Is the lack of women in motorsport down to society?

Published on Saturday December 16 2017

FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission is working to bring more females into the sport. Pic: LAT

The motorsport social media mobocracy seems to have gone into meltdown this week. Why? Because a woman who dared to express an alternative opinion to the issue facing female representation in motorsport had been appointed to the FIA Women & Motor Sport Commission.

Now, I’ll put my hands up and admit this is a very long way outside of my area of expertise – but the apparent self-righteous response from many has got me thinking. Not least because what should have been the catalyst for informed debate, discussion and creative thinking has instead descended into a quagmire of personal attack and point-scoring.

The view that has caused so much angst is one that has actually been suggested many times in the past, namely that because of the lack of opportunities for women in mainstream motorsport, they should race in separate, all-female series. 

I’m really not sure whether I agree or disagree with that solution, but what I do firmly agree with is that there is a pitiful and stubbornly low representation of women in all forms of motorsport.

Facing up to this undeniable fact is the first necessary step towards addressing the issue. Continuing down the same unsuccessful path and expecting a significantly different result is not the action of progressive organisation, and in this regard, the FIA has to be applauded. 

Change is what’s required to deliver a seismic shift and we should always be brave enough to try new ideas without dismissing them at an embryonic stage.

The question ‘who is Lewis Hamilton?’ proved enlightening. Pic: LAT

But, for me, the issue is far more deep-rooted than the current level of debate recognises; I see it not as a sporting issue, but indeed as a societal one.  

Is it possible that the issue is not actually a lack of opportunity for women in motorsport, but a lack of women who are interested in motorsport?  

When this thought occurred to me, I decided to do a little bit of research. And I have the perfect sample group: my kids and their mates at school. 

My lad is eight and car daft, and my wee girl is 11, and boy band and hair daft. Now, before you start jumping up and down and shouting about stereotypes, can I say that I’m only reporting my findings as a father to two very typical, active, intelligent, inquisitive and adventurous kids. So allow me as a proud Dad the indulgence of sharing this with you.

So to my research: five boys aged eight, five girls aged 11 and one simple question: who is Lewis Hamilton? Four out of the five boys said he was the Formula 1 world champion, the other said he was a racing car driver. One of the girls mention cars and the other four just looked somewhat disinterested. So we moved on.

Could motorsport do more to inspire school children into careers in the sport? Pic: LAT

The boys spent the next 10 minutes talking about cars mostly, but motorsport partly. Oddly for a group of boys under 10, an old bloke with beer belly who has a delightfully rude way about him appears to have a God-like status. Jeremy Clarkson is The Man as far as my son and his mates are concerned. 

They know more about Lamborghinis, McLarens and Maseratis than I ever will. And as part of today’s YouTube generation, they watch endless repeats of Top Gear and The Grand Tour. And they know about motorsport. And you know what? They don’t want to be train drivers or astronauts, they want to be either Paul Pogba or Lewis Hamilton.

Now for my daughter and her group of friends. I didn’t take part in this conversation, but I did observe. Yep, they talked about hair, French plats in particular, they talked about Boy Bands, names that are instantly forgettable and music that is even more so. They also talked a lot about school work.

So, what conclusion does this draw me towards?  Well the one that I mentioned earlier on in this piece: perhaps the problem is not lack of opportunity, but lack of interest, and then by default, lack of numbers. If you have one girl for every 100 boys in the playground talking cars and motorsport, is the situation we find ourselves in really a surprise?

Many women play key roles in motorsport. Such as Le Mans-winning chief engineer Leena Gade. Pic: LAT

The answer to this perceived problem might lie in our ability to break the mould. I’ll head back to my kids’ school to try and address this potential solution. Now, one of the reasons I love the school they attend is that it’s an incredibly creative and in particular, a musically creative institution. 

But that seemed to have perhaps passed my son’s class by. They just weren’t interested. But the Headmaster is nothing if not stubborn, and he certainly didn’t write them off as musical no-hopers. Instead, he went out and bought 15 basic ukuleles and set about changing the kids’ perceptions of music. 

And guess what? We’ve just had their Christmas concert where the whole class played and sang beautifully and we now have a generation of budding Mark Knopflers on our hands.

The reality is though that motorsport is a very particular beast. Much as I would love the Headmaster to spend the school funds on 15 karts and a track to race them on, it’s just not going to happen.  

There are a lot of situations in life where we absolutely must break the mould in terms of sexual, racial and religious inequality. But do we also perhaps have to admit that some moulds are so engrained in society that they might be unbreakable? 

There will always be women in motorsport and we must do all we can to encourage and support their participation. But if we are serious about achieving equality, a seismic shift is required in both thinking and action. 

And in my view that won’t happen in the paddock or on the track, but in the playground and the classroom.

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