Does ‘lady-driven’ still sell cars? There are reasons to slam brakes on the term

Used-vehicle ads can be snappy and effective, and some even go viral for their cleverness — but others miss the mark.

Some are so misguided, they veer into sexism and misogyny.

Enter lady-driven — for decades, the term has come to mean a car has been “driven gently.”

Today, it’s considered by many to be an antiquated term. 

Sudbury, Ont.-born Sarah Pelletier, who lives in Ottawa, was perusing the used-vehicle section of online marketplace Kijiji in the Greater Sudbury Area, curious about prices and availability.

Her search brought up dozens of ads, and some of them frustrated her.

She posted the following tweet, saying it made her “angry for so many reasons.”

In a later email to CBC News, Pelletier said, “This language got under my skin because driving can’t and shouldn’t be gendered.

“The act of driving, adhering to the rules of the road, paying attention to obstructions, are not inherent skills, traits, qualities of a particular gender, but perhaps stem from the way that folks might be taught to drive differently and have different expectations imposed on them because of their gender or how they present.”

The term also focuses on women and men, leaving gender-diverse people out of the conversation.

‘Clear is the new clever’

CBC reached out to the four Kijiji ad posters that Pelletier tweeted about, and asked them about the condition of their vehicles and what they meant by the term lady-driven.

Two of the four ignored the message.

Photo of Sarah Pelletier.
Sarah Pelletier was frustrated after seeing the term ‘lady-driven’ pop up in her search for used vehicles on Kijiji. Pelletier, who was born in Sudbury and now lives in Ottawa, feels it’s sexist, old-fashioned, and left out gender diverse and non-binary people. (Submitted by Sarah Pelletier)

However, the third responded: “Apologies for wording the statement that way,” and explained the vehicle’s condition. And the four poster said that to them, lady-driven means, “Grandma never went four wheeling with it in bush or drag racing.”

Half the listings are still on the site.

So is the term an effective marketing strategy?

Not really, according to an expert, according to experts.

“As we progress, learn and grow as a society, that term [lady-driven] might not necessarily be the right one to use for some individuals,” said Jean Beauchemin, a business professor at Cambrian College in Sudbury. “I’d suggest you get to know your customer base and really engage in those discussions, and that could help you create long-term partnerships.

“Clear is the new clever.”

Beauchemin said the strength of the product outweighs gimmicks when it comes to making a sale.

Dispelling myths about female drivers

There are two conflicting myths surrounding female drivers: They’re gentler with their vehicles than men, and they’re bad drivers. 

Neither really matters when a mechanic pops the hood.

Photo of Jean Beauchemin.
Jean Beauchemin, a Cambrian College professor, says while ‘lady-driven’ might have been an effective marketing term years ago, it’s no longer widely accepted. Instead, he says, clear is the new clever. (Submitted by Jean Beauchemin)

Stefanie Bruinsma, an automotive service technician from Kitchener, Ont., said relating gender to the type of shape a vehicle is in or its appropriateness for certain individuals is “ridiculous.” 

“It’s not even correct. So mostly, it makes me laugh and a little bit sad that we’re still here,” said Bruinsma, who’s with the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research at the University of Waterloo, where she’s manager of industry engagement. 

Bruinsma runs a business called Auto Cate, which aims to educate vehicle owners to prevent them from getting swindled at an auto shop.

Recently, her 72-year-old mother was in a car accident with her Toyota Matrix. Bruinsma said that while her mother felt OK, she complained of bad knee pain after her legs smashed into the dashboard on impact.

Bruinsma’s mother was driving with her adjustable seat all the way forward to reach the gas and brake pedals and to see over the dashboard. Her injuries are common in women who have experienced a collision. 

“When engineers design the interior, all the functions around the car in terms of how high should the engine be for an average person and how do they get in and out of the car, how should you make the seat for the average height and weight of a person — all those constraints and numbers are based on the average male body,” said Bruinsma.

“Which means, quite literally, cars aren’t built for the average woman or the average human. So women statistically are injured more in car accidents.”

The tall and short of it

In addition to being more prone to collision injuries, people of shorter stature face driving inconveniences and challenges, even when it comes to otherwise banal actions like braking and accelerating.

One of Bruinsma’s friends, a small woman, was complaining to her about how she hates to drive. When asked why, she told Bruinsma she had to physically lift her foot up and move it to the brake pedal, then back to the gas pedal.

“One, it’s exhausting her poor muscles in her leg, and two, it would make her 100 per cent more of a jerky driver,” said Bruinsma.

The friend’s size, of course, was not taken into consideration when the vehicle was designed.

The alternative action for someone taller is to keep the foot on one pedal and pivot at the ankle, since that person’s feet are bigger and legs are longer.

Bruinsma herself is tall for a woman and had never even considered that shorter people have to find a workaround. 

Lady-driven fails to encompass the issues surrounding smaller drivers, like design, safety and jerky acceleration.

It might not even help sell the car, experts note.

As Beauchemin said: There’s no need to turn to gimmicks or snappy but inaccurate language — just be transparent.

LISTEN | Up North producer Bridget Yard talks to host Jonathan Pinto about the term lady-driven:

Up North9:20A deep dive into the term “lady driven”

You see it all over Kijiji auto ads: lady driven. It’s meant to convey that the vehicle in question was driven gently, but it has sexist implications. Up North producer Bridget Yard became intrigued after reading a tweet about the term, and did some research. She spoke to host Jonathan Pinto about what she found.