Women's Studies 30

Women and Technology


by Heather Kile

The percentage of women buying cars in the United States is climbing. In 1984 women purchased only 20% of the new vehicles bought in the United States. This number rose to 28% in 1990. Currently women influence 80% of the decisions on which automobile to buy. Women are also buying about half of the new cars in the United States but these cars are mostly priced under $20,000 (Source). About 97 percent of the women buying these cars are planning to be the primary driver of the car. The women who seem to be buying automobiles have an average age of 41, 78 percent have graduated from college, and have a median household income of $63,000. (Source)

A specific type of vehicle that has become preferred by women is the sport-utility vehicle. Married couples with children make up half of the sport-utility vehicle market. The sale of SUVs in general has grown from 1.5 million in 1992 to 2.8 million in 1999. (Source) The 2001 report shown later in this page reports that 17 million SUVs were sold that year.

In this report I will start with some commonly accepted reasons for women buying SUVs. I will then go into three articles that call into question the given reasons for women choosing this type of vehicle. I will present some observations I have made about how women are being targeted through advertising. Next I focus on some actual statistic I found giving the gender breakdown of who is buying what class of SUVs. I will end with some of my own thoughts and analysis and a list of sources should you want to read more about this topic.


The Dodge Le Femme was a car designed in 1956 by a group of men and was a result of their ideas about what a woman should drive. Since this was not what the women actually wanted the result was an unsuccessful product. SUVs are clearly being bought by a number of women and thus must be appealing to women. The latest thinking is that women are not really looking for much different in a vehicle than men. "Men and women like vehicles that are stylish, safe, fun to drive, an expression of their personality, meet their needs, reliable, loaded with features, and come at a reasonable price." Women also, more than men, seek a car that is well made.

Women will buy what they can afford and one article claims that as women earn more money they then have more disposable income and thus their purchasing habits change. Economic times are good and thus people do not need to choose the most practical car but are selecting cars that have more of a personality.

There are a number of commonly accepted reasons explaining why women seem to be flocking to the SUV dealerships. Women above everything else are looking for a safe vehicle. Recent reports have been indicating that the bigger automobiles handle crashes better and also due to their size SUVs provide a better driving view than other smaller cars. The bigger the car the better. This size also allows a person, no matter what their size to feel big and powerful. (Source)

Sport-utility vehicles are automobiles that people see themselves looking good in. These vehicles are about vanity while also being very versatile. You can move and haul almost anything as well as providing comfortable passenger seating. "SUVs have proven to be the go-anywhere, do-anything type of vehicles that accommodate the many different roles we play in life: professional, spouse, outdoor adventurer, parent, traveler, business owner, etc."

One of the roles that we like to play is that of adventurer. The SUVs are made to express an adventurous personality and encourage people to try new things. They are for active people and have the ability to be taken off-road to explore uncharted territory. (Source)

With the influx of women into the automobile market it has caused automakers to also hire women engineers and the numbers are steadily increasing. These women are the engineers and designer and are providing features that will be appealing to women. Some of the new features that they have contributed can fit into four basic categories, the first being playing the role of homemaker. For example women are usually the ones who perform the chore of doing the food shopping and thus the designers have provided hooks in the back of SUVs to facilitate the attaching of grocery bags for easy transportation. Women are also the ones who are hauling the children around and thus SUVs now contain drop-down mirrors that allow the driver to see the passengers in the rear seat easily. They also provide rectangular cup holders to accommodate juice boxes. There have of course been improvements made in safety such as adding airbags. And finally women are physiologically smaller than men and therefore these 'trucks' that were once catering to a man's body now provided things such a thinner steering wheel that is easier of a women's smaller hands to grip. These features though probably not deciding factors on the type of car are meant to lure the females to a particular brand. (Source)

Now that we have looked at the usual reasons given for women joining the SUV market let us turn to some specific articles that rebut or give different reasons for this trend. According to Alexis Leigh who gives a feminist account of her reason why women are driving sport-utility vehicles. She claims that the elevated position that the SUV puts the driver in allows them to look down on all of the people who are driving in cars around them. The men use this vantage point to checkout women. The men bought the SUVs for this purpose and eventually a man while driving with his girlfriend in the passenger seat stared at a woman in a lower vehicle and she figured out the true purpose the vehicle was serving. The women then began buying the SUVs to defend themselves. "And instead of the man being able to observe them from the divine, lofty vantage point of the SUV, we have to look over, and they just give us dirty looks."

