Verena Mei began her career as a poster model for a tire company. She would pose for cameras in a tank top and tiny shorts, and then sign her portrait for fans, most of them men.
So when she told friends she wanted to be a race car driver, she said, they would respond: “That’s cute, Verena.”
“That didn’t make me feel good because I had this dream, I had this drive within me,” she said. “Even at the track nobody would take me seriously.”
Mei had to prove her passion was genuine by showing up to the track alone, unloading her car herself, changing her own tires and doing her own repairs. She became a top competitor in the punishing sport of rallying.
Mei was a guest at the LA Auto Show Girls’ Pit Stop booth, hosted by Jessica Chou, a YouTuber who posts tutorials showing women how to fix their cars.
Chou hopes the booth will make women a little less intimidated to get under the hood or start a career in the automotive industry, she said.
“There wasn’t a single aspect of the automotive industry that felt comfortable for me,” she said. “Going to the dealership and negotiating was tough for me. Going to a mechanic, that was very hard. And even in an auto parts store, (I was) very confused by the walls and walls of products.”
About 28 percent of jobs in the motor vehicle manufacturing industry are held by women, and about 21 percent of dealerships’ employees are women, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Yet women’s spending power is significant. Women influence 80 percent to 85 percent of all automotive purchases and hold the majority of U.S. driver’s licenses, said Jody DeVere, founder of AskPatty.com, a website that offers auto resources for women and businesses.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said DeVere, who has advised major brands, such as BMW, on how to better market to women. “Our industry knows how valuable women are, but they struggle to make the change and take the necessary steps.”
Additionally, though data suggest that 25 percent of women buy luxury goods, often the items are registered under men’s names, said Amy Marentic, president of Lincoln China, part of Ford Motor Co.
It’s likely that more than 50 percent of luxury goods are purchased by women, she said.
“That kind of spending power, if you don’t capture it, shame on your business,” she said.
Marentic said she’s seen a lot of progress in terms of how many women are interested and hired in automotive industries.
She became an aerodynamics engineer for an automaker at 22. Her first time on site of a wind tunnel test, there was no women’s restroom, so they had to build one for her, she said.
Almost 20 years later, Marentic said her experience as a female executive informs the Lincoln brand in many ways and she spends a lot of time thinking about how to make women’s lives easier when they get into cars.
“The one thing you find with women is you need to go where they’re at and (target them) in a way that’s important to them,” she said.
The auto show can be a place for women who want to learn more about cars and automotive industries, said Lefty Tsironis, director of marketing and communications for AutoMobility LA and the auto show.
According to Foresight Research, in 2015 about 47 percent of LA Auto Show attendees were women and in 2016 that number decreased to about 35 percent, although it fluctuates from year to year, Tsironis said.
“It’s a great place to meet up, to share and overcome if there is any fear,” he said. “Sometimes you can break the ice the best by immersion.”
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