I’ve been wondering about right and wrong recently. I always conceived of these concepts as absolutes. Certain, self-evident. It turns out, according to a recent study, that the same brain regions are active when we think about facts and when we think about morals. We think we’re right, regardless of what we believe. This casts a fair amount of doubt about actually is right.
(Quick caveat before we move on: brain region activity imaging studies have recently come under some criticism in the neuroscientific community. Asking what and where, it turns out, are fairly uninformative questions, because we all use different bits to process different things, other than in the sensory cortices and a few other areas. I like to think of it as the encryption used by God/the Universe/whoever originated these four [and more] dimensions, solely for the purpose of confusing biologists. The small size of fMRI and PET imaging study participant groups makes it very hard to determine these things without meta-analyses of a range of studies on a topic, which, as far as I know, hasn’t been done on the ‘moral brain areas’ sub-field. However, it’s a thought experiment that bears exploration, since the data fit what we know from Twitter and other arguments.)
Do we need to think about morals in motorsport? It’s a sport. It’s meant to be fun. As we all know from our childhoods, the fun stuff is usually banned, so now that we’re adulting reasonably successfully, can’t we have our little indulgences?
Sorry for this, but we need to spend a bit of time on religion. I’m going somewhere with this; stay with me. I was raised in a fairly fundamentalist Christian church and school. We were told we were Evangelical, but later explorations into the theoretical underpinnings of my faith showed that I had been fed a lot of subtleties that mainstream Evangelical theology disagreed with. As a function of the fundamentalism, I was raised with a high degree of certainty. I was taught that truth and facts were the same thing, which therefore meant that, if I believed the Bible was true, I would logically need to believe it was fact as well.
This meant that all the fun was banned. Caffeine and sugar were permitted as drugs for public consumption, but everything else was off limits, at least at church. Nobody talked to the people who came for Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the back room. Hugging too tight for too long (between a boy and a girl, because queerness was also off limits) on church property earned a suggestion that we should leave room for Jesus. Also, doubting or questioning anything the authorities said could get you on the highway to Hell, so sit down and shut up.
I then studied science at one of Africa’s most liberal universities. Like, the botanic garden on our campus was often the site of a pot-fuelled drum circle within smelling distance of the botany department. That liberal. There was no room for six-day young-earth Creationism. There wasn’t even room for intelligent design, which was what I had been sneeringly offered as a substitute for SDYEC. In part, I had chosen this university because of its reputation as a den of sin. I knew fundamentalism wasn’t for me, and needed a different, more kind of truth.
In my resulting decade away from the faith, I came to discover that not all opinions were created equal. I came to realise that I needed ethical, empirical, peer-reviewed evidence to believe something. JSTOR became my magazine subscription, the obscure sections of biology became my Bible, and I mainlined my new drug as I had mainlined Fundamentalism as a teenager. Science was relativistic enough to leave room for “what if?” I could justify any decision, as long as I could find some evidence to support it. This led to my using science as my map to navigate the murky and morally relativistic waters of the business world, into which I was rudely thrust at the end of undergrad.
There was one small snag: there’s no certainty in science. There's also no certainty in ethics. We all have morals, but, unlike science, we don't need facts to build these on. We can come up with a story that makes sense to us, and decide that's the truth. We have freedom of opinion and speech, and those count in lieu of facts.
Business likes to give people certainty. You’ve seen the ads on Facebook. “The course guaranteed to 10x your business!” “The skin cream guaranteed to [fix whatever normal biological process – eg. wrinkling – the beauty industry has decided to pathologise this week]!” “This person uses it, so it must be fantastic!” (They probably don’t use it.)
It’s no different in boardrooms. “We project an eight percent capital growth in the next three years, given our current market share. If we capture a new customer base in [this demographic], we can increase this by a further six percent.” I guarantee you the person saying that has no idea where the business will be in three years. Even if they think they do, let’s just leave it at “chaos theory”. A disruptive technology could blow their game wide open, change up their whole industry, and leave them scrambling to retain ten percent of the market share they had before.
I can’t offer you certainty. I can't give you facts that are irrefutable on which to form an opinion about whether certain topics that are regular themes in motorsport news are helpful or moral. The best I can do is, “It’s likely that, if the abovementioned experimental evidence is valid when extended from the specific to the general, and if external circumstances remain constant, then the following is a good course of action.” And that’s only when there’s evidence of something. There’s absolutely nothing comparing the cognitive processing speeds, courage, or physicality of male and female racers. There isn’t even an all men study of the physicality required to handle a race car. There’s no evidence to support or refute the claims made by journalists, racing drivers, and other men with opinions regarding the fitness of women to race.
There is a body of work from the social sciences and philosophy about how we the public, advertisers and marketers, and journalists frame women in motorsport. The work is almost always about drivers. However, if you have access to a JSTOR subscription (or use the contact form below to have a selection of PDFs shared via email or WhatsApp), check out the academic work on women in motorsport.
Google Scholar “grid girls”. I dare you. We’ve had them for around fifty years, and not one shred of evidence has been published to support their efficacy as marketing aids. There’s nothing on women racers and stereotype threat (it’s an unconscious bias, not something we know we’re affected by) induced by the rhetoric around women racers combined with consistent imaging of non-participatory women. There’s some vaguely related work about images of women’s bodies making men more likely to purchase, and some vaguely related work about the effects of sexual arousal on moral choices. But nothing about grid girls or whether they are morally positive, neutral, or negative.
Now, let’s just be absolutely clear about something: I don’t think that whether or not we have grid girls is the biggest moral or feminist issue of our time. Female genital mutilation (a problematic term in its own right) is a bigger feminist issue. Child marriage (with attendant problems, like teen pregnancy, school dropouts, etc.) is a bigger feminist isssue. Poverty. Climate change. Sanitation. The intersection of poverty, climate change, and sanitation, which disproportionately affects girls and women of colour. (We typically put the poor neighbourhoods near where we treat sewage and/or leave the unofficial neighbourhoods to deal with their own sewage, pay women less than men, find ways to institutionally punish single mothers, etc., and when floods happen, it’s the poor people in those neighbourhoods who are the first to die of cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and the other shit diseases and the least able to afford medical care.) Grid girls don’t even blip on the radar of ethicists and feminists in the mainstream.
So, if science and ethics are no help, how do we justify our opinions? How do we decide who’s right and who’s wrong, who to hate and who to direct our outrage at? Do we roll with utilitarianism and let the majority decide what makes them happy? Is happiness even the best metric for measuring good morality? Do we adopt compassion as a guiding principle, and hope for the best?
We can use the scientific method. We can test whether what we say about what we believe – that the outrage over F1’s doing away with grid girls is moral because we care about grid girls as human beings not sex objects, that women are being treated equally to men in motorsport, etc. – is true. I have included a screenshot of an excel spreadsheet.
Image search the term in bold and inverted commas. Please indicate which image search engine you used (Google, Bing, etc.) at the top of the spreadsheet. Narrow the search to the dates at the top of the column (the week of Monaco GP/Indy500 for the last five years, Wednesday to Wednesday inclusive). Click each photo, and note who or what is in the photo. If the name/s of the person/people in the photo are included in the description, or you recognise the subjects, insert a line and count them individually. Similarly, if their role is obvious (eg. driver, mechanic, journalist, grid girl, WAG) but they haven’t been named and you don’t recognise them, insert a line (as in the example of “anon engineer” or “anon grid girl”) under the appropriate gender and pose. Stop when you have a total of two hundred images for each search term and date range.
If you would like to log your impression of the results and compare to what other people found, feel free to copy the attached Google Sheet. Email the contact form below to receive a participant agreement and the inbox where the data will be processed. This is entirely voluntary, and you can withdraw from participation at any point. You choose whether your name and email are recorded in the respondent database for follow-up and classification, so please indicate if you want to contribute anonymously and not receive a summary paper. I haven’t got IRB approval for this, so it’s not usable as research data. It’s simply for curiosity to show you the proportion of images of how we view women, so you have a data point to justify your opinion. Feel free to sub-divide the genders into ethnicity, race, and/or nationality (if known), and/or sexual orientation (if known) to explore those demographic details and get some facts for yourself.
