Driving force: The women fighting for more female representation in the motoring industry

Women may be influencing the majority of car purchases, but yet only make up a small percentage of the industry itself

Sandy Myhre, left, founder of the Women's World Car of the Year Awards, with UAE-based motoring journalist Shereen Shabnam. Courtesy Shahzad Sheikh
Powered by automated translation

It seems the motoring world is only now taking notice of female car ownership. That demographic is increasing in the Middle East, with a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers suggesting there will be about three million women drivers in Saudi Arabia alone by next year. In the UAE, Nissan Middle East revealed in February that, as of last year, 27 per cent of its cars in the country were registered to women, a 22 per cent increase from the previous year.

Statistics suggest women play an influential role in as much as 85 per cent of car purchases across the globe.

"In some countries, 64 per cent of cars are bought by women, yet car advertising is still kind of patronising towards us," says Sandy Myhre, founder of the Women's World Car of the Year Awards, a competition that was established in 2010.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JUNE 24:  An advertising billboard for Japanese automaker Nissan shows a woman about to get into a car on the day women are legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "Today is such a historical day, we've been waiting for this for such a long time," she said. Saudi Arabia has today lifted its ban on women driving, which had been in place since 1957. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Last month, I met up with the New Zealander at the London Motor Show, where she was proud to proclaim that in the 121-year history of motor shows, it was the first time female journalists had been given their own stand.

Myhre, who began her career as a reporter in 1981, was inspired to start the competition when she began to notice there were no women among the 45 jury members at the World Car of the Year Awards. "I got on the internet and tried to search for female motoring writers," she said. "It was actually quite hard. Eventually I found eight and so we started with them."

The group comprises 37 professional motoring journalists from 28 different countries, with more coming on board this year. It is the only car awards in the world in which the winners are decided entirely by women.

"It's to educate two groups," she says of the event. "One is the motor industry, because sadly it hasn't recognised its own customers quickly enough. Secondly, we are a voice for women car owners worldwide."

Shereen Shabnam, a motoring journalist in the UAE, represented the Middle East at this year's awards. She has been writing about cars for 18 years and Myhre contacted her last year when the ban on female drivers was lifted in Saudi Arabia. "I go to Saudi Arabia regularly for work but always have to depend on other people when I'm there. When the ban was lifted it really felt that, for women, we were finally getting somewhere," Shabnam says. "If I can inspire other women to get on board and be on a platform where they can also present their opinions on cars, it's a good thing."

The Women's World Car of the Year Awards group includes 37 professional motoring journalists from 28 different countries, with more coming on board this year. Courtesy Shahzad Sheikh

While Shabnam is successful in her career now, it has not always been an easy ride. "It took 12 to 13 years of testing cars before I started to get recognised as a serious motoring journalist in the Middle East," she says. "The turning point was when they realised that a majority of my readers were their customers. Then it's not important if the writer is a man or a woman, as long as they can get customers through the door spending money."

But she had to cope with standing out at male-dominated events and car launches for years before she was fully accepted by her contemporaries. "You could see the look on the male journalists' faces. 'What is she doing here?' they would be thinking," she says. "That's changed over time and most of them are like family to me now."

Shabnam has cleared a path for other women to follow in her tyre tracks, and says she would love to see more female car journalists in the Middle East. "There is so much potential and so much going on – sometimes I wish I could duplicate myself to do everything there is to do. You can achieve so much and have a real impact," she says.

While women such as Myhre and Shabnam are leading change across the world, there are still obstacles on the road ahead. Myhre says that even within the motoring industry, female representation is limited. "The number of women at management level in the motor industry is something like 12 per cent. At the higher echelons, at executive level, it's only four per cent," she says.

This is a crucial statistic when you consider that women use a different criteria to buy a car than men. For example, safety, storage, value for money and driveability are important for women. If the car industry is to tailor new cars to the preferences of women more effectively, it's essential to have more of them working in the industry. "If they don't, there's not going to be any change," Myhre says. "There have to be more women at executive level making decisions.

You simply can't ignore us any more."