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Women drive a lot of vehicle purchases. So why is there still nowhere to store a purse?

Cost of Living8:32Why don’t cars have purse holders?

Women represent 50 per cent of the drivers on the road and are said to decide the majority of vehicle purchases. 

Yet when they get behind the wheel there is nowhere to put a purse. 

“The male-dominated designers haven’t made it a priority,” said Sam Fiorani, an auto industry analyst with AutoForecast Solutions in Pottstown, Penn., and a car history buff.

That’s apparent to Peggy Worrell in Swift Current, Sask., who has experienced many moments of frustration about where to put a purse in her 40 years as a driver.

When the passenger seat isn’t available, she’s tried to wedge her purse in between her left leg and driver’s side door. But when the floor of her car becomes a slushy mess in winter, she winds up twisting awkwardly to access her purse in the backseat.

“And I swear I tore my rotator cuff doing that for so many years.”

But the rise of electric vehicles could usher in a better era for purses, laptop bags and all the other belongings we cart around with us in our cars. That’s because, with smaller motors and no transmission tunnel, there’s more room for designers to potentially devote to storage — particularly if consumers demand that they do. 

Sam Fiorani, an auto industry analyst with AutoForecast Solutions in Pottstown, Penn., said the male-dominated field of auto design has not prioritized the storage needs of many female consumers. (Submitted by Sam Fiorani)

Male-dominated design

Although female car designers have made notable contributions to vehicle design, the fact is most car designers are men, Fiorani told Cost of Living.

A 2020 report called Women at the Wheel, based on a study of 205 women working in companies related to the auto industry conducted by Deloitte and Automotive News, pegged the portion of female employees in the automotive industry in the U.S. at 24 per cent, compared to 47 per cent of the workforce in general. 

“But the problem is, out of those 24 per cent, auto companies have huge accounting departments, and they’re primarily women, and they have legal departments, and maybe they’re primarily women,” said auto industry veteran Constance Smith, who joined General Motors as an industrial designer in the 1970s, and is the author of Damsels in Design: Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939–1959.

Given that includes women in every position from the factory floor to human resources, Smith estimates the number of women who occupy roles as industrial designers, engineers and computer scientists may only be around 10 per cent.

Though it looked specifically at vehicle manufacturing and parts manufacturing, a study based on census data that examined Canadian women’s participation in the automotive industry also found that women held only about a quarter of positions.

Six women and one man smile for a posed photo with vehicle models.
These women are some of the automotive designers at General Motors in the 1950s known collectively as the ‘Damsels of Design,’ seen here with GM Vice President of Styling Harley Earl. Clockwise from top left: Sue Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Earl, Jeanette Linder, Peggy Sauer, Sandra Longyear, Marjorie Ford. (GM Heritage Archive)

Electric vehicles could make room

To Worrell, the obvious place for car designers to put a compartment big enough for a handbag is somewhere in the centre console. 

“I don’t know why a driver needs two cup holders. Why couldn’t the passenger’s cup holder be on the right passenger door?” she said.

Fiorani said electric vehicles make that a lot easier to achieve.

“Modern electric vehicles have moved all the componentry around, so we have more storage space,” he said. “The battery is now under the floor in most vehicles, so it it it’s out of the way…. There’s now room to make a large cubby in the middle to put whatever you’re wanting.” 

This composite photo shows the exterior of a car with butterfly doors that lift up from the sides at left and the interior of the car at right.
The Volvo YCC, which stands for Your Concept Car, was the first made by an entirely female group of designers, for showcase at the Geneva Auto Show in 2004. It was designed with ample storage in the centre of the vehicle from to back. (Volvo)

Lisa Reeves, head of interior design at Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden, concurs. 

“We can generally get a bigger interior space for the size of the overall car. And then with that, definitely, it’s about the central area that we gain that used to be full of components of a drivetrain. So with that new space, we can really create more flexibility.”

Female automotive designers 

Though it wasn’t an electric vehicle, a 2004 Volvo concept car that was the first created by an all-female design staff, did in fact include plenty of room for a purse.

Engineer Camilla Palmertz, who was project manager for the car —  which was called the Volvo YCC — said “the middle part was full of storage from the back to the front.”

A woman in a pink fleece sweater poses for a selfie with a black dog. A mossy ground and trees are seen in the distance.
Camilla Palmertz, an automotive engineer for Volvo in Sweden, was the project manager for the Volvo YCC, a 2004 concept car that was the first to be entirely designed by women. (Submitted by Camilla Palmertz)

Back in the ’70s, when she was one of five women to hold professional roles at GM, industrial designer Constance Smith pitched the idea of creating storage under the passenger or drivers’ seat cushion, which would lift up using a simple fabric tab. “But that was completely ignored. I thought it was just common sense, but it didn’t go forward.”

Although they haven’t yet had success making purse storage a standard feature in vehicles, Smith said women automotive designers are the reason we have things like adjustable lumbar seats and the child latch system that holds in car seats.

Damsels of design

One notable crew of female designers was hired in the mid 1950s by GM designer and executive Harley Earl, who Smith said believed that if the company wanted to sell cars to women, it needed to have their help making them. 

This group of six became known as “the damsels of design,” said Smith.

“They were brilliant and inventive for their age because they added all sorts of devices to the interior of these cars,” she said.

In this black and white archival image, a woman with short hair and black framed glasses sits just inside the interior of a convertible sports car.
Designer Ruth Glennie is pictured with the 1958 Corvette Fancy Free, for which she designed the interior — including the first retractable seatbelts. Glennie was part of a group of female designers who were known as the damsels of design. (General Motors Heritage Archive)

A woman named Ruth Glennie designed the interior of the 1958 Corvette Fancy Free, the first car to have retractable seat belts, said Smith. Glennie also created the first drawings for heads-up display — a feature that allows drivers to see critical information like their speed on the windshield, allowing them to keep their eyes on the road — which wouldn’t come out until 1990, she said.

The ’58 Corvette had a shelf under the glove compartment that could hold a handbag.

Despite the underrepresentation in the field and the struggles female designers have had to be heard over the years, Smith says she does sense that automakers are more concerned about user experience and more likely to listen to requests, including for features like purse storage.

“The automakers are much more in sync with their audience and their customers than they once were,” she said.

A Chevy Bolt rolls off the line at a GM facility in Michigan.
Constance Smith said the Chevrolet Bolt was designed by female staff in Korea. (Joe White/Reuters)

That would be welcome to Peggy Worrell in Saskatchewan.

“Obviously our voice hasn’t been loud enough, has it? I’ve certainly never written a letter or made a complaint or when I’ve shopped for a vehicle, I’ve never asked, ‘do you have this feature?’ Maybe we need to be asking that question. Demanding it as consumers.”

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