I would argue that, in interpreting your findings, compassion should be a guiding principle. Photographers/editors are loading huge photo sets onto the internet, and don't have time to Google everyone they don't recognise. People posting to social media with the #womeninmotorsport hashtag (which pings in the search results, especially if you narrow your search by network, or search the hashtag specifically) This is merely an exercise in spotting the unconscious bias of people who upload pictures to the internet. If you're curious...
F1 has axed grid girls. I can’t pretend to be unhappy. The routine framing of women as sex objects in motorsport has grated my carrot for years. I find it no end of annoying that I find an average of 10% of actual women in motorsport – that 10% is mostly women drivers, with the occasional engineer or mechanic; Britta Roeske is more often a caption, rather than in the frame of pictures – when I search Google Images for “women in motorsport”. Although, to be fair, I find fewer pictures of grid girls than radio controlled cars for that search term.
What took me by surprise was misogynists on the internet blaming feminists for F1 management’s move. Sure, we’ve been banging this drum for years, but it’s not like anyone has ever taken us seriously. The people who make the decisions on these things have no philosophical problems with using oestrogen-based humans as objects d’art. While it would probably give us street cred among people who don’t know better to claim this victory as the result of feminist activism, it would be wildly inaccurate.
Chase Carey worked as Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man for decades, and hasn’t said anything to indicate a change of political stance since taking over F1. Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, the network who are currently defending Donald Trump, a known serial sex offender, to the extent that “post-truth” has now become a thing. If birds of a feather flock together, I’d put money on him not being a feminist. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s not even an “I’m not a feminist or anything but…” Neither of the two other members of F1’s Committee of Ultimate Veto have said anything that could be construed as overtly feminist. If anything, Brawn’s interview lines read as defensively conservative. I can find nothing that signals Bratches’ political leanings, other than an apparently wholehearted buy-in to traditional capitalism. Note: I do not think Chase Carey, Ross Brawn, and Sean Bratches are morally equivalent to Trump, but there’s a lot of real estate between being morally equivalent to Trump and being a woke, informed, intersectional feminist.
F1 removing grid girls has little, if anything, to do with feminism. It may have something to do with F1 finally realising that they can’t keep treating their fanbase as homogeneously male and heterosexual. It may have something to do with F1 realising that they’re haemorrhaging fans, and getting women aged 14-22 on board with the sport is central to them regaining market share. It may have something to do with ex-Teen Vogue maverick, Elaine Welteroth, shaking up the teen girl culture scene and making a social conscience the modern woman’s must-have beauty accessory. Those things are all feminist, for sure, but it wasn’t feminists who had their finger on the button when grid girls were axed.
There are several issues raised in the Twitter storm that are slightly stickier than “the feminists are ruining the world”.
Let’s start with an easy one. Calling people “feminazis” is offensive to both feminists and nazis. Nazis believe that not enough straight, white men are in power positions, and that we need to fight for that as an outcome, up to and including the commission of genocide. Feminists believe that straight, white men have had their turn at world domination – eight to ten thousand years, featuring more varieties of violence against non-male, non-white/non-wealthy, and non-straight people than I have time and space to enumerate here – and now it’s time for a more equal society. The two groups believe totally opposite things. If your objection to the removal of grid girls includes the word “feminazi,” you automatically lose.
Moving onto the thread about how feminists are depriving grid girls of their right to work. See above for “it wasn’t actually the feminists”. Nobody is depriving anybody of the right to work. F1 has chosen to do away with one job in a myriad of roles available to people of all genders. They’re not refusing to hire women. Women are able to apply for jobs in other areas of the sport. Some teams are actually doing better than the British national average for women in engineering. Women who want to make a living out of being pretty can still work as grid girls in other series, or as models for fashion magazines.
(Actually, a job isn’t considered a basic human right; the human right in question is the freedom to do legal and legitimate business without undue impediment. Women, for the last 8,000-10,000 years, have been excluded from doing legitimate business by law, social custom, and other forms of discrimination. Technically, being a grid girl counts as doing legal and legitimate business, because time is exchanged for money – the basis of the capitalist economy – and grid girls have some contractual rights to rest breaks and fair treatment. Although 1) apparently they don’t have the right to stop people taking up-skirt shots or there wouldn’t be so goddamn many on t’internet, and 2) being objectified for money is inherently discriminatory, so not exactly a step forward for women. But point aside.)
This brings us to two points not raised by the pro-GG crowd on Twitter. They’re both points originally made by men. I’m hoping that counts for something with the anti-feminist trolls.
Firstly, Vishen Lakhiani, founder of Mindvalley and several other companies, has spoken several times about businesses (and, for that matter, entrepreneurs, founders, managers, etc.) basically being either “humanity plus” or “humanity minus”. Lakhiani’s aim in his businesses is to be “humanity plus” – he accepts that the decisions he makes as CEO of his companies are essentially moral ones. His decisions have an impact on his employees, his customers, society at large, and the planet.
Are grid girls “humanity plus”? Does it measurably improve society to use women as decorations, or does it have negative side-effects? Does “women as décor accessories” improve the world more or less than having women in functional roles? Does perpetuating the dominant narrative of white, thin, and pretty as what is desirable have a positive or negative effect on society?
Are we, in our feminist ardour to get rid of problematic elements in our world, being “humanity plus” about this? Are we being compassionate (or at least civil) towards people on Twitter? Are we firmly on the moral high ground, or have we slipped into calling people idiots for disagreeing with us? I struggle to remain polite when people say things that I can only interpret as wilful ignorance, but it is a point we need to address, if we’re talking about being “humanity plus”.
Secondly, Ariely and Loewenstein in their (hilariously brilliant) paper “The Heat of the Moment: the effects of sexual arousal on sexual decision making” found that men who were aroused were more likely to make morally questionable judgements. The study participants were significantly more likely to lie to get sex, make their partner too drunk to legally consent to sex in order to overpower them, etc. in the “aroused” control than in the “unaroused” controls. This urge to get off once aroused is evolutionary – potentially furthering the species – but it is still a cognitive bias that has problematic real-world applications.
They mentioned “sex sells” marketing strategies as a potential contributor to the problem of rape culture and street harassment, because advertisers are constantly over-stimulating men’s arousal responses and making them subject to this cognitive bias. Men in the motorsport fandom report viewing their fellow spectators who happen to be women as “grid girls we can talk to”. Women who work in paddocks around the world report that men feel entitled to engage in inappropriate behaviour towards them in the workplace. Yes, putting a woman next to your car makes straight men want to look at it more, but is it “humanity plus”?
Further to “sex sells”…women make over 70% of household purchasing decisions, including purchase of cars. Most women, according to recent studies, are more likely to feel negative emotions – and therefore be less likely to buy the product – when they see a woman they perceive as more attractive than them. (And given that pretty much every woman I’ve spoken to about this thinks that people calling them beautiful are lying to get something, most women think that models are more attractive than them.) So, while the grid girl stereotype may appeal to straight men in the audience, they leave the vast majority of women (who make over 70% of household purchasing decisions, including car purchases) colder and drier than the Death Valleys of Antarctica.
So, therefore, should roles for grid girls, models, etc. exist at all? They don’t leverage creativity, empathy, and/or fine-motor dexterity, which are the three advantages humans have over artificially intelligent entities. If they don’t lose to “feminist kill-joys” now, they’ll eventually lose to the robot revolution. Small business owners are now more likely to choose non-professional models to display their apparel and accessories, or simply post a selfie of them wearing the item/s. Those who can’t afford a non-professional model to cover their aversion to selfies can do simple tricks with a mannequin and PhotoShop. Futurists are far more worried about the wellbeing of (predominantly male) truck drivers who’ll be out of a gig when autonomous vehicles hit the mainstream than the wellbeing of (predominantly female) models, even though neither role is safe from the robot revolution. I don’t see a re-training and re-employment project happening for either sector, but at least people are talking about re-training truck drivers before rolling out autonomous vehicles.
