In 2019, six months after Ford finally confirmed it would be building an all-electric version of its most popular vehicle ever, the F-series truck, the automaker released a commercial showing off the prototype. The F-150 Lightning commercial features longtime Ford truck owners—men wearing baseball hats, button-downs, and construction vests—professing their love for the F-Series. Ford had taken the men to a rail yard to prove to them that an electric truck had the power to tow more than 1 million pounds of train carriage. The person Ford chose to make this demonstration was the truck’s chief engineer, a woman named Linda Zhang.
For years, the EV has been synonymous with one man: Tesla CEO Elon Musk. And in the US—as well as in more developed EV markets such as China—women typically make up less than a third of the people buying new EVs. But as the industry pursues mass adoption—in 2021, only 4 percent of US car sales were EVs, compared to 17 percent in Europe and 16 percent in China —carmakers are trying to diversify the image of EVs and encourage more women to buy electric, say analysts. In the past year, Ford, Audi, and Cadillac have all released EV ads starring women behind the wheel.
“Automakers are realizing that women play a key role, not just in buying the vehicles but influencing others like males to buy vehicles,” says Marc Bland, chief diversity officer at research company S&P Global Mobility. He adds that car commercials and online content now feature women more heavily as the driver, not just the passenger.
Ford declined to share statistics about how many of the 200,000 reservations for the F-150 Lightning were made by women. But the company has made Zhang the female face of its electric truck. She stars in YouTube ads, and pictures of her standing next to the giant truck have been disseminated across the internet.
When WIRED met Zhang in June, she was keen to paint the F-150 Lightning—which started being delivered to customers in May—as a car that appealed to what women want. “That higher seating position is something that we find to be important for people, particularly women, because you're projecting this bit of power,” she says. Later, she described how the truck’s front storage area, called a “frunk,” was useful during a recent trip to the plant nursery. (Ford has previously described it as a place to put golf clubs.) “For the little flowers, I was able to put them in the mega power frunk, and we have little dividers so they don't slide around,” she says.
But to persuade more women to buy the F-150 Lightning, Ford first has to overcome a stubborn EV gender gap. Ten years ago, when the first of the latest wave of electric vehicles hit the market, the vast majority of EV drivers were wealthy, well educated, and male, says Scott Hardman, a researcher at UC Davis who studies consumer attitudes towards EVs. Now, the demographics of EV buyers are changing, his most recent surveys show—average income and education levels are coming down. But 76 percent of buyers in California, America’s biggest EV market, still identify as male. “We have not really seen a change in terms of the gender split,” Hardman says.
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The EV gender split was a surprise to many researchers, because the first generation of electric cars, back in the early 1900s, were more popular with women than men, says Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the UK’s University of Sussex, England. “The rich ladies of the house didn't want to bother with all the grease, mess, and noise of fuel-powered cars, but men liked the challenge of motoring.” A history of the electric car, published by the US Department of Energy, reached the same conclusion. “They were quiet, easy to drive, and didn’t emit a smelly pollutant like the other cars of the time,” it read. “Electric cars quickly became popular with urban residents—especially women.”
When electric vehicles made a comeback in the 2000s, there was an expectation that they would once again prove popular among female drivers. When Sovacool surveyed more than 5,000 people from across five Nordic countries back in 2015, he found that women cared more than men about emissions and were more likely to value the quietness associated with EVs.
But recent trends haven’t backed that up. A June survey by the consultancy McKinsey’s Center for Future Mobility found that 41 percent of American men say their next vehicle will likely be a battery electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle, while just 29 percent of US women say the same. The research shows that the gender gap is closing in places where electric vehicles took off more quickly, which suggests the problem could resolve itself with time. In France, 53 percent of men are EV-curious, as are 43 percent of women. Eighty-one percent of Chinese men want to go electric, compared to 77 percent of Chinese women. But even in those places, disparity exists.
