Women in the Indian automotive ecosystem

by Murali Gopalan 04 Mar 2021


It was sometime in 2012 when a manager from Nissan Motor Company had visited India to check out what women wanted in their cars.

The Japanese automaker had carried out a study with potential customers in Delhi, Mumbai and parts of Gujarat. “Women in India want more features like parking sensors and sound systems, greater comfort and better visibility in their (Nissan) cars,” the manager, a woman herself, told this writer. 

The participants in this study also indicated their preference for automatics. These inputs were important to the Nissan manager who was heading a division called the Attractiveness Creation Group for Women and whose responsibility was to check out how women across the globe perceived the Nissan brand.

She reiterated that it was important for women drivers to “enjoy their lives better with our cars". At that point in time, they made up 30 per cent of Micra's buyer base and the company was clearly keen on increasing this component.

It was during this interview that some key facts emerged about this Attractiveness Creation Group which had worked extensively across Asia. Their research showed that while Indian women were increasingly becoming part of an active workforce, China was “more advanced” when it comes to the ratio of working women and cars.

“Japan and Korea have a lower working ratio while India has the lowest level of working women in Asia,” the manager said in the interview. The numbers were also seen to be lower than Thailand and the Philippines. In China, nearly 80 per cent of women in the age group of 25-40 work full-time and “it is very hard to find housewives”.

From Nissan's point of view, the working ratio of women was a key indicator to gauge demand for cars. “In most parts of Asia, the family plays a big role in buying the car. However, in China, a woman trusts her friend's opinion and often test drives her car at the friend's place and not at a dealership,” the Nissan manager told this writer. 

Likewise, in China, it was not uncommon to find a wife with a car, while the husband had nothing for himself. “At times, she buys another car, but this is for her father to drive in,” she added good-naturedly.

It is nearly a decade since this interview happened and things have changed quite a bit across the Indian landscape over the years.

For carmakers, automatics have now become par for the course keeping in mind traffic conditions and the growing number of women buyers.

Needless to say, this is a welcome change in a country where patriarchy continues to be a driving force and women have to fight harder for their rights than men do on an average. More than cars, it is scooters that have made a huge difference to their lives thanks to the ease of mobility and the fact that they cost a tenth of an average car.

This makes a huge difference in a country where affluence levels are confined to a few cities and for those living in towns and villages, a two-wheeler becomes the best mode of transport. It also puts in perspective why the TVS moped is still relevant four decades after it was first launched.

It was during the mid-1980s that a significant revolution on wheels happened with Kinetic Honda and the gearless scooter which turned out to be the best piece of news for women. They would now be spared the pain of waiting endlessly for public transport or fighting for space in trains and buses. The scooter finally gave them the privacy and space they so desperately needed.

The TVS Scooty, likewise, catered to the young generation of college goers and the market potential prompted Honda to launch the Activa which is still going strong after so many years. A host of other two-wheeler players have likewise jumped on to the scooter bandwagon while, at the other end of the spectrum, cars and SUVs are also going the extra mile with automatic options for women buyers. 

Clearly, things have changed for the better for women as far as the customer end is concerned but there is still some way to go when it comes to opportunities in leadership across the Indian automotive ecosystem. Doubtless, there are talented women at the top be it Mallika Srinivasan of TAFE, Sulajja Firodia Motwani (Kinetic), Arathi Krishna (Sundram Fasteners), Shradha Suri Marwah (Subros), Anjali Singh (Anand Group), Harshbeena Zaveri (NRB Bearings) and so on.

Yet, one would still think that there is no reason why the representation cannot be greater. Sure, many automakers have now ensured that they have more women on the shop floor and as well as in functions like R&D, engineering, design etc but men continue to dominate the space. Perhaps this is true for other parts of the world too even while it is more than welcome to see strong women like Mary Barra heading General Motors or Tomiko Takeuchi, Mazda’s first ever female engineer. 

Getting back to the Nissan story, the Asia research also revealed the presence of large joint families as well as the common practice of people travelling together in a car. “This includes parents and a young couple with a child too,” observed the manager during the interview.

Today, with more women in Asia studying and working, comfort and mobility are top priorities. “Men do not want women to travel in crowded buses and trains for safety and social reasons. The best option is personal mobility like a cycle, scooter or car,” she said.

Recognising the role of women in the automotive space, Autocar Professional is hosting a panel discussion on March 8 at 3 pm which promises to be interesting thanks to the diversity of the participants. While this marks International Women’s Day, the fact remains that there are huge numbers of unknown faces who are as important in this diverse landscape called India. There could be a woman auto rickshaw driver working relentlessly to keep the household going or another youngster helping the family cart the farm produce on a moped day in and day out. These are the people who are the unsung heroes in a system largely dominated by men.