There is a philosophical difference between intent and impact. We are usually judged on impact, rather than intent. Case and point: do you know of anyone who got off a murder charge with "I just meant to rough him up; I didn't mean to kill him" as their defense? I doubt that women who work as grid girls intend to make life difficult for other women around the paddock by normalising the image of women as decorative non-participants, but that is the impact. I doubt they intend to participate in the over-stimulation of the male arousal response that leads to morally questionable behaviour towards other women in the sport, but that is the impact. Likewise, I doubt Carey and company even considered the financial wellbeing of grid girls, but the impact is that now they need to find other forms of income.
Ending the grid girl tradition isn’t a feminist act, it’s a capitalist one. They aren’t “pandering to a PC-mad minority” as one grid girl said on Twitter. They’re pandering to their shareholders. The world has changed since the 1960s, when grid girls were introduced, and they’re doing what they hope will be historically correct going forward. This may just be an attempt to buy our loyalty so we’re less likely to have a Harvey Weinstein moment of our own and out the sexual predators lurking in our paddocks. To construe this news headline as “feminism” is to fundamentally misunderstand feminism. But it is likely to help feminism's goals by showing young girls they can contribute more than just looking pretty, holding a flag, and applauding a man's success. For that, I'm happy.
Trigger warnings: discussion of discrimination, use of adult language, use of slurs
I gather from Damon Hill’s Twitter feed that you called Charlie Whiting a "mongol". This is considered an ableist slur, your use of which offended some people. I’m not going to comment on who was right in you vs the stewards; I’m not a race official and that’s not my area of expertise. With love, though, I want to weigh in on your response to their decision.
You’re not alone in motorsport in using slurs. I’ve been watching motorsport social media closely enough this year to be doing a research paper on the themes that have emerged, and I’ve seen some wild shit go down. There is a lot of slurring, name-calling, judging, blaming, and other toxic behaviours, and even people with the facts on their side choose to do this to others. I’m also guilty in having used slurs – often not realising that my word choice was offensive, which I would like to believe is true of your word choice – so please don’t think I’m preaching from some kind of untouchable moral high ground. I’m calling attention to your slur because it was reported by Autosport, not because you’re the only one who does it.
I understand that you said what you said in a heated argument. I can make a fairly accurate guess as which part of your brain you were using, and I don’t think it was the rational, compassionate part. The beliefs driving that comment were probably unconscious, rather than being an act of deliberate malice. I’m not calling you a terrible human, or implying that we should throw you out of the community. With that said…
It’s okay to be upset with the stewards’ decisions. It’s normal. By taking away points and podiums, they are threatening your territory, which activates a primal urge to defend against intruders. Jaak Panksepp calls this feeling RAGE, and describes it driving evolutionary defensive behaviour in much the same way as hunger drives eating to prevent dying of starvation. You have territory to defend today because for millennia your ancestors have been defending their territory from predators.
It’s okay to feel scared that people are going to think you’re not good enough. We are social animals, and guess what? It’s an evolutionary driver. We have social urges hard-wired into our brains, because being alone makes it easier for predators to pick us off. We have systems all over our brains that monitor how people see us, and drive us to make nice after a fight to maintain the unity of the tribe. Brené Brown recently released a whole book on the feeling of belonging, called Braving the Wilderness, in which she talks about how not belonging is a cause of pain and suffering. It’s a good book, if you’re looking for something to kill time on a long flight.
It’s okay to be afraid of being mocked by other men for not being alpha enough. Alphas get first choice of food and mates. Simon Sinek talks about the evolutionary drivers behind this at length in his book, Leaders Eat Last. In Mask of Masculinity, Lewis Howes talks about the Alpha Mask for a full chapter, because this is a common way in which men (Howes included) police other men for being “not man enough.” Another good book, worthy of bingeing on when the whole plane is using the wifi and making it slow. It went on sale this week, so is a hot topic on t'internet at the moment.
It’s okay to disagree, and present your case for review. This is the basis of every legal system the world over. Evidence is collected and presented, and a body weighs in on it. The key part of this process being that the decision is final unless a successful appeal is lodged.
What’s not okay is using name-calling to express your disagreement. I’m not preaching from the moral high ground here. I was raised with name-calling as a primary fighting strategy and have called people some really nasty things in a fit of RAGE. To be honest, I think were we all raised with name-calling, unless our parents were ahead of the curve on parenting strategies. However, name-calling is a choice, and we can un-choose this conflict strategy. Since I stopped name-calling, I’ve found that I have better quality relationships. People are no longer bracing for a shame attack from me. I’m not promising an easy ride, because this is a really hard habit to break. I can promise that it’ll be rewarding if you do.
As someone who hears gossip from engineers, the way you behave is a factor in whether a team chooses you to drive for them. You’re safe at Red Bull for now (at least, as safe as anyone can be at Red Bull), but what happens when you want to trade your overalls in for some red or silver ones? Will those teams see name-calling and other shaming behaviours as acceptable because of your talent, or will they choose someone else?
Another thing that’s not okay is using disability (and while we’re at it, gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, because those are also themes in social media slurs) as a weapon to dehumanise people. The reason people find your choice of word offensive is because it dehumanises people with Down’s syndrome, and that dehumanisation has led to abled folk being really spectacularly discriminatory towards people with the condition. Dehumanisation is profoundly dangerous, and every genocide in history can be traced to this practice at its beginning.
We as humans are actually hard-wired to be nice to others (see the aforementioned Brené Brown book for an approachable but scholarly explanation of why that is). It’s in our evolutionary interest to maintain a cohesive social group, so being nice is a primary driver. To be able to commit violence against people, we need to dehumanise them. Just in case you were wondering how serious it is, dehumanisation has been a feature of every genocide in recorded history. By using that word to undermine Charlie’s authority, what you’re telling us is that you have conceptualised neurodivergent people as subhuman. If we want an alpha to defend us against The Big Bad, you’re not the one we can trust to be on our side.
Your fanbase includes people who have disabilities. By using that word in anger against Charlie, you have told your neurodivergent fans that you feel contempt towards them as humans. This will come back to bite you in the ass, if you keep doing it. A relationship – even one as distant and non-committal as the one between racer and fan – can’t survive contempt. (Science says so. Facial microexpressions of contempt are the surest predictor of a couple breaking up or two opposing groups engaging in violent conflict.) Showing your fans contempt will drive them away.
One comment is all it takes to undermine people’s trust in you, if that comment is offensive enough. I still don’t trust you after you gave that interview (several years ago, after which there has been no comment on the topic) in which you said that women were naturally more afraid than men. It showed several things about you and your thinking about women that made me doubt my loyalty.
You can reverse the trend. There are easily googlable resources on being an ally to people with various disabilities, most of which contain helpful “what you can do now” sections. Damon Hill, who called you out on Twitter, knows a thing or two about Down’s syndrome, and I’m sure he’d be happy to teach you how you can be more kind and compassionate to people with that particular condition.
People with disabilities are marginalised by society in oppressive ways. So are women and people of minority genders, nonwhite people, LGBTQIAP+ people, people whose mother tongues are not English, non-Christian people, and the list goes on. Think back to any of the times you've been told to "man up" and "don't be a pussy" and "quit being so gay" in an attempt to make you act more like their expectation. Did it make you feel like shit? That feeling of injustice that you felt is how marginalised people feel when we hear you use ableist slurs, or make discriminatory comments to/about women, or call people gay as an insult.
We deal with enough of that kind of bullshit on a daily basis to last a lifetime. Some of us turn to sport as a refuge against the world. It’s very unpleasant to deal with slurs in the course of casual sport-watching. To give you a helpful guide of words to avoid, I've included a selection below, sorted by genre.
The following words are also considered ableist slurs: retard, stupid, idiot, spaz/spastic, dumb, lame.
Words that, when used as insults*, are considered sexist include: pussy (even when used against a man), cunt, twat, (any variation on names for vaginas, really) slut, whore, hooker, prostitute (commercial sex providers prefer “sex worker” as a term for their job), bitch. Using "females" to describe women is usually considered dehumanising. Using "girls" to describe grown-ass women is considered infantilising and demeaning.
