Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Sexism and F1: The way things are - Targeting three areas of F1's equality debate

Published by Andrew Pearson

Gender icons, F1 logo

To date there have been five female F1 drivers and only two of those ever competed in a fully sanctioned F1 race. Lella Lombardi is the only one of those drivers to have scored points in an F1 race, more accurately half a point. She last raced in 1976 and since then no female driver has qualified to race proper.

In 30 years F1 has remained a male sport whilst most other categories in racing have had some form of female presence to a greater or lesser extent. NASCAR, possibly seen as a particularly “macho” series, has had six different active female drivers in that same time period (including Lella Lombardi herself!).

So, on the surface F1 has an issue with female drivers. They aren’t driving F1 cars and that, if you follow the simple logic, is because F1 as a whole doesn’t really want them to. F1 is a boy's club where the only place for women is to look good, do admin work or support men in doing the real work.

Is that true though? Is it impossible for women to get anywhere in F1? Are all the gates closed and the ceiling made of toughened glass? Is it F1’s fault?

The truth is that whatever anyone wants to say about F1, motorsport, sport in general and the concepts around institutional sexism and how ingrained it is, there isn’t an answer that lies solely at the feet of one formula. If you want to be clear about how women fit into F1 and the wider sphere of motorsport then you have to break everything down into component parts before deciding if the whole thing is rotten from the core.

Female drivers

I probably shouldn’t start with female drivers as a topic because ultimately there is some supposition on both motive and the criteria on which any driver is chosen to race a car. However the lack of female racing talent on the F1 starting grid is the most visible and potentially most controversial aspect of the whole debate and I fear people will simply assume I’m sweeping it under the carpet to try and avoid dealing with it.

Let us try and ask a question of ourselves first, do we as F1 fans feel a female driver is as capable as a male driver in dealing with the physicality of driving a modern F1 car? If your answer is no then you may as well stop reading now because nothing anyone else says will change your mind on that and if you are in F1 then you are part of the problem. If we however take a more realistic line and say of course a woman who trains in the same way a man does can “physically” drive a car then we’re left with the trickier question of “Can a woman be as good as a male driver”.

I can imagine some people have now bristled that I have said that is a tricky question. How dare I suggest a woman can’t be as good as a man, right? Before that conclusion is jumped to let me say why that question is tricky. The first is simply that deciding whether someone is “better” at something is inherently just an opinion. Is Susie Wolff a better driver than say Pastor Maldonado? Is Simona De Silvestro worse than Narain Karthikeyan? All sorts of answers can be trotted out to support one over the other, it’s not as simple as saying one is or isn’t regardless of gender.

The second reason is actually a circle back into the whole argument which is that how could you even give a conclusive answer given how few female competitors there have been? You can say women are by default as good as men but where is the evidence of that? It isn’t satisfactory for the argument you want to present to say “Of course they are” and then walk away as if being equal about everything is the same as being correct. Respect the fact that if you want to discuss how good women are or aren’t you have to start with actual comparisons of track ability.

So, why aren’t we getting the chance to dismiss the ridiculous argument that women aren’t good enough? Is it that right up until they reach F1 women are handed the same opportunity as men but then suddenly the door slams shut? The answer is no, you have to run right down the ladder of formula to karting before you get to anything like a level playing field of opportunity for female drivers. As it’s easy to see in the most junior of formula there are girls out there driving just as well as the best boys then what happens between then and the pinnacle of motorsport?

It’s easy to see in the most junior of formula there are girls out there driving just as well as the best boys

The sad fact is many talented girls are passed over at this stage for simple monetary factors. Karting is not cheap and even this low down there is a difference between a well-funded team and individuals scraping by. To take your career to the next step most drivers hope to gain some form of sponsorship, the sponsors look to invest into drivers that are a good fit for their brand. Since the motorsport fan base is mainly male the companies looking to invest in drivers are for products that tend to be aimed towards a male audience and so a male driver is regarded as more appropriate to the brand. Brands that have a traditional female audience don’t see motorsport as a good avenue to put funds into because it isn’t their target audience.

This means girls have less of a chance of raising the funds to take the next step regardless of talent. This factor only intensifies the further up the ladder your reach as each level of competition requires more and more funding to compete in. F1 is that last stage by which time so many potential female drivers have been lost that F1 has a tiny pool of female talent to choose from.

Add to that the fact that most male drivers who shoot for an F1 seat never make it and how those that do often don’t make it on talent alone but due to the finances they can bring to a team and I feel you start to see how unfair the system is for everyone. The fact that it hits women harder isn’t down to a reluctance over female driver ability more than it is that a female driver is simply less likely to have the backing to put her in the position to make her talent the decisive factor.

