- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

DEARBORN, Mich. | The old-time Ford advertisements from the turn of the 20th century tell a quaint story: They show the woman of that time as a fragile creature, somewhat prone to panic, in need of a simplistic automobile that even she can operate.

Times have most definitely changed. Ford vehicles are still durable and easy to handle, but the women behind the wheel bear little resemblance to the hothouse flower of yesteryear. She’s strong, self-assured, and very capable of taking care of herself. As the National Women’s History Project sponsors its 30th Women’s History Month in March, Ford Motor Co. is more aware than ever of the changing role that women hold in today’s society.

“Women pack a powerful purchasing punch,” said Christine Stasiw Lazarchuk, director of global marketing research for Ford. “And that’s grabbed the attention of all automakers searching for new business in an era of tight competition. Companies that fail to realize that will be left behind, especially now, when the margin between success and failure is narrow, and we’re fighting for every advantage and sale.”

Statistics prove her point. “Women are directly responsible for 45 to 50 percent of all new vehicles purchased in the U.S., and they have a direct influence of up to 80 percent of vehicles they don’t purchase themselves,” said Ms. Stasiw Lazarchuk. “And 65 percent take their own vehicles to the dealership or shop for repair. Women account for a whopping $85 billion in automotive and related businesses.”

Those numbers, from 2007, are only expected to grow stronger.

Women leading the way

But it’s not only the U.S. that is seeing women’s roles shift. “The whole world is changing, and it’s changing fast,” said Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s global trend manager. “Women are at the forefront of change that’s contributing significantly to an increase in their progress and power.”

Ms. Connelly sees five major global factors driving that change:

* Improved education: Although gender disparities persist in some countries, the gender gap in education continues to narrow, allowing women to find their way into the work force. In the U.S., the number of women earning Ph.D.s is rising at a rate of 63 percent a year.

* Career opportunities: With more education, women are finding their way into the work force, earning their own money. In China, for instance, 44 percent of government jobs are held by women.

* Financial independence: Increased earning power is leading to financial independence for more women. Working women in relationships often out-earn their partners — by 25 percent in the U.S. and 30 percent in Britain.

* Delayed marriage and parenthood: More and more women are choosing to delay marriage to pursue education, career and personal development, with many choosing to have fewer children later in life. In Bangladesh, for instance, marriage is delayed due to incentives for girls to attend primary and secondary school, and in Brazil, the declining fertility rate has been attributed to women modeling their lives on the small, happy families they see on television.

* Media: The spread of information in the media, particularly the Internet, has empowered women. About half of women worldwide own and use personal computers.

Changing roles as consumers

As the world changes, women obviously change with it, Ms. Connelly notes. When the economy began to crumble, many women took a lead role in keeping the home front together — either going back to work or taking over the belt-tightening of the budget. “Gender roles have blurred,” Ms. Connelly said. “You no longer have the women always staying at home and the man of the house always the breadwinner. You don’t have those definitive roles anymore.”

That could make things difficult for Ford’s marketing team, charged with reaching target demographics that include, of course, the specific needs and wants of women. Unless you remember a few things, said Chantel Lenard, Ford’s group marketing manager for global and midsize cars.

“Ford doesn’t design cars for the sexes,” she said. “We don’t design ‘male’ cars and ‘female’ cars. We design well-made, well-designed cars with features that appeal to both men and women.”

Ford researchers queried women with 2008 vehicles and found that these are the highest-ranked features they don’t have on their vehicles, but they’d like to:

* Run-flat tires (57 percent)

* Rain-sensing wipers (44 percent)

* Auto park assist (32 percent)

* Tire pressure monitoring system (18 percent)

Notice on the list, said Ms. Lenard, that these are features women like, but men wouldn’t object to. In fact, she said, oftentimes, men and women want the same things. They just use different language.

“We hear the same thing over and over again — both men and women want reliability, fuel economy, driving dynamics and safety. But the way that they express that is completely different,” Ms. Lenard said. “For instance, a woman might say, ‘I don’t want to break down somewhere and be stranded,’ and a man might say, ‘I don’t want to have to spend time getting my car fixed.’ ”

The differences continue, she notes. “Men and women both appreciate horsepower and responsive handling, but the woman may say it’s because they can help her get out of a dangerous situation quickly and easily, and the man might appreciate it because of the way the car can handle the corners. It’s just a different way of looking at the same situation. They both want the same features on the vehicle. They express it differently.”

That said, Ms. Lenard does believe there are some differences in the sexes. Females tend to notice details like warmer interior colors or hand-stitching. And they’re willing to pay for little extras that they feel are worth it, like heated steering wheels or specialized interior packages.

A growing influence

Women’s roles in society will continue to shift and change, said Ms. Connelly; that much is obvious. And as Ford grows as a company, it, too, will continue to monitor how this important demographic views not only vehicles, but the world in general.

“There is great growth potential for companies that understand what women want,” she said. “Every day, the world is changing and women play a key role in the shifts that are occurring. At Ford, we know that women represent a huge market opportunity, and we work to design, develop and market our products and services in a way that captures the attention of this incredibly influential buying group.”

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