The following are considered heterosexist/homophobic slurs when used to degrade, especially to shame someone into conforming to gender norms: gay, queer, fairy, queen, fag/faggot (this is actually especially hateful, because it references the traditional execution method used for people convicted of homosexuality, which was burning at the stake), dyke, tranny. When used as adjectives in a non-pejorative context, gay, lesbian, and queer, are widely accepted descriptors. Note that context determines meaning, so using PC language as an insult is also considered offensive. It’s also uncool to introduce trans*people as a transman/transwoman unless you also specify that the rest of the posse are cisgender. When in doubt, say nothing, or ask someone who knows the current rules (they change fairly often; I understand it can be a bit confusing sometimes).
There are more racist slurs than I have time and space to list here. A good rule of thumb is including the word “people” in your description of someone’s race, and not using skin colour, ethnicity, or religious background to demean people. You can google cultural appropriation, racist microaggressions, and systematic oppression to find the line on this one. Be aware that, as white people, we have huge blinders on, and when a nonwhite person tells us something isn’t okay, it’s best to shut up and listen to what they have to say without questioning them or playing devil's advocate.
I hope I’ve given you food for thought, rather than a shame shitstorm. Know that “asshole” is a good general purpose insult, if you want to use one that doesn’t imply bigotry. Compassion is a better option than name-calling, though, and will get you further in the long run. Note that developing compassion as a skill is a lifetime’s work, and people like the Dalai Lama have many years of practice on us. Nobody is expecting perfection right off the line, but please work to keep the trend going in compassion’s general direction.
* Some people enjoy some of these words as dirty talk. They’re not completely banned, but it’s a good idea to check with your partner before busting out words from this list mid-coitus. Advance warning of this kind of dirty talk helps prevent derailing the encounter by saying something that upsets or offends your partner.
Our Woman of the Week is Caitlin Wood, a 20 year old Aussie racer currently driving a Lamborghini Gallardo in the Blancpain GT Series in Europe. She is the first Australian woman to ever compete full time in a circuit racing series in Europe. Caitlin began racing when atseven years old in go-karts, and progressed into race-cars in Australian Formula Ford at the age of fifteen, and then a few selected races of Australian F4 at the end of 2015. In 2016 she made the leap to Europe to compete in the Reiter Young Stars Program within the European GT4 Championship with Reiter Engineering in their KTM XBOW GT4 and ultimately won the Reiter Young Stars program which promoted her into the Blancpain GT Series with Reiter this year.
Bridget Schuil: What was your first memory of motorsport?
Caitlin Wood: My first memory of motorsport was when I was very young, I used to go out to the go-kart track on weekends and watch my brother race and I used to think it was the coolest thing watching him so I was always annoying my dad "When's it my turn?". Waiting to turn 7 took a long time for me. (Laughs) Sevenis the legal age in Australia at which you can get a go-kart licence. So on my 7th birthday we went out to Newcastle Go-Kart Track and it has just progressed from there.
BS How many years did you go along to the karting track with your brother before you turned 7?
CW A long time really. Pretty much since I was born. There is quite an age gap between me and my brother. (He's 33 and I am 20.)
BS So motorsport was an intuitive career choice for you? Was there ever another option?
CW Ofcourse there has been other options, there is never any guarantee with motorsport. At first, it was a family hobby. Something we did on weekends for fun, but as I got older I realised it was something I was extremely passionate about and my dad gave me choices and made me give up other sports to make sure I was completely committed to motorsport and it was something that I was 100% sure I wanted to pursue. To make a professional living out of any sport is extremely difficult and I am still not at that point but I am more determined than ever to continue the hardwork and keep pushing to achieve my dreams.
BS Is that – finances and difficulty raising sponsorship – why you've decided to crowdfund your next season's campaign?
CW Yes, finding budgets is a big part of motorsport. Essentially, if you don't have the money to pay for the racing - you can't go racing. Motorsport is a very expensive sport and in today’s economy, it is extremely hard to make a long term sponsorship deal etc.
BS What do you say to the people who say it's unsustainable to crowdfund? Have you had much success with your campaign? Is it something that's dependent on how engaged of a following you have, and the nay-sayers are just not as good at crowd cultivation?
CW You have to try, don’t you! That’s what I say. I have not begun the crowdfunding part yet, I have just released my journey/story in what I am trying to achieve as I want everything on my website that the people buy to hopefully be live when I start the crowdfunding via Indiegogo. It definitely depends on your following and how involved your followers are, I am extremely lucky to have good support from my family and friends but yes I need my story to reach tens of thousands of people before the campaign would work to the extent we need it to.
(Click here for Caitlin's IndieGogo page.)
BS I hear you! When does your campaign go live, and what are you offering as rewards for your donors?
CW The full campaign will be live very soon, I can't give an exact date but I plan to have it up and running soon.For rewards, we have 4 different packages – Fan Club, Paddock Pals, Virtual Race Team and Co-Driver. Depending on which package people buy determines what they have access to.
But essentially I am trying to get fans to come off the sidelines and literally join me on my journey to Le Mans 2020. They will have access to onboards, live videos, debriefs, timing, my workouts, blogs, vlogs and so much more. We plan to make it as interactive as we can so people can talk with me about strategies and all the behind the scenes action at each race.I want to offer people the experience of not only a race but everything that goes on behind the scenes for a racing driver. Make them as involved as possible, not many people do this so it would be cool to have so many people join in, in any way possible.
BS Who's been the most supportive of your career?
CW This is a hard one! I would definitely have to say my family but if I had to pinpoint, it would have to be my Dad and my brother. My brother was my inspiration to start motorsport and was always extremely involved with me through coaching me, mechanics, engineering and pretty much just everything! So I am extremely grateful to be able to share this experience growing up with him and have his unconditional support. But ultimately my dad has been so supportive through my whole journey from when I was 7, to now when I am 20. He has really been by my side (even if he does live on the other side of the world) through all of the struggles and the highs. He has made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to try and achieve my dreams, I wouldn’t be here without him – I owe him a lot!
BS What struggles have you faced, and how have you dealt with those struggles?
CW In any career choice you are going to face struggles, nothing worth having comes easy. These struggles for me have been financial more than anything but that is the same for most up and coming racing drivers out there, male or female. You just have to keep pushing and put in the hard work.
BS Have you experienced much sexist treatment, if so how have you dealt with it?
CW Being a woman in a male-dominated sport I guess can be intimidating more than anything, and sometimes that's how it can feel as majority of the time I am the only female competing in a series etc. But I have gotten used to it, and it is something that doesn't bother me at all. I have had a few moments where I have been told I don't belong here or crap like that but you just need to shrug it off and prove them wrong on track. When you put your helmets on you can't tell the difference between a male or a female, and I find majority of my competitors don't care either, I get the same amount of respect as anyone else and that’s something I really appreciate.
BS That’s a common response – ‘yes, I’ve experienced some sexism, but no I don’t do anything about it.’ There’s a ridiculously meaty research article by Ehren Pflugfelder that says the way we conceptualise women and men as racers is different, and they know your car/helmet livery so can still distinguish you. Does that factor into your thinking, or do you just ignore it and get on with racing?
CW I wouldn’t say I don’t do anything about it, yes I have grown up around sexism and yes I have experienced it but it doesn’t mean I don’t want it to stop for the next generation of girls coming through. I don’t want girls to be intimated by the sport so if I can do something about that, then I will. My mother is a very strong woman and has always taught me to stand up for myself so there have been situations where I have spoken my mind about what they have said but as a whole you can’t let it bother you because then it distracts you from racing. I have a job to do, and that is to race – whether I have boobs or not shouldn’t be a factor. My main focus is racing, and that’s how it should be.
BS Do you have any advice to give younger racers trying to have an international career?