So is it really F1’s problem that not enough women make it that far? Should we really decry that F1 is about playboy racers and rich kids shunning female drivers or should we recognise that helping female drivers stay in motorsport from a younger age at least allows female drivers the opportunity to be judged on talent? Whose job is it to make sure that happens?

Women in F1

But hey, you may say, what about Claire Williams and Monisha Kaltenborn? Or Ruth Buscombe? What about Carmen Jordá and Tatiana Calderón? Aren’t these all women in this supposedly male sport?

Well yes, that is a fair point. Two female team principals is pretty big news for F1 in reality. Those jobs are even less available than a driver’s seat and I think everyone is aware that management level positions are fraught with archaic sentiments towards the role of women. We shouldn’t choose to gloss over these achievements with a “well it’s only a few positions compared to the number of guys”.

How many team principals were female in 1970 or 1950? Eras with a handful of female drivers in them. It cannot be argued that F1 is a closed door to women or that women cannot make their way in F1.

The subtlety of the argument is about how hard a woman has to work to be in the position to achieve that success. I suspect some aspects of F1, the things that people would not consider to be the “visible” aspects, are actually much more accepting and open in terms of opportunity for women. It’s certainly true that almost all the PR related activities seem to be led by women and Susie Wolff herself said “There are lots of women in Formula 1 actually, just not many on the race track. But there are many fantastic women doing very good work in the paddock, that is just not as visible as what happens on track and sadly there aren't as many on track.”

You might argue that outside of the pitwall the main visible, non-driver positions are the race crew who are responsible for maintaining the car and for the pit stops. These roles, at least in terms of those involved in the pit stops, require a combination of engineering knowledge and physicality (though I wonder how much that applies to a wheel-gun operator). However, again, I believe you have to go outside of the sport to work out why female engineers seem to be such a rare commodity.

Plenty of women want to be engineers and certainly in terms of access to being able to qualify there is a greater opportunity and take up of that opportunity than ever before. However a third of female engineering students leave their courses before qualifying. Sadly, of those leaving a general sense of it being a “boy's club” and negative experiences around how they are treated as women plays a large role though other factors around the profession account for some losses as well.

Those that are left are not all looking to become racing engineers. (Studies suggest many female engineers look to join with the concept of producing “humanitarian” projects over traditional mechanical ones). So again, we find ourselves looking at the problem that before a female engineer gets to the point where their qualifications and general work experience would put them in the shop window they’ve probably been put off trying or denied the experience to even try.

I do feel here though that there is some scope for F1 to try harder

I do feel here though that there is some scope for F1 to try harder. I think F1 should be looking to invest in female engineers because ultimately they can be responsible for their own work environments. They can foster talented female engineers, offer better career paths and generally make female engineers feel like F1 has a place for them.

So what of the likes of Jordá or Caldéron, deemed to be “development” drivers rather than reserve drivers? It seems to be a role that is a great PR excuse to say that female drivers are important to the team without any real need to put them into an F1 car in any meaningful way. Caldéron has a couple of tenth place finishes in GP3 to her name and had a few okay seasons in other formula but not much else. Jordá has barely achieved any notable race results in any series she’s raced in. So how have two average GP3 competitors managed to land positions within F1 teams when multiple GP2 champions, the supposed gateway series, have failed to find a job?

Well, it’s most likely because they are women. There is no real reason to pick either driver over a multitude of other possible options who have better racing records. Specifically in Jordá’s case I submit that she is both a female driver and particularly aesthetically pleasing. I think that for the teams these are good PR stories that cost them very little investment and in one case leads to brand exposure regardless of race results. Lingering shots of a 4th string driver in a garage during a race aren’t going to happen for your average male rookie driver.

Is that fair to any driver, male or female, who happens to have talent but either isn’t as photogenic or able to generate headlines? Is it even that fair on those two drivers given that they’ve been plucked from relative obscurity into a position which seems on the surface like a great opportunity but is more likely to be a dead end career wise?

One only needs to look at Susie Wolff who was Williams developmental driver and was publicly overlooked when Williams feared that Valtteri Bottas would miss a grand prix. Despite having tested the car it seemed Williams would rather have an untried rookie in Pascal Wehrlein drive the car than “one of their own”.

F1 is playing a dangerous game by doing this. No one is going to be fooled for long by fake appointments to make a show of equality. Eventually there is going to be an undeniable female driver who should make an F1 seat and at that point the teams must begin to admit that as much as they can blame the lack of available female racers to choose from they must make space mentally for a female pilot in the car. If F1 wants to really prove that it is not a place where women come to adorn the garages then when the opportunities arise they must be taken.

