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Haggling While Female
August 6th, 2013

Back in April I walked into a car dealership to buy a minivan.  My crossover SUV and GAP’s sedan were no longer big enough to transport our now-three children, and we needed something that would hold everyone.  Nanny also needed something to get everyone around during the week, and there was no choice but to add a third car to our family.

After test driving several and finally zeroing in on the one I thought was a winner (“winner” of course being a relative term when you’re talking about used minivans – none of them is too exciting) I took started to haggle with the sales guy.

“Is there anyone else you need to make a decision today?” he asked me.

In retrospect I wish I’d asked him then and there if he’d ever posed that question to a man, and then walked off the lot.  I didn’t, only out of necessity.  I was scheduled to go back to work in a handful of days and was running out of time to get a van purchased.  I needed to buy this car.  When the whole affair was over I promised myself that I’d do it differently next time.  And I will.

Apparently, though, the prejudice that women and minorities face in the car buying process can now be circumvented by haggling and purchasing online.  As described by Libby Copeland over at Slate, when the buyer becomes anonymous the power dynamic shifts significantly, and the whole process becomes much more democratic.  At first blush I counted this as a good thing.  Perhaps even at second blush I still saw it as a good thing.  But after some further thought I began to wonder how much of an advancement it actually is.

I know that we don’t live in a perfect world.  But the ideal is what we aim for.  It is both the goal we hope to achieve and the guidepost by which we measure our progress.  So in the evaluation of ridding the world of sexism – even something as seemingly minuscule as  used-car-purchase sexism – we should be evaluating our progress against the ideal situation of a woman walking into a dealership and being treated throughout a negotiation just as a man would.  Not by her ability to achieve better results by obfuscating the fact that she is a woman in the first place.

I recognize that there is value in upending stereotypes and preconceptions.  When the tough-as-nails online car haggler walks into the dealership and reveals herself to be a woman she perhaps chips away at a salesman’s biases.  Perhaps after a handful of such experiences he will change the way he (or she – women aren’t precluded from bias against other women) does business with women in the future.

In fact, anonymity has been proven to significantly improve the standing of women in other areas – perhaps most notably in the membership of symphony orchestras.  In 1970 only 5% of the musicians in the top five symphonies in the United States were women.  Then, throughout the ’70s and ’80s the practice of so-called “blind” auditions – where musicians auditioned from behind a screen – was adopted by much of the orchestral world.  And by 1997 the presence of women in the top five symphonies had grown by 500%.  It was through the anonymous audition process that these women were awarded slots previously given to men.  And I would be surprised if today women’s musical talent and physical stamina weren’t regarded as being much more on part with that of men.  Going for near term gains has advanced the overall cause.

So which is the right way to go about it?  I bristle at the idea of having to hide my womanhood to get a fair shake at something.  But the reality of the situation is that I probably cannot singlehandedly knock down the existing prejudices that people I encounter may hold.  If I shun the opportunity to improve my own outcomes merely because I find the process insulting do I spite anyone other than myself?

I wish I could go back and haggle the minivan guy down another thousand dollars.  But if I were given the choice between winning that thousand dollars back via an online negotiation or failing in my attempt to do so via a face-to-face encounter I’d be crazy to leave the money on the table just to satisfy my pride.

In the ideal world we would chip away at these biases without apology or anonymity.  But the fact may be that we are better off with the shortcuts available to us, because the ground we gain in the short run may also be ground gained in the long run.  Perhaps there’s no reason or need to go the long way round the barn in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wish we didn’t have to game the system just to be treated fairly by it.

One Response to “Haggling While Female”

  1. anne Says:

    Well, first off this post makes me smile because I got to experience that tool of a sales-guy along with you. I also loved how (after you said you didn’t need to consult anyone else) he kept making reference to how “okay” he was with women being “in charge”. Which he clearly wasn’t. But anyway…to your question…

    It’s interesting…I so rarely encounter this kind of irritating remark, and I wonder if it’s because (when I worked), I worked in a somewhat female-dominated field. Or at least a field where women outnumbered men. So I never felt that being a woman put me at a disadvantage. But I was spoiled in a way, because now when I DO run into these situations, it makes me all the madder.

    Unfortunately, there’s still not an equal playing field. And until there is, I guess women have to stack the deck in their favor however they can. Not cool, but true. And especially in traditionally male-dominated areas. Like buying cars.