CWThis is hard because I am also trying to achieve an international racing career, unfortunately I don’t think there is any magic words but ultimately you just need to work extremely hard and keep pushing. There is always a way, no matter how bleak it may seem – if you want it bad enough, there is always a way. Make sure you have a good support system around you whether that is through your race team, coaches, family or friends – it makes the world of difference when you know you have that support behind you. Stay passionate and most importantly have fun.
It was World Mental Health Awareness Day this week. And today is International Day of the Girl. And it was the anniversary of Maria De Villota’s passing. And it was American Coming Out Day. I’m sorry that I didn’t have spoons to make a big deal about any of it on social media, because work stress was/is giving me mental health symptoms.
Believe it or not, mental health is an issue in motorsport. The MSA currently has a ban preventing anyone with a mental illness from getting a racing license, and they’re not the only ones with that kind of attitude towards mental health. For a long time, the flying fraternity wouldn’t let anyone on antidepressants fly with passengers, in case they attempted suicide with people on board the plane.
This kind of policy is ableist. There are people who, through no fault of their own, have illnesses that make people afraid and distrustful of them. It’s like having a facial deformity that people find repulsive, except they can only see it when you’ve formed a bond with them and taken off the mask of being ‘okay.’ Having formed a bond before they see the truth under the façade makes it hurt more when they reject you.
This ableism is probably because we have very limited vocabularies for mental illness. Crazy. Mad. Demented. All mental illnesses lumped together under a handful of umbrella terms, dehumanised, and pushed to the margins of society where our diseases can’t infect the ‘mentally well.’
Mental illness affects marginalised groups more, not because the incidence is necessarily higher in those groups, but because it adds an intersecting layer of oppression on top of what they’re already dealing with. Also, they are more likely to go undiagnosed, because of stereotyping. Black people are just angry. Women are just emotional. Are you on your period…is that why you’re moody?
Studies have shown that women are more likely than men to have a physician ignore their symptoms and not provide a diagnosis. Doctors think women have lower pain tolerance, so are more likely to ignore the pain-related symptoms of congestive heart failure. Bipolar disorder often goes under the guise of PMT until the girl is old enough to be hospitalisably symptomatic. I spent years being told to ‘be less of a bitch’ while premenstrual, until I was twenty-five years old and someone finally noticed that it was a symptom in a larger pattern of behaviours. The population of the women’s prison in my town features a subset of about fifty percent of inmates who are in prison for killing their babies in a fit of postpartum psychosis, because doctors in Zimbabwe don’t give mental healthcare or preventative medications to new mothers. It’s systemic, and the result of unconscious biases.
In truth, there are the common illnesses that are treatable with non-invasive therapies like Vagus nerve-stimulating meditation, psychotherapy and hypnotherapy, antidepressants or antianxiety drugs, trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, or limited-dose drugs like psilocin/psilocybin (the active ingredients in magic mushrooms) and MDMA (methyline-3-4-dioxymethamphetamine, aka molly or ecstasy). The last two drugs are controversial, but mainstream researchers like Johns Hopkins Medical School, Imperial College London, and the US Army are having success with their trials. (They are to be taken seriously and under medical supervision only! Dropping a few tabs of molly at a rave isn’t going to make a difference to long-term mental health.)
These illnesses affect huge swathes of the population – including the segment who work 60+ hours per week in motorsport – and are on the rise. Illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD fall into this category. It is important to remember that, while common, these illnesses can be fatal if left untreated for long periods of time. However, with diagnosis comes treatment, and most cases of these illnesses respond to the therapies listed above. For the ones that don’t, Jaak Panksepp and colleagues are working on a neural implant for drug-resistant depression. While at an elevated risk of suicide, these people are not generally reaching for a shotgun every five minutes, certainly not enough for the MSA to worry that they might kill themselves and others on track.
Chronic depression increases the risk of heart attack, as does chronic anxiety. Our bodies literally cannot handle being that sad/afraid for that long, and the ticker is the first thing to give out. The mind-body connection is poorly understood, but all the disorders listed in this post have physical symptoms and carry elevated risk of death from causes other than suicide.
Men are especially likely to die of depression or PTSD. There is a societal norm that states that boys don’t cry. Several men have spoken about how the only emotion they feel allowed to have is anger. When they feel fear or depression, they are taught to suppress those emotions. Men often don’t feel able to ask for help, because admitting to depression makes them seem weak.
I’ll lump my illness in with the discussion of several others, because they’re treated with the same drugs and therapies. Bipolar mood disorder (what I have), unipolar mood disorder (like bipolar, except without one end of the spectrum), epilepsy, and temporal lobe epilepsy are all treated with a small collection of antiseizure mood-stabilisers and regular talk therapy. Schizophrenia – which is sometimes under-diagnosed because of its similarity to bipolar disorder in the presentation of auditory hallucinations and psychotic symptoms – is very effectively treated with antipsychotics and talk therapy.
The suicide rate among patients of these disorders is markedly higher than the category listed above. Nobody knows the exact number, but bipolar and unipolar mood disorders have a fatality rate of around two thirds of sufferers. That is, two out of every three patients will eventually kill themselves in a moment of abject misery.
Temporal lobe epilepsy seems to be a response to environmental factors, whereas epilepsy that causes TC (previously called grand mal) seizures seems to be caused by a variety of factors, including repeated MTBI (minor traumatic brain injuries, also known as concussion). In places where medicine is a largely spiritual practice (including communities of white Christians, just in case you thought this was something only brown people did), temporal lobe epilepsy is often mistaken for demon possession and be left untreated other than regular exorcisms.
These illnesses – the epilepsies I’ve mentioned, as well as the bipolar/schizophrenia group – develop noticeable symptoms in late teenhood or early adulthood. There is plenty of time for someone to start karting, fall in love with the sport, and make progress through the ranks before becoming symptomatic. This makes the MSA’s ban and regulations like it in other countries very distressing for people with these illnesses. They have been known to hide their symptoms and detox from their meds for a few weeks before their license medicals, neither of which are healthy things to do in the long term.
The challenge of these chronic diseases is keeping people on medication. Medication has side-effects. The things we use to self-medicate, while less effective than the official drugs, produce more manageable side-effects. You can go ahead and add “I feel fine today, so I don’t need to take my pills,” to the list of challenges faced by doctors treating people with many of these illnesses. Non-observance of drug regimens is a problem to the extent that there is a research paper called “the best drug for bipolar disorder” that concludes the best drug is the one the patient is willing to take daily. Giving people a reason to stay on their meds is vital in the long-term success of these illnesses.
Letting mental illness patients do favourite activities or things that give them joy and allow them to enter flow is a very good way to motivate them to stay present. Our minds are easy places to get stuck – for neuronormative as well as neurodivergent people – and, without something keeping us in the present, disappearing into the thought realm is a great way to avoid reality. If a kid holds racing as a favourite thing, and develops a mental illness, having racing taken away from them for being ill is emotionally distressing, and can raise their risk of suicide.
Personality disorders are pertinent to our discussion, for two reasons. Firstly, Millennials are constantly being accused of being narcissists in the media. Narcissistic personality disorder is fairly rare and has very clear diagnostic criteria. Millennials are not pathological narcissists; we simply don’t want to work for people whose values don’t align with ours, and therefore seem self-serving when we quit to ‘find ourselves.’ There may also be some influence from what Simon Sinek calls ‘failed parenting strategies’ in this group of people due to dominant child-rearing philosophies in the eighties and nineties.
Secondly, sadistic personality disorder is positively correlated with trolling behaviour. If someone seems to be being mean to you online for the sake of being mean, they may not be able to help themselves. It may be a personality disorder shining through, but know that this illness affects less than 1% of the population. Psychopathy and Machiavellianism are in this group.
The four are collectively known as the Dark Tetrad of personality. All of them go untreated for the most part, because they make the people who have them unpleasant to be around. There’s often nobody left to ask for help when the patient realises they need it.