F1 fandom

What part of F1 is left to cover now we’ve seen where the on track and behind the scenes roles of F1 are being affected internally and externally? More specifically, where in F1 is there left where attitudes towards women and the sport have a knock on effect regarding why F1 has a pervasive association with sexism?

Look at most motorsport crowds and they are predominantly male. Motorsport is seen as a bloke's sport by many in the same way football or Rugby might be. Blokes watching other blokes doing something blokey, right?

Except of course, those other sports have different codes for men and women. There is not a mixed professional football league for instance, where men and women play on the same team. At least you might understand somewhat why a sport that separates men from women would have a male centric view. Motorsport has always had female fans and had women in and around the sport (in one form or another) so why do women seem to be seen as some weird entity if they happen to be motorsport fans?

I can’t really answer the why here, I think general gender bias plays a part in that engines and driving is traditionally seen as a male preserve. I think over the history of the sport women haven’t really been encouraged to be fans (though by the same token I don’t think the sport itself has actively discouraged them) and I think having reached a point of being particularly male orientated sections of the fans feel it’s their sport as men.

A recent article from a female fan highlighted the many negative experiences of women attending races. From being questioned as to whether they were really a fan (assuming all women must be in for the good looking drivers not the racing), where their other halves are or that they were obviously game for chatting up. Of all the three groups of women in F1 it feels like female fans have it worse. No one questions the motivation of female drivers or female engineers even if they question if the profession is worth them trying to get into. Certainly female team members aren’t going to be lectured at by male fans as to what the sport is about or what’s going on.

Who are the people in F1 publicly arguing women aren’t good enough to be race car drivers or engineers or team principals? It’s all out there in the wonderful world of cyber space. You can see that where the biggest issues regarding women in the sport come from are the prejudices of its own fanbase. That prejudice is what feeds back to the teams, organisers and sponsors that women are a bad bet in F1 because the “fans” don’t like them or rate them.

Ultimately the fans determine the sport's course. Its existence is down to people turning up to races, buying merchandise, subscribing to pay TV deals and a million and one other financial details that surround why anyone goes racing at all. If F1 felt the fans were really behind seeing female drivers then F1 would make a push to get female drivers on the track.

At best I think the fanbase is at the “I don’t really care. I’m not against it but I’m not pushing for it” stage. At worst, I think they don’t want female drivers in the sport at all. This sentiment is clearly demonstrated in what many see as the physical manifestation of F1’s attitude problems: grid girls. I don’t propose here to go over this argument in detail. As it is I’m closing in on 3000 words that barely scratch the surface of what we could go into. However, grid girls show the weird splits I see in F1’s thoughts on women.

Members of the audience are simply happy to look at pretty girls performing a job that a weight and some gaffa tape could replace

For many, grid girls are simply part of an F1 race weekend. They aren’t forced to do it, it’s a modelling job for which they get paid and potentially get TV exposure from and they are probably happy to stand around for an hour or so for that chance. The fact that members of the audience are simply happy to look at pretty girls performing a job that a weight and some gaffa tape could replace isn’t relevant. They are part of the grid in the same way advertising hoardings are. They are a promotional item designed to catch the attention of the audience.

For others, they are an anachronism from a time when women were viewed either as sexual objects or to be not seen or heard whilst men enjoyed what they liked. A grid girl has no real function other than titillation and their presence is a hindrance to F1 moving to a more enlightened point of view on what women can actually do in the sport.

Of course in the end both of these things are true but cause a great deal of cognitive dissonance if you ever try to express that to people who only see one side of the coin. How can something be OK and not OK at the same time?

That is as close as I can come to concluding what is wrong with F1 and women. It’s not that F1 is like golf and looks to shut out women at every possible opportunity or play them a weak hand to pacify the objectors. It’s also not true to say that F1 (by dint of it being part of wider motorsport) is a champion of women and where any aspiring woman can simply achieve her dreams through hard work and determination.

It is both of those things and probably about six other different things as well that are all subtle shades of good and bad when it comes to women. Could F1 do better? Of course. Ensuring women have an equal opportunity to apply their talents to a career is the responsibility of every employer and women should be made to feel F1 is like that. Is F1 actively trying to shut out women? As a sport, I don’t believe this is true but as a ‘family’ of the three areas I’ve mentioned we’re not all singing from the same hymn book yet.

So it really isn’t a case that if someone answers the issue of sexism in F1 with “That’s the way it is” that isn’t a tacit acceptance of things, it is a statement on why things remain the same. Changing that way of thinking is a separate thing all together.

Gender icons, chequered flag