‘We are making steps, but we are not there yet’: Analysing the state of play for women in motorsport

BlackBook Motorsport speaks to female executives at Formula E, Paretta Autosport and More Than Equal to discuss the challenges facing women in motorsport today, the impact of the W Series and F1 Academy, and what more needs to be done to make the industry more accessible.

The recent collapse of the all-female W Series offered a stark reminder of the challenges facing women in motorsport.

Series chief executive Catherine Bond Muir previously spoke to BlackBook Motorsport about the “global ambitions” of the series, but ambitious goals and general goodwill only go so far in the money-driven, male-dominated world of motorsport.

Formula One has become a microcosm of a wider issue. Susie Wolff was the last woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend, now almost ten years ago. There is currently one woman – Sophia Flörsch – competing across the Formula Two and Formula Three feeder series. Opportunities for women both on and off the track remain limited.

Matt Bishop, founder ambassador of Racing Pride, recently said that the paddock might be becoming more diverse off the track, but that women will most likely currently be working in catering or in the communications and marketing departments.

These barriers to entry were explored in detail by a 62-page report released last week by non-profit initiative More Than Equal, which disclosed some key takeaways. It revealed that female participation in motorsport ranges on average between just seven and 13 per cent across all categories of competition. Female drivers do not receive the same backing, especially financially, as their male counterparts. Female careers in motorsport are on average between one to five years, whereas male careers are more likely to last for 12 years or more.

That’s not to say progress hasn’t been made. F1 Academy has picked up the mantle from the W Series and is offering increased track time to young female drivers, something severely lacking in the past. The all-female series will also support Formula One for the first time at the United States Grand Prix later this year.

The likes of Extreme E and E-Xplorer champion equality, with each team required to run a male and female competitor for their entry. In addition, the Alpine Formula One team launched the ‘Rac(H)er’ initiative, which aims to identify and develop young female talent for a future Formula One career.

To create more opportunities, the International Automobile Federation (FIA) has run the Girls On Track programme since 2018. Also off the track, there are initiatives like McLaren Racing’s 60 Scholars, an all-female STEM programme designed to inspire the next generation.

Still, there is plenty more to do. To hear more about some of the obstacles for women in motorsport today, BlackBook Motorsport spoke to Claudia Denni, sporting director at Formula E, Beth Paretta, team owner of IndyCar’s Paretta Autosport, and Ali Donnelly, chief executive of More Than Equal, about what needs to change to make the industry more accessible.

Extreme E sees a male and female driver compete on equal grounds, including Johan Kristoffersson and Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky for Nico Rosberg’s team

Is motorsport doing enough to create opportunities for women?

Claudia Denni (CD): A lot of new initiatives, supported also by the International Automobile Federation (FIA), are now in place to support and increase the interest and professional opportunities in the motorsport field for all women. Being part of Formula E, and considering that I am in the motorsport field for more than a decade, I must admit that this transitionary period is definitely ongoing, and our electric paddock is pure evidence.

We have many women working in several different departments, starting from partnerships, marketing and sustainability, but even in selective roles like mine as a sporting lead of the championship. Regarding the sporting side, it is extremely fascinating to see how many women are now involved more in engineering and strategic roles.

A simple but very practical example is our brilliant FIA technical manager, Alessandra Ciliberti, who has followed the Gen3 project since the beginning, continuing to improve the innovation and technology behind it for the next generation.

It’s true that we would love to see more women drivers, and this is where the main stakeholders should focus, working more on this basis: starting from karting and financially supporting the more talented female drivers.

Beth Paretta (BP): Motorsport is doing more than ever, but we can always do more. Remember this is about job creation and the future sustainability of the sport (and business) we love. The FIA Women in Motorsport Commission meets regularly to discuss programmes, events, initiatives and their respective successes and challenges.

These women represent most markets around the world. We are consistently sharing best practices to improve all efforts. As new women’s initiatives are announced, I will say we are grateful for any and all support, but I do think many would benefit if we could help those initiatives to increase their overall chance for success. The members of the Commission have decades of experience to draw from and we can help fortify those initiatives. Each women’s racing endeavour must be more than leadership wanting to tick a box and move on.

Ali Donnelly (AD): There are some excellent initiatives and programmes underway across the sport and there is now a genuine momentum towards making change. However, the research we’ve just published at More Than Equal highlights that much more needs to be done.

If you take female drivers as an example, we know that participation is extremely low in this area. Although there is slow growth, we need a serious acceleration of effort, including creative and innovative ideas to attract and retain more women and girls.

Katherine Legge’s entry to this year’s Indianapolis 500 meant there have only been two years without a female entrant to the iconic race since 1991

How can stakeholders work together to make the industry more accessible and attractive to women across all roles?

CD: The motorsport world is a small one and connections and contacts are key. I believe women belonging to different organisations should interact more and the main stakeholders should support this aspect with more women organisations and committees in place.