The final group I will address is ADD/ADHD (another one on the list of things I’m chronically ill with) and the autism spectrum, which are poorly understood. This group of illnesses seems to be caused by any one of several possible factors, and ranges in severity from mild social impairment – for example, Sheldon Cooper’s inability to detect sarcasm, or a person with ADHD blurting out something inappropriate to the context – to being completely unable to communicate verbally. Many cases are mild, and can evade detection by medical professionals for years. Symptoms for these disorders develop in infancy and early childhood, and some doctors tell the parents of these children that their offspring are ‘just being difficult’ or ‘just responding to your parenting style.’
Development workers say that girls in developing countries skip school because the menstruation facilities aren’t sufficient. The same trend of absenteeism is true of people with mental illness. The collective impact of these illnesses is only possible to estimate, but some figures suggest that the global economic benefit of destigmatising and treating depression would be in the order of magnitude of the GDP of a reasonably-sized European country.
A good starting point would be to stop shaming men for feeling emotions other than rage, and stop dismissing women as ‘emotional’ when they report mental illness symptoms. We need to accept that as social animals, we all have feelings. Only when we listen to negative emotions and get curious about their causes can we have a meaningful conversation about mental healthcare. We can’t do that as long as we’re gendering basic human emotions.
It's been two years since I started Sisterhood. That's an occasion worthy of a catch-up post. In those two years, I've lost friends over my politics, and made new ones in the process. My thoughts about social entrepreneurship and activism have evolved.
I feel overwhelmingly grateful to have people visit the site regularly, and read what I've written. I started out feeling like I was yelling into the void. That feeling still catches me, even though people now contact me to chat about what I've written and what they can do about it.
First up, some housekeeping:
- Sorry for the erraticness of the email functionality. We are switching to a different mail server when the website redesign goes live. To paraphrase Tim McGraw, free stuff is worth the price you pay!
- Sorry for the dearth of social media outputs, which have been particularly patchy this year. I was feeling tired and overwhelmed by the amount of work on my plate towards the end of last year, and since March, my nuclear family has begun the slow process of disintegration. Add to that the challenges of living in Zimbabwe in the year between having more trade sanctions put on us and an election that promises to be contentious and probably violent (given how everyone's behaving right now, google 'Zimbabwe police spikes' to see what I mean), and I just haven't had the spoons to make shiny posts for the socials. I have a plan to relocate, and am in discussions with freelancers to run the socials when the redesign goes live. They're Millennials and Gen Zs know how to GIF and make Insta stories. You'll like their work.
In the past two years, I have done some behind-the-scenes advocacy for people who felt their rights were being violated by their bosses/series organisers/governing bodies. Aside from that, the only real work I've done for Sisterhood has been a recruitment job in June/July 2016, and outing Danny Watts in Jan/Feb 2017. The rest of what I've done has been content creation, and one-on-one supporting/coaching of people who contacted me. The website hit rates have increased and remained steady, despite a decrease in blog traffic across the internet.
Now, onto the meaty stuff...
In reading about social entrepreneurship and business building, I've realised that I've built a very unresilient organisation. I assumed that my (patchy, unpredictable, and subject to the vagaries of the Zimbabwean economy) consultant's salary would be enough to cover everything I wanted to do. Well, newsflash, it wasn't, and due to not being paid since November, I've had to take microloans from my dad to keep the lights on. So we're having a restructure that will hopefully be holistic and resilient. (It's backed by empirical, peer-reviewed data and feedback from informed feminists who love motorsport, so it should be pretty decent.)
I have thus far resisted the membership model. I think monthly subscriptions of enough money to buy a meal at a restaurant are a barrier to minority involvement in motorsport, particularly for people in developing nations. In every WotW (and in this year's Pride series), I ask what the interviewee's biggest challenge is in motorsport, and the answer is universally 'money.' Most of my audience is Millennial and Gen Z, who are the most impoverished generations in living memory. I don't feel right about asking already cash-strapped people to pay a generous monthly fee for basic cover.
However, to uncouple the organisation from my personal earning potential, I need to ask for money to bring new people on board and scale up operations. So, we're going to do a 'pay what you can' donations system in the near future. This gives you membership to the community support group, and therefore the right to vote on what happens to donations (who we fund, how we structure our sponsorship packages, etc.) and the right to have us signal-boost your social media outputs. For people who want to participate, but have no money (or, like me, institutional restrictions on online spending/violations of our basic human right to the freedom to do legal and legitimate business without undue impediment). we're putting a 'get involved' tab on the website, and if you spend an hour a week volunteering for a positive, high-impact feminist cause local to you, you can submit your time sheets as credit to be a member of the group.
The free pep talks are being moved from the coaching section of the org to this group. There is a limit to the amount of empathic and supportive conversation I can give away in any given day while still getting work done, and the point of community is to share the load between all the villagers. I have preemptively added coaches to the group, so there will be adequate cover.
Human bonding can only get so far with online communication. There's something that happens to our brains when we can touch and smell each other that makes us bond more powerfully. Thus, members of the community group will have organisational support to create events local to them. Organisers will have creative freedom over the events, as long as they don't violate feminist principles (check in with the group in the planning stages).
Outraged by the renewed threat of all-girl* F1, we have decided to do something a bit different about the threat of gender-based apartheid in the sport. We are creating a fundraising platform that will enable people to do sporting events to raise money for cash-strapped racers who are members of marginalised population groups. This will initially be part of a study about the IKEA effect (a cognitive bias where we like things more when we had a hand in making them), subject to IRB approval from the university underwriting the study.
However, after the study is complete, the program will remain. Contributing to society increases life satisfaction. Doing nice things for others increases life satisfaction. Doing physical exercise and being outdoors increases life satisfaction. There is no down-side to participating in the experiment, other than the risk of a sprained ankle while training .
I am making (slow) progress on the paper about what LGBTQ+ racers can expect from the public when making their coming out announcements, inspired by my involvement in Danny Watts' coming out announcement. I am participating in two other papers, so expect a questionnaire about grid girls in the not-too-distant future (again, subject to IRB approval from my co-author's university). Motorsport is a very under-researched area, and I need to fill in the gaps in the data to make decently informed decisions about the org. If anyone would like to do a study about motorsport, the research group is being revived to stimulate that.
We are building a range of products to make a decent income and sponsor more people. Worry not, we will retain the free content on the blog, and expand it to include other media. The expansion of the free content will be from donations and collaborations, and will not be behind a paywall, not now, not ever. The goal of this will be to create an international 'everything you need to know about motorsport careers' guide for minorities in the sport in one handy spot, along with little shots of inspiration. We will also be hosting free events as organisational funds accumulate and we can book out venues and provide free food and drink.
The for-pay products will be split into three ranges - the low-cost (items that cost up to about $200, and can be distributed via the website; career and soft skills coaching; short, low-cost events), the premium range (multi-day events at interesting destinations, designed to be spas for the motorsporty feminist soul), and the corporate range (policy consulting based on our existing and growing data set, etc.).
The Sporting Code
Inspired by several people's stories to me, I have started writing a book about consent in motorsport. It's less boring than it sounds, I promise, and is aimed at giving people a shorthand for discussing boundaries. I will be testing this material in a series of upcoming webinars and email courses. Watch this space!
There are other plans in the works, so expect some announcements soon. (I learned my lesson with sharing nascent plans when someone who shall remain nameless jacked my org plan and web copy and threw the weight of a giant trust fund at it to out-perform me. The community group will function as the circle of trust for announcements in the planning stages, because we have more control over membership and sharing of info than broadcasting it on the website.) I've had a fantastic two years, and am really honoured to have an audience who read what I've written. Thank you so much for coming along on this journey with me!
*pejorative term used intentionally
Woman of the Week Nicole Drought was born and raised in Roscrea, Ireland. Her father was a keen rally driver throughout her childhood, and eventually moved to the Irish Touring Car Championship. Nicole joined alongside him on the ITCCstarting grid when she twenty. She spent two years in that championship before moving up to do selected rounds of the Global GT Lights series and was subsequently invited to Paul Ricard to test a Porsche GT3 with the Sean Edwards Foundation. Nicole is currently looking to join a British-based sports car championship for her 2018 campaign and has organised for a French test in a Mitjet later this year.
Bridget Schuil: What is your first memory of motorsport?
