Saturday, January 06, 2007

A woman's place is in the driver's seat: thoughts on negotiation and gender in the car dealer's showroom

Negotiation and gender in the car dealershipDuring my first year of blogging I wrote one of my favorite posts: "More than we bargained for: does gender matter in negotiation?"

A meditation on gender, negotiation, and social behavior, this post began with a description of a Kia commercial depicting a husband and wife shopping for a new car, portraying the wife as bystander while the husband negotiates.

As it turns out, truth bears a striking resemblance to fiction. Here's my story:

During the worst time possible--i.e., just one day before I was leaving for a long trip to the U.K.--my car expired. It did so in the most spectacular way possible--ignition, clutch, radiator, and exhaust system imploded simultaneously.

So the waning days of 2006 found me in the overflow lots of local car dealers hunting for end-of-year specials.

(For those of you who have not bought a car lately, recall that the negotiation begins the moment a member of the so-called "sales team" approaches you as you stand there peering hungrily into the window of a 2007 Mazda RX-8. This is the moment when the sales person attempts to gain your good will, earn your trust, and induce you to buy.)

On the first day my husband tagged along to keep me company. Even though I took the lead in the discussions and we both made it clear that the car was for me, sales staff (every one of them men) addressed most of their remarks and questions to my husband as if I'd been invisible. (I can only surmise that they they must have missed the memo that coverture is no longer the law in the U.S.)

I also noticed that they would point out certain features to him but not to me (the engine or the location of the spare tire and jack) or point out features to me but not to him (lighted vanity mirrors, cup holders in the backseat). This happened even when I made it clear that I wasn't interested in backseat cup holders, it was engine performance, road handling, and fuel efficiency that I cared about. (Surely I can't be the only woman who wants to see what's under the hood.) This happened consistently from one dealership to the next.

The next day I decided to continue my search without my husband in tow. I figured it would be a lot less aggravating, and I was tired of being invisible.

The first day had been for looking only. I decided to devote this next day to test driving.

For me, manual transmission is a must. I've driven a stick since I got my license and enjoy the control it gives me over the car and the road. At every dealership I visited but one, car salesmen were amazed that a woman could actually handle a stick shift. At the conclusion of test drives, some even behaved as if they’d just seen a trained monkey perform a particularly good trick. Needless to say, this did not win any bonus points with me. One of them even commented, "Good girl!" (Lucky for him he did not try to pat me on the head. I would have beaned him with a cup holder.)

What was so deeply discouraging about this experience is how universally and openly held these beliefs about women’s competence seemed to be (at least at car dealerships in southern New England). Stereotypes die hard, even in the 21st century.

The behavior I observed was overt and obvious. It was impossible to miss or mistake.

Which led me to wonder about the extent of its covert manifestations.

If this is the tip of the iceberg that is visible, what lies below the water line?

If this is what it's like at car dealerships, what's happening in board rooms, on factory floors, in classrooms, in town halls and state houses--even, perish the thought, at mediation tables?

To what extent might any of us be complicit in perpetuating these archaic notions? What stereotypes do each of us still cling to?

America may have elected its first woman Speaker of the House, but it looks like it still can't imagine a woman in the driver's seat.