US carmakers want that to change. They are trying to persuade more women to go electric by featuring them more heavily in their marketing. A Ford commercial for the F-150 Lightning from December 2021, directed by Nomadland writer and director Chloé Zhao, shows one woman using the truck’s battery to power her home during a power outage and another gliding safely and quietly through an intersection. Other local automakers are doing the same. The Audi commercial for the brand's new electric sports car, the RS e-tron GT, stars singer Janelle Monáe telling drivers they don’t have to compromise to participate in progress, while the commercial for the all-electric Cadillac Lyric shows actress Regina King taking control of the car.
There are theories as to why fewer women want to buy EVs, though the sector's marketing relies on general assumptions that might feel out-of-date to some drivers.
“Women tend to be a bit more pragmatic in terms of their buying decisions,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of Insights at car industry research company Edmunds, adding that EVs tend to be more expensive than mainstream vehicles. “Most women are not as concerned with the status of having the latest and greatest, the coolest gadgets.”
The lack of choice in the US EV market is also a problem, says Laycee Schmidtke, an expert in automotive marketing, who makes YouTube videos under the name Miss GoElectric. “Women with families are looking for something that can serve that family,” she says, adding there’s only a few brands offering electric SUVs with three rows of seats. “So they need all that space, and there are limited options on the marketplace.”
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In countries like Norway, EVs are expensive, and that means families often have the budget for just one car, says Sovacool, whose research shows that men use cars more than women and are less likely to use public transport.
In countries like the US, women may be more likely to have range anxiety, suggests Philipp Kampshoff, who heads up McKinsey’s Center for Future Mobility in the Americas. “This anxiety around, ‘Am I going to be somewhere, lost, with no charger close by?’ could be scarier,” he says.
Joan Hollins just bought her first electric vehicle this month, a Hyundai Kona EV in a glittery green-gray. She loves it—and loves that her grandkids love it, especially the 10-year-old who is “really into alternative energy.” But as she began researching electric vehicles on the internet, she quickly noticed a kind of toxicity in online communities, which tend to be dominated by men—negative comments, arguments, people who seemed to be anti-EV. “The Facebook forums are atrocious,” she says. Perhaps these mostly male spaces, she wonders, are scaring some prospective buyers away.
But in China, carmakers are marketing to women by giving them more opportunities to customize their vehicles—in ways that might not appeal to consumers in the US or Europe. In May 2022, Great Wall Motors released Ora, a pastel-colored EV in the shape of a VW Beetle, which includes an LED makeup mirror, a “Lady Driving Mode” with a voice-activated parking system, and a “Warm mode,” designed to soothe drivers suffering from period pain. Another Chinese brand, Wuling, markets its mini EV to women, offering the model in a series of “macaroon” colors and letting buyers add customized wheels or decorate the outside of the car with cartoon decals.
“The male population likes to talk about the hardware. The female population likes to customize the experience or tailor it to their lifestyle,” says Bill Russo, former head of carmaker Chrysler’s northeast Asia business in Beijing who now runs the Shanghai-based advisory firm Automobility. “So doing things like adding decals or making it my own matters more for that type of audience; you seek brands that are catering to that, like Ora.”
Even if carmakers start to reach out more to women, S&P’s Bland believes it is important to recognize which female groups are early adopters. His research shows that in the US, African American and Hispanic women buy more EVs than African American and Hispanic men, while Asian women are right on par with Asian men.
“The data shows that you're starting to see a trend of all-black commercials, all-Hispanic commercials, where before there was more of a general kind of push,” he says. “I would think that the EV industry should be looking at and catering more to the women who are slightly earlier adopters than the more hesitant men,” he says.
For Hollins, the new Hyundai EV owner, it wasn’t a particular ad or marketing strategy that sealed the deal. It was another woman, who passed near Hollins’ western Colorado town with her little dog in her own electric Hyundai, one in the “prettiest blue color.” They got to talking; she was Hollins’ age, and on a cross-country road trip. “I didn’t know about charging stations. I didn’t know you could get from A to B in an electric car,” Hollins says. But once she saw someone she could identify with driving electric, the whole thing felt much more approachable.