Nicole Drought: I was always into cars and motorsport when I was growing up but when I was about 11 ,my dad and I, as huge rally fans, took a trip to Kilkenny to have a look at a rally car, a Honda Civic. We took it for a test drive as soon as we arrived, with me in the passenger seat! Very exciting! After that I followed him to every rally to support him. That was probably my first memory of motorsport.
BS What do you love most about the sport?
ND I’d have to say the adrenaline rush. For years, I watched my dad compete and that, itself was a huge rush. I remember the morning of his rallies, standing in service with him, the smell of fuel, the sound of the engines and watching people running around frantically to get the last of the preparations done. That was so exciting for me. And when he’d leave for the first stage, I was almost nervous for him! When he’d pass me on a stage, I’d get such a rush! Then when I got the chance to actually drive a racing car, I found a whole new level of passion for the sport. The speed and rush I get from driving fast is like no other feeling, it’s amazing.
BS Who has been the most supportive of your career?
ND Oh, it’s hard to pick just one. My family and friends are so supportive of my racing, along with everyone in my home town. I never thought I’d get such support and I can’t believe the amount of people who really are behind me and want me to do well.
BS What has been your biggest struggle in your career thus far?
ND I think every racing driver will agree that funding is the biggest struggle in this sport.
BS That’s a common response to that question! Do you have any advice to give others in the same boat?
ND Yeah, start young! I started relatively late in motorsport andI never realised how important seat time is in a racing car until I started. Perhaps getting started in karting is the best advice I could give. In terms of sponsorship, it has to be seen as a commercial transaction, as opposed to the common perception of assistance. A sponsor should have a quantifiable return on their investment.
BS So what was it that tipped you over the edge from spectator to participant?
ND I grew up around cars and motorsport, so since I can remember, I always wanted to be a driver!
BS What have been some of the highlights of your career thus far?
ND My first ever racing weekend, in the Irish Touring Car Championship, I qualified second on the grid, which I couldn’t believe! Winning my first race, being nominated as the Irish Dunlop Young Racing Driver of the month September 2016, being invited to test a Porsche GT3 at the famous Paul Ricard and qualifying 2nd on my debut in the Global GT Lights Series in Anglesey!
BS What do you think can be done to encourage more women into the sport?
ND I think more awareness. For girls to know that this is a sport which they can be involved in and love also!
BS Have you ever experienced sexism in motorsport, and if so, how did/do you deal with it?
ND I didn’t think I was any different when I came to the track for the first time with my racing car. I grew up with this being my favourite sport. But I did notice that people did point out that I was going to be on the ITCC grid that year and that I was female! It didn’t bother me though, I was ready to put on my helmet and join the grid like every other person!
BS I recently re-read a paper by Pflugfelder (2009), and he said that because the narratives around women in motorsport are still sexist, you’re still marked as a woman because they know what your car looks like.
ND As I spend more time in this sport, I do notice that women are slightly singled out if they are on the grid, but I think it’s for a good reason. It’s important for women, especially young girls, to know that motorsport isn’t just for boys! I was lucky to grow up in a motorsport family but I would like to see more girls introduced to the sport. In recent times, there are many organisations being set up for awareness of women in motorsport and it is clear, especially in Ireland anyhow, that there is a greater presence of girls coming through in karting.
BS What advice would you give to young women wanting a career in racing?
ND I think you should just go for it! I wish, looking back that I had started out a little earlier. But I have done very well in a short space of time and I hope to continue that success and I hope, in some way I can be a role model to younger girls in the sport.
This edition of Feminism Fridays is an open letter to a fan who asked a question of Racer.com. The journalist replying the question dodged the meat of it, although the fan's question seemed genuine. Below is what I hope is a satisfactory answer to the question posed.
Dear Dan Gallagher from Brownsburg,
You wrote to Robin Miller at Racer.com, commenting on the race at Pocono, and asking “Is Pippa Mann missing something other than a budget? She's always gracious with the fans, and in limited opportunities seems to show an ability to avoid trouble and improve the car across the weekend. It's probably the number one question from my wife, who is a fringe fan.”
Hello to your wife too, since she’s probably reading this if it finds its way through the magic of cyberspace into your home. Hi, Dan’s wife!
I notice Miller dodged your question about Pippa Mann, and just commented on the race. Because he didn’t want to wade into messy topics like ‘sponsorship of women in motorsport,’ I will answer your question. I hope you find the information helpful when talking to other fans about the sport.
Let me be clear before we start that I do not represent Pippa, nor can I speak on her behalf. However, I did interview her once upon a time, and asked what her biggest struggle was in motorsport. Mann said her biggest professional challenge was budget. So, the short answer to your questions is that Pippa is probably only missing a budget from the holy trifecta of success in motorsport: talent, grit, and budget.
Pippa Mann is not the only woman racer who struggles for budget. I ask that question of every woman in the interview series that has now been running for almost two years. The standard answer from drivers is that finding finance is a challenge. I repeatedly ask the question because I am making a point to the industry, not because I don’t know the answer.
Male racers also complain about the difficulties in finding funding, if asked about the challenges facing them. The post-2008 global economy is a tough environment to find funding, and nobody has any doubts about that. However, given the number of men who successfully find enough budget to race, compared to the number of women, something more than raw talent is a consideration in the bargain.
We need look no further than the gender pay gap for female professional athletes. Across sports, women are paid less than men. Salaries are lower; prize pots are smaller. Motorsport is one of the few events where women have the opportunity to compete for the same prize pot as men. Even that may not be secure, with what Mann so eloquently dubbed “the handmaid’s series” (aka women’s F1) being tabled yet again. Instead of funding women to compete in existing championships, some people (who no doubt mean well) have decided to spend money buying cars and making a series to prevent women from accessing equal opportunities to men.
Finding sponsorship is a simple algorithm. The racer asks a company for money, and in exchange for their money, they promote their brand to their fans. This deal rests heavily on the continued good name of the athlete, and bad press shatters a respectable reputation.
So the question is this: is the media biased in their portrayal of women racing drivers? Jordan Matthews and Elizabeth Pike wrote about that question in their paper published in 2016. They analyzed approximately one hundred years of newspaper articles, comparing language used to describe men and women racing drivers. They found that writers marginalised and trivialized women drivers, as Miller did by refusing to discuss Mann on the basis of her talent and the legitimate challenges she faces as a woman.
Going back to the theoretical foundations of Matthews and Pike’s paper, in 2009 Ehren Pflugfelder wrote about the way in which society conceptualized women racers. He argued that the language used to describe women positioned them as less worthy of being racers than men. His point was that even though drivers are unrecognizable as gendered beings when fully dressed and in their cars, the commentators’ discussion around the women on the grid is often noticeably different because they are women outside of the car.
If all things were equal, I think we would have as many women as we do men on grids, or certainly the gender demographics would be more equal. If children were raised with equal opportunities, boys and girls would spend as much time karting and building up their 10,000 hours to achieve skilled status. If society believed that women and men were equal in talent and ability, sponsors and team bosses would have no problem “taking a gamble” on a woman driver. We know that those are not equal, simply because the numbers don’t match the general population.
Now, please note that I could make the same point about people of colour, people with disabilities, and LGBT+ people in racing. I am addressing sexism in this article because your question was about Pippa, but this largely unconscious bias to judge people as “less than” also takes the form of racism/xenophobia, ableism, heterosexism/homophobia, and other forms of prejudice. To be clear, I am not saying the people who have this bias are terrible sub-humans. We all have a few biases that blind us and make us pre-judge others, and sometimes those biases is so strong we even discriminate against ourselves.
The bottom line in all of this is that sponsors aren’t willing to risk their marketing budget on an athlete who is criticized every time they take to the track. Until we as the race-watching public challenge our own perceptions about the abilities of women as drivers and call in (like calling out, but said with love rather than the desire for vengeance) incidents of sexism when we spot it, the lot for women in motorsport will stay the same. Women in motorsport will struggle for budget until they are holistically portrayed in the sport as being equal competitors to their male colleagues. Only then will most big-budget sponsors jump aboard the equality bus.
