By Jessica Kutz—Originally published by The 19th
A few months ago, Renee Russak and her partner of 30 years embarked on a road trip from their home in Seattle to Whistler, Canada, to visit a friend. This was different from past travels: They were driving in their recently purchased electric car, a used Volvo.
The trip is over 200 miles each way, and they had used a phone app to carefully map out where they would stop for electric charging stations. Though their car could last over 200 miles on a single charge, they planned to recharge it twice on each leg of the trip. Cold temperatures can drain a battery, and they didn’t want to chance sputtering out in the middle of nowhere.
The couple had another big consideration in planning their travels: Personal safety.
They made sure to drive only during the day and chose charging stations in mall parking lots and grocery stores. Waiting to charge a car can take much longer than filling one up with gas.
“[We were] stopping in places that felt like they were predictable, and there would be people around. That was kind of my MO,” Russak said.
For the most part, their trip went without a hitch. The most difficult parts were the charging stations themselves. Oftentimes chargers were out of service or not working properly, and charging companies required downloading different apps to pay for their charge, which got cumbersome. The technology is still kind of glitchy. Russak estimates it works maybe 85 percent of the time.
“Pray to the electron gods,” she joked.
This lack of reliability in charging infrastructure and considerations for safety could help explain why women like Russak and her partner make up the minority of electric car drivers. But they aren’t the only factors contributing to the gender gap. Early research and recent surveys point to factors ranging from socioeconomic status, to experiences at car dealerships, to less awareness of how electric cars work.
As the United States rolls out a plan to invest in charging infrastructure in all 50 states, it is becoming more important to understand how and why women aren’t making the transition to electric cars as quickly as men.
In the first half of 2021, less than 30 percent of electric vehicles were purchased by women. However, a separate 2022 survey found that 47 percent of women say that in the next five years they’d be interested in purchasing one, compared with 53 percent of men. There is no available data on nonbinary people in either data set.
While most people might consider the electric car to be a modern invention, they’ve been around since the 1800s. Clara Ford, the wife of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Co., drove an electric car, as did other wealthy women of the time. These cars were seen as “women’s cars” since they were cleaner and easier to use because you didn’t need to crank start the engine.
“Women were presumed to be too weak, timid and fastidious to want to drive noisy, smelly gasoline-powered cars,” historian Virginia Scharff wrote in an essay. “Thus at first, manufacturers, influenced by Victorian notions of masculinity and femininity, devised a kind of ‘separate spheres’ ideology about automobiles: gas cars were for men, electric cars were for women.”
Fast forward to today, and despite the fact that consumer choices viewed as more environmentally minded are stereotyped as feminine, men actually make up the majority of electric car drivers.
A survey conducted last January by consumer advocacy nonprofit Consumer Reports with over 8,000 respondents offers some insight as to why this gender gap persists. Men were both more familiar with how electric car charging works and more likely to have been in an electric car than women.
“So if women are being less exposed to them, it makes sense that they’re showing lower interest overall,” said Quinta Warren, associate director of sustainability policy at Consumer Reports. “There’s also the fact that women said that they have less familiarity with the fundamentals of owning an [electric vehicle] … So I think a way to address all of this, obviously, is some exposure, some education, to create more familiarity.”
Women were twice as likely to say they were concerned about their safety at public charging stations. Unlike gas stations, charging stations do not have employees on site and tend to be more out of the way — often they are situated in the back of parking lots. And in comparison to the five minutes it takes to fill up a car with gas, electric cars require at least 30 minutes to recharge.
Russak, who has two adult daughters, 18 and 22, said she wouldn’t feel comfortable if either of them had to charge the car at night or in an isolated place.
“It would be creepy,” she said. “In Canada there are these [charging] stations off the mountain roads at utility stations or rest stops, but they are off the beaten path. I wouldn’t stop at one of those at night.”
Early charging stations in the United States have been placed in inconvenient places, too. Andrea Colomina, the sustainable communities program director at Green Latinos, said one of the first locations to get a charger in New York City was the parking lot of a zoo.
“The first generation [of charging stations] was really not holistically thought out. As usual, because men were making most of the decisions, they were not walking through the scenarios,” she said. “You have to think through what is the experience of every potential user.”
Race is another factor. While interest in electric cars from Latinx and Black respondents to the Consumer Reports survey was on par with White consumers, they are making the switch at lower rates.
Electric cars are pricier than their gas-fueled counterparts. The average price of a new electric car is around $61,000, compared with $49,000 for a gas-powered car. This is becoming less of an issue as more models come online, and recent federal rebates also help lower the price tag. On average, electric vehicles are cheaper to maintain.
More importantly, those who buy electric cars tend to own their homes, meaning they can install chargers and plug in their cars overnight, negating the need to use a public charger for day-to-day commutes. For women and people of color, who are less likely to own homes and are more likely to live in multifamily dwellings where charging stations are often not part of the parking infrastructure, charging their cars becomes an additional task.
Even the motivations of current electric vehicle owners vary between women and men, research has found.
“A lot of this all just seems so stereotypical,” said Kenneth Kurani, associate researcher at University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. He co-authored the paper “Engendering the Future of Electric Vehicles: Conversations with Men and Women.” In 2014, researchers held focus groups looking into the motivations behind electric vehicle purchases.
The results? “Men like toys, and women were more likely to talk about electric vehicles in terms of their practical use within the day-to-day of getting stuff done,” he said.
At the time of the survey, 70 percent of electric cars were purchased by men, even as half of all car purchases in the United States were made by women. That is still reflected in today’s market reality.
The 19th reached out to women to better understand what might be holding them back from purchasing an electric car. One LGBTQ+ woman, who requested anonymity as a queer person in Texas, said that after considering an electric car she stuck with purchasing a gas-powered Subaru Outback. Charging in parking lots felt less safe than going to a gas station, and the ability to go on longer trips was also important to her.
“When I was a child, I lived in New Orleans and my family evacuated for Katrina in a Dodge Caravan minivan. As a result I highly value the ability to travel long distances in a vehicle, and EV charging stations simply aren’t as available in rural areas,” she said. “Given the current legislative and judicial situation in our country and my home state of Texas, as a LGBT woman it could be important for me to drive hundreds of miles without even stopping for gasoline, much less a charging station that might not be available.”
While many of the women who responded to The 19th were quick to point out their disdain for Elon Musk, those who could afford to purchase a Tesla felt that the company’s charging stations, which can only be used to charge Teslas, were convenient and seamless to use. Overall, they seemed happy with their charging experience..
“I love not having to go to gas stations,” said Francie Jain, a Tesla owner who spoke to The 19th. “I’ve had a few close calls with assault at gas stations and I’m delighted if I never have to use one again.”
Warren, of Consumer Reports, points out that as one of the first mass producers of electric cars and charging infrastructure, Tesla was able to build its chargers in good locations.
“Every company that’s come out after that, trying to create their own network has been essentially dealing with almost leftovers. So people are putting up charging stations in the back of, I don’t know, a Walmart.”
But with $5 billion allocated in the 2021 federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand public charging stations, experts say it is important that these other networks are just as reliable as Tesla stations. There should be greater considerations for women’s safety and more thoughtfulness in where this next wave of charging infrastructure is built, experts said.
At the end of the day, for both men and women, sometimes it’s as simple as convenience.
As Katherine Radeka told The 19th in an email, “For electric cars to go mainstream, recharging needs to be as easy as filling a gas tank, even if it will never be as fast. And for security reasons, no one wants to be hanging around a charging station trying to troubleshoot their app at night on a dark street.”