By Mary Lowry
About 10 years ago, or maybe it was about 15 years ago – oh, who cares – I was invited by a car-company representative to an event that was for women auto writers only. When I told my friend Margaret about it, she said “Ick. Why bother?” I could see her point, but I went anyway.
And I had a great time.
Every aspect of the car business – including automotive design, production, marketing and selling – has been entrenched forever in male domination. The same is true about automotive journalism. There may be a lot of women writing about cars, but the ratio of women to men is about the same as it is for coal mining.
Generally speaking (there are exceptions, of course), there’s a big difference between the way men and women relate to cars. A woman doesn’t see a rusted-out shell of a barely identifiable old car in an overgrown field and think about how much fun it would be to spend the next 10 years of her life restoring it with her bare hands. A man doesn’t drive past a new-car dealership and have his eyes automatically zero in on the vehicles with the prettiest colors. A woman with way-above-average interest in cars might be able to identify most of the different models she sees on the road, but an avid car guy can recite the entire history of every make and model ever produced.
I’ve been writing about cars since 1992 and I can still go to an automotive press event, get stuck at a dinner table with certain male colleagues, and feel like I have the intelligence of a mold spore because I lack an encyclopedic knowledge of exhaust systems. Fortunately, over the years I’ve learned who the fun guys are, so we sit together and have rollicking conversations, not stultifying ones.
Three years ago, a woman named Christine Overstreet resuscitated the women-only automotive event when she launched a thing called Heels &Wheels. Overstreet, a native of Oregon, has worked in automotive marketing and public relations since 1997. “My friends were always commenting about me being a woman working in a man’s world,” she said. The longer she was in the business, the more aware she became of the male dominance. “I wondered what it would be like if all the women came together for an event,” she said. “Finally, I felt I had been in the industry long enough to try and make it happen.”
And so she did.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done so far in my career,” Overstreet said.
This year, Heels &Wheels took place late last month in Central Oregon. Ten different car companies each brought one of their newest vehicles, and all of the representatives from those car companies who attended the event were women.
An enthusiastic band of women who write about cars had the pleasure of test-driving the 10 vehicles over a two-day period on curvy roads and flat-out highways in Oregon’s mountains and desert. The group of women included long-timers who’ve been writing about cars for decades, mostly for newspapers and magazines, as well as young up-and-comers with their own websites.
From what I saw, every woman at Heels &Wheels 2013 had a blast. If there was someone who didn’t, then she’s really good at faking it.
But the event wasn’t all giggling and pillow fights. Along with the important seat-time in the participating cars, the program included presentations by women from Kelley Blue Book and the Cooper Tire company. The KBB rep showed statistics indicating that women make more than 80 percent of all consumer purchases, including cars, and every month 500,000 women are in the market to buy a car within a one- to three-month window. The Cooper Tire rep contributed valuable information about tire safety, buying and maintenance.
Another Heels &Wheels highlight was the 2014 Jeep Cherokee on display throughout the event, and an informational presentation and walk-around of the vehicle with Chris Barman, a Jeep executive – and yes, a she. Barman announced that the all-new Cherokee goes on sale during third quarter 2013, which starts soon.
A few years back, I discovered a fledgling automotive website created by and targeted toward gay men. Along with car reviews and other auto-related stories, the site had an activism angle and was outing car companies that didn’t offer employee benefits for same-sex couples.
Taking a similar approach in favor of women in the automotive world, I’d like to recognize and thank the car companies who spent the time, money and energy to support and participate in the Heels &Wheels women-only automotive event. Here are the brands and the vehicle each one provided:
- Aston Martin DB9
- Buick Verano Turbo
- Dodge Dart GT
- Hyundai Santa Fe
- Jeep Grand Cherokee
- Kia Cadenza
- Mazda Mazda6
- Mini Cooper Roadster
- Mitsubishi Outlander
- Volkswagen Jetta Turbo Hybrid