The small SUVs seem to be especially popular with women according to an article in a July USA Today issue. These SUVs seem to be popular due to their cheap prices and their car like drivability. Although these SUVs are typically not as safe as their bigger SUV counterparts due to their sheer comparative lack of size, women who rate safety as a top concern with their vehicle are consuming a large number of these automobiles. The smaller SUVs are also considered more likely to rollover, which adds another safety concern. This article shows that women are not necessarily buying the SUVs for their safety due to their size. It also mentions that although these automobiles are more likely to rollover, women are less likely to be acting in ways that lead to rollovers such as driving at night, driving recklessly, and driving after consuming alcohol.

Beth Gallagher writes a bitter article suggesting a variety of reason for why women may be choosing SUVs. She begins with a short discussion of some of the negative aspects of SUVs such as their environmental unfriendliness due to their pollution and gas consumption as well as the danger they pose to smaller automobiles. Gallagher hypothesizes that perhaps since Americans are getting fatter that they need the extra room provided by sport-utility vehicles. Or perhaps it is a question of equality. "Is it a question of women having the same God-given right to be road-hogging, gas-guzzling, accident-causing, environment-polluting assholes that men can be?" She also makes a point of addressing the safety issues. Gallagher wants to know if the women driving these SUVs are sleeping better knowing that her kids are safer in her bigger vehicle but also knowing that she is more likely to kill children who are riding in cars. Though this article was a bit of a tirade it did raise some interesting points that are worth noting.


What types of women are now purchasing SUVs? This is a question that I have been asking and I have been reading a lot of articles on different websites. While looking through my Sports Illustrated for Women magazine I started to notice a trend in people the advertisements for SUVs were trying to attract. The sheer number of these ads alone was impressive. I also noticed that while flipping through other magazines such as Glamour and Cosmopolitan the SUV ads were few or nonexistent. Let us now take a look at the data I collected by looking through a few copies of each of these magazines.

Sports Illustrated for Women

In a magazine that is about 140 pages long there were 4 SUV ads. These were also the only type of automobile ads found in this magazine.

The first advertisement was for Subaru. The main theme of the ad was marking the safety by showing pictures of crash tests and talking about the crash test ratings. The ad featured a big picture of Martina Navatilova but also contained a small picture of a sports utility vehicle. The caption read, "Subaru is a proud sponsor of women who kick butt".

Another ad found in this magazine was for Jeep. The big title was, "Now you can share the same 4x4, even if you don't share the same interests". The ad is a big picture of a Jeep Liberty. The Liberty is sparkling clean on one side and the other is completely covered by mud. Two bikes cover the top of the Liberty, the one on the clean side is also completely clean and the one on the dirty side is also mud covered. Some wording can also be found on the ad that talks about the good on and off-road performance of this vehicle.

Two ads for Chevrolets were among the group of four. The first one is for a Chevrolet Blazer. The title was, "Justify owning gore-tex". The pictures shows this sport-utility vehicle driving through pretty high water. The second ad is titled with, "Beautiful. In a nails for breakfast kind of way". This ad is not exclusive to sport-utility vehicles since it also contains pictures of pick-up trucks. The bottom caption is, "Once again wearing a bowtie is a bold statement."

The final ad found in this magazine was for the Ford Explorer. The main message and heading for this add was "The best-selling SUV on earth just got better." The ad was two pages with a big picture of an Explorer with a list of new features on their new model for the 2002 Explorer. There is also some text that says "No Boundaries".


Glamour is a typically 250-page magazine. However there seem to be an absence of advertisements for SUVs in this magazine. There was maybe one SUV ad and one other car advertisement. The only sport-utility vehicle advertisement that I found in this magazine was for a Saturn VUE. The heading was "Inhabitants of the polar regions" and the ad showed a picture of the SUV on an iceberg surrounded by all different types of vehicles. The caption at the bottom read "At home in almost any environment".


In perusing a number of issues of Cosmopolitan I found that there was a general lack of automobile advertisements. There was maybe one car ad and there were no SUV ads in the magazines that I searched.

The difference in the target audiences of these magazines also depicts whom the SUV manufacturers aim to sell their vehicles to. It is clear that the athletic, active women are the ones that read Sports Illustrated for Women and are the women seeing the advertisements and not the women reading Cosmopolitan. The Subaru advertisement featuring a tennis star is aiming to attract a group of women who are very athletic and interested in sports. The ads in this magazine also seem to try to make the off-road capability of the SUV attractive. The single ad that I found in Glamour was definitely a different type of ad than the ones in Sports Illustrated for Women. "Television commercials are increasingly showing women behind the wheels of SUVs, climbing boulders, beating men up steep hills and racing over parking lot obstacles to reach that last open spot. All of these advertisers are promoting the same philosophy - you can do anything in a sports-utility vehicle." This was not meant to be a representative sample but just was an observation that I found and thought to be interesting. It would also be interesting to see what type of SUV advertising are in Good Housekeeping or other magazines targeted at mothers. For any actual generalizations to be made with confidence there would have to be a review of much more data. I have just pointed out a trend that I noticed and thought the ads at least gave some insight into how the manufacturers are trying to market their vehicles.


