder over a lot lately.

    The on-line direct sale model is starting to win traction in other brands too, so the car dealer association fights back with law suits and proposed legislation in some US states, demanding that the obsolesence of their middlemanship be outlawed more effectively. So Tesla fans started an appeal to the White House, which avalanched to over 100’000 signatures, asking for federal action in defense of interstate trade. President Obama’s signature has still not been seen though.

    Also, sorry for posting and running (off to bed).

    Ctrl-alt-el could perhaps be the beginning of a new era … 😉 Happy New One!

  22. Janet says

    Do everything you can to let places like this know that you are not putting up with the sexism anymore. Remember: Salespeople earn commission……. you are only PAYING THE SALESPERSON FOR THEIR BAD BEHAVIOR when you decide to close a deal with the giving sexist salesperson.
    Even if you can’t find the car at another dealership, it could be worth letting them know that you will not close the sale with them as an individual BUT TELL THEM WHY (calmly, of course): THAT YOU WILL NOT DO BUSINESS WITH SOMEONE WHO IS SO DISRESECTFUL TO YOU/THEIR CUSTOMER

    One sexist pig at a time, MEN AND WOMEN can change the future! Thanks to all who have or who will boycott salespeople/businesses for their bad behavior…… and then tell them WHY.

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