BP: Stakeholders can work to create or support programmes to reach younger women. We can start talking about many career tracks earlier as young people choose their educational and training paths. Bosch Motorsport in the US has done a great job recently at the Portland E-Prix and there will be another coming up in September at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at an IMSA event. It was an intro to the paddock and a day at the race for women hosted by Bosch.

Regarding accessibility, supporting flexible or remote work hours as appropriate is helpful for young mothers, should that be something they want. Also, accommodating school and training is great when you may want to hire people who are very new. Not every employee will come ready trained.

AD: Motorsport is incredibly competitive and that is one of the factors that makes it so attractive to fans. No matter how healthy competition is, collaboration is key to make the sport more accessible – this needs to be across series, competitions, teams and organisations for real change to happen.

Vinai Venkatesham, chief executive of [English soccer team] Arsenal, was recently asked about the record crowd his team attracted for a women’s game last season. Instead of basking in his club’s success, he said he’d be delighted to see someone else break the record. For Arsenal to be successful, they need everyone around them to be successful so the game can grow together. That is the ethos we should embrace.

What lessons can be learned from the collapse of the W Series? What successes can be taken forward?

CD: It was sad news indeed, but I loved the professional approach and the fact that it has given an opportunity to those talented female drivers that no longer had the chance to jump in a seat and follow their dreams. Maybe something could have been done to support further?

BP: If the goal is to support the advancement of women racing drivers up through the ladder, it’s critical that they get coaching and seat time in order to properly develop their skills so they can ascend. The W Series brought attention which is great, but successful racing drivers need consistency to improve: consistent access to equipment, feedback, training, financial support.

Seat time must be prioritised and, as we elevate the narrative that racing is co-ed, it would be great if sponsors could invest with that long-term consistency in mind. That would help to take away the theoretical debate of ‘can women be successful?’ Give them equal access and support at every step.

AD: The W Series did a terrific job in giving female drivers more track time, more visibility and more exposure; nobody should underestimate the impact that it had. We all know that reaching the top of motorsport is incredibly difficult, that goes for male and female drivers.

It’s clear that it is more difficult for women because of a variety of additional barriers in the way. The W Series did a really good job in trying to remove many of those and give female drivers a chance to prove themselves.

W Series provided a platform for young female drivers such as Jamie Chadwick, who now competes in the Indy NXT series in the US

What impact can F1 Academy have on driving opportunity for talented women in all areas of motorsport? Does this series have a better chance at success?

CD: With the F1 and FIA’s support, and considering the profile of someone like Susie Wolff leading this project with her professional team, I am sure the objectives will be achieved as I see a really strong structure behind it.

BP: Only if the drivers have testing and practice days to hone their skills. Placing women behind the wheel for sprint races on a limited calendar with little training time will not advance any cause, and in turn could do more harm (if they show poorly). If F1 Academy is supporting training, coaching, and time on track, we should see some progress.

AD: For too long, talented female drivers have not had anywhere near the same opportunities on track as their male counterparts. From that perspective alone, the F1 Academy is playing a vitally important role. It’s also going to give profile and visibility to female talent and hopefully develop the female role models that would really support participation growth. We’re excited to see what it achieves.

How can visibility for women in motorsport be improved?

CD: Communication is key. We need to share our experiences and inspire the new generations, showing that fantastic professional careers and marvelous life experiences can be pursued with this profession. It is not an easy job and passion is what makes us go further, but it is definitely worth the journey.

BP: It’s better than ever, but we just have to keep telling the stories and showcasing women in all roles across all disciplines of racing. The media is doing a better job of it and hopefully they understand that a healthy racing ecosystem benefits us all.

AD: We need to start with improving participation of women and girls in the sport. Once we see sustained growth here, then we should be building a pipeline of female growth more naturally. In the meantime, we should encourage everyone in the sport to celebrate those amazing women who are already involved in a variety of areas and who are doing a great job.

More women in prominent positions, like Susie Wolff at F1 Academy, will be crucial for providing role models to young girls aiming to have a career in motorsport

What does true equity in motorsport look like for you?

CD: We are making steps, but we are not there yet. I believe in a meritocracy, and if a woman is valid, there is no mountain that can stop us. Professionally speaking, and comparing women and men, it is true that our path is a bit harder as we are asked to prove how much more valuable we can be than men. This can be frustrating as men do not face the same challenges.

Maybe we will be the ones to be thanked by the new generations in the near future? I hope so.

BP: Equity would be teams, series, circuits, and suppliers having a mix of men and women in training programmes, early career, mid-career, and veterans all working side-by-side to win races. We are better than we were ten years ago, and we are improving and getting better. But that’s what racers do, right?

AD: An open and honest acknowledgement of the issues by everyone in the sport. This means a collective strategy agreed by all the sports stakeholders and immediate action on the most pressing barriers stopping women and girls from playing a full role in this brilliant sport.

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