Source: CNW Marketing Research, Bandon, OR


Type of SUV
2001 Sales
Male Sample
Female Sample
Full Size
Total All Models

Click here to view the entire report

From these statistics it is obvious that men are buying a lot more of the luxury SUVs such as the Lexus RX300 and the Chevrolet Avalanche while the women buy compact SUVs such as a Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Chevrolet Blazer. The Luxury SUVs are typically priced around 30,000 to 40,000 where as the Compact SUVs are more likely to be priced around 25,000 to 35,000 dollars.


Now I will attempt to pull all of the information that I gathered together and give some insight into why I believe women are buying SUVs and summarize some of the points that have been illustrated above. It is clear that more women in general are buying cars and are having an influence on the cars that their husbands are buying. Which car to buy is becoming more of a family decision where both partners have input. >From my personal experience, my parents bought an SUV and it was a bigger car for driving kids around and moving in and out of college but it was also going to be used by my dad on the weekends to go fishing on the beach. It was my mom who was buying the SUV but it was my father that was the deciding factor on the purchasing of that type of vehicle. If it had been strictly my mom's call perhaps she would have opted for a minivan or something like that. I know that my personal experience is far from representative of what is going on all over America but it does show one reason that wasn't mentioned in any articles about how one woman came to buy an SUV.

A lot has been mentioned about the women wanting that sense of adventure and in this case it was actually my father who sought to go off-road while my mom sticks to paved roads. I tried to find some statistics on what the women who bought these cars did in fact actually use them for but I was unsuccessful. I wondered how many of these women did actually head off-road and how many times a year and what the main purpose of the SUV was and other factors like those. I would also like to note that the statistics that I found were on who was buying the SUV and I would be curious to see some statistics representing who was the primary driver of the SUV. For most of the upper-middle and upper class women who are the housewives in charge of raising the children I wonder whether the men who are making the actual income are buying the cars but then the wife is driving it. I am sure that these make up some of the women who are influencing the sales but are not the actual buyers.

I would say that there are those independent women who either don't have kids or who have careers outside the house who purchase their own SUVs with intentions of taking it out in the wilderness somewhere but there are also those full-time housewives who we are more likely to notice picking there children up from school and shopping in the grocery store who all seem to have SUVs these days. I would guess that this second group is made up of women who are simply sticking to the regular roads and only using the 4-wheel drive capability in the event of bad weather. For these women owning an SUV rather than a mini-van, which might actually be a more practical choice, seems to be a really trendy thing. These women feel like even though they are standing at little league games on the weekend instead of climbing the Appalachian trial, that they have the vehicle that would allow them to make an adventurous journey if they found the time. For both groups who seem to be the primary women in the market the SUV is definitely an indication of status and confirmation that they are still 'cool'.

My research into this topic proved to be very interesting. It was frustrating at times because I could not find all of the information that I wanted but it gave me some new perspective on the women that I see driving around in their sport-utility vehicles. I showed the information that I actually found and then I present some of my own ideas. I still have some that are not exactly congruent with the information I have provided but I think that they are valid points none-the-less.


Alexis Leigh. http://www.tessier.com/2000/Life/11/02/suv_theory/
CNW Marketing Research, Bandon, OR.
Facts on Women Drivers. About.com. http://4wheeldrive.about.com/blwomendrivers.htm
Gallagher, Beth. Road Sows. salon.com. May 24, 2000. http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2000/05/24/road_sow/
Healey, James. Small SUVs catch on, especially with women. USA Today. July 31, 2001. http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2001-07-31-suv.htm
Hitt, Jack. The Hidden Life of SUVs. MOJO Wire Magazine. July/August 1999. http://www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/JA99/rant.html
Mammer, Scott. Sport Utility Bazaar. edmunds.com. April 18, 2001. http://www.edmunds.com/news/feature/vehicles/42980/article.html
Palmer, Ingrid Loeffler. Why Women Love Sport-Utility Vehicles. edmunds.com. March 22, 2002. http://www.edmunds.com/news/feature/general/42997/article.htm/
Pros and Cons of Owning an SUV. About.com. http://4wheeldrive.about.com/blprosconssuv.htm
Why Women Are Buying SUV's. About.com. http://4wheeldrive.about.com/library/weekly/aa021301a.htm
Women Truck Designers. About.com. http://4wheeldrive.about.com/library/weekly/aa062101a.htm
1996-1998 Female Buyer Study Demographic Highlights. American Women Road & Travel. http://www.awroadandtravel.com/company/marketing/femaledemo.html

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last updated 5/24/02