Last year, I wrote a piece for Pride about why there are no gay racers in the higher echelons of motorsport. In January, Danny Watts found the article and emailed me, asking to come out on the blog, but it was eventually decided that we would create a content glitterbomb and do it in style (in Autosport and Daily Sports Car and Huff Post and Gay Times, among others). This plunged me into the world of queer gearheads, and there are now about twenty members in the Queer Gearheads group.
For this Pride, we decided to feature members who were out and willing to be visible for the younger LGBT+ folk in the audience who may have otherwise felt like motorsport wasn’t for them because there was no chance of meeting people like them in the sport/industry. We didn’t have any lesbian or trans folk – not for lack of trying – but we did have gay and bi folk, and tried our best to get some international spread (UK, USA, South Africa, and France).
The inclusion of Chris, our featured bisexual, was intentional for two reasons – bisexuals were instrumental in the creation of Pride as a protest march, and they’re often skipped over in discussion of LGBT+ issues. Bi erasure – the official term for leaving bisexuals out of the cultural narrative – is so strong in some circles that I’ve had an internet argument with a dude-bro who was convinced that the B in 'LGBT' stood for Bronies (men who’re into My Little Pony) not Bisexual.
I intentionally asked questions in the Pride interview series that would uncover issues within the community, and bring them into the realm of public discussion. This was not for clickbait fodder; this was because there is no other forum for discussing queer topics within motorsport, and therefore no way of including the LGBT+ or allied fanbase in the discourse. In the responses, there were a few themes, which I’ll expand on in the rest of this article.
Money, Money, Money
The strongest theme in the ‘issues we struggle with’ question was a lack of finance. Drivers and journalists alike have found it hard to find funding to get their careers going. While this is normal for journalists and drivers the world over, the problem seems to have been exacerbated for out queer people.
Being a polarizing public figure has its costs, and a lot of the more established US brands don’t want to lose customers from the Red-voting South by sponsoring a gay racer. British brands have no similar excuse, because over half the population supports same-sex marriage and most people from the UK responded positively to Watts’ coming out story when it hit the press. However, the reticence from sponsors and other entities continues. So if you’re reading this, you care about marginalised groups getting a chance in motorsport, and you have a company or brand of your own, please be in touch and we can put you in touch with some wonderful people who’re looking for financial support in exchange for brand promotion.
Being Taken Seriously
It would seem that the accusation levelled at fangirls (pejorative term used intentionally) of ‘You only support him because he’s pretty!’ is applied to gay men too. Anyone who claims that motorsport is a meritocracy need only look as far as female and LGBT+ journalists for proof to the contrary. Out queer people are lumped into the category of ‘too femme to like sports’ along with women.
Prof Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and distinguished professor of gender and masculinities, pointed out in his article about Jason Collins’ coming out that heterosexuality was a key part of the American concept of masculinity. It would seem that this belief extends to Europe and Africa as well. This idea that gay men are less masculine than straight men is out-dated and oppressive.
In Prof Kimmel’s email sig, ‘masculinities’ is pluralised. There are as many shades of ‘masculine’ as there are men. By way of example, some straight cis-men are total bosses at painting fingernails because their little girls wanted pretty nails, while some gay guys and trans men don’t know the first thing about women’s makeup techniques because they have no reason to care. The premise of Grayson Perry’s book ‘The Descent of Man’ is an invitation for men to question the norms of ‘masculinity’ handed down to us, and have fun with how you as an individual want to express your masculinity.
The perception that femininity is weakness – when in reality women, and gay and efeminate men need to work that much harder just to be seen as equal – is out-dated and needs to go. There are people who fit neatly into Pink or Blue, and that’s valid for them. There are also people who are shades of Purple, and that’s valid too. Being Pink or Blue or Purple doesn’t accurately predict whether someone will love a Pink, Blue, or Purple person. The shade of our gender expression, or who we love also don’t accurately predict strength or weakness, courage or cowardice. If anything, the ones who struggle more for legitimacy are stronger and more courageous, because they buck the trend.
A while back, a motorsport entity was worried that, if they made a point of inviting gay people, they’d have crowds of people in assless chaps scarring the children at the event. Every queer person I spoke to – both participating in the series, and others – about this snorted in derision at the thought that people would show up to a family event with their butt cheeks hanging out. The entity was fine with people showing up with Pride flags, but nudity was a concern. From the responses in the interview series, it’s generally understood by the LGBT+ community that kink wear is only appropriate outside the bedroom at Pride (or, one would assume, a play party, but we didn’t get into that). But even then, it makes some queer people uncomfortable, and the nudity is a major factor in their not attending Pride events.
It’s important to remember on this point that Pride started as a protest. It was a protest against the human rights abuses directed at the LGBT+ community, which continue to this day in many parts of the world, despite our ability to go to Pride in nothing but pink hotpants or assless chaps. It has become a party, and while there is a lot of progress to celebrate, there is still work to be done.
People at the first Pride in South Africa (in Johannesburg, in 1994) wore paper bags over their heads for fear of being fired or made homeless for their sexual identity. This was not unusual for early Pride functions, because of the oppression that faced the community in the eighties and nineties. The emaciated bodies of thousands of America gay men were left unclaimed in mortuaries during the height of the AIDS crisis, because their families refused to be associated with them. It was left to their friends, and sometimes big-hearted strangers, to make burial arrangements. Added to that, precious few clerics in the States would officiate the funerals of those gay AIDS victims, meaning that often Jewish gay men were buried by Christian preachers. (The theological literature doesn’t deal with other countries, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that some clerics continue to refuse to bury LGBT+ people.) The slogan, ‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it,’ that has been chanted at every Pride and LGBT+ protest I’ve ever been to started a battle cry, a call to rally together and be seen as fully self-actualised humans worthy of basic human dignity.
And this struggle to be seen as fully self-actualised humans worthy of basic human dignity is embodied in this incident with the motorsport entity. The LGBT+ community wasn’t invited to the party in case they acted just a bit too gay. They may be afraid of offending people by enforcing a ‘please be fully dressed’ request. But the assumption that the LGBT+ community will show up in assless chaps is discriminatory before we get to their response to that assumption. Not that they’re terrible people and we should spam them with hate; nobody needs that. But Thierry mentioned that something the straight community could do for us is to have open lines of communication between motorsport event organizers and queer people, which would have by-passed the whole situation in the first place.
What Straight People Can Do
If you’re reading this and you’re straight and not sure what to take from it, the good news is you’re most welcome as an ally. You don’t have to be queer to buy tickets to races in which LGBT+ people are competing. You don’t need to be gay to wear the merch you bought from their websites, or buy products from the companies who sponsor them. You don’t need to be LGBT+ to leverage your company’s marketing budget to sponsor a queer racer (Charlie Martin, a former Woman of the Week, needs £60,000 to race next year http://www.motorsportsisterhood.org/blog/woman-of-the-week-charlie-martin; Evan Darling needs about the same amount if not a bit more in US dollars, and is looking for first-time motorsport sponsors; you don’t need to look far to find someone who’ll take your money and make great videos about your company).
You can also call in homophobic comments when you hear/see them, regardless of whether you’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between. If you’re one of the ones making the homophobic and transphobic jokes on your friends’ facebook walls, with love, please cease and desist because it’s actually pretty mean and makes queer people feel very unwelcome. I don’t call in every comment I see on social media. I pick my battles – only people I know, or people who my friends are struggling to find words to call in – because there are simply too many to call in all of them and the exhaustion is real y’all! But the point remains that it carries far more weight when a straight person says ‘hey, not cool,’ than when a queer person says it.
For straight people in positions of power in motorsport, remember that with great power comes great responsibility. You can choose to hire a talented queer driver for your team, or host a tie-in event that makes LGBT+ people feel actively included. If you’re worried about something like people showing up half-naked and scarring the children, chat to the people you’re working with about creative strategies around the problems you’ve foreseen. Slow progress is still progress, and baby steps made consistently will take us to a more equal world.
Equality is everyone’s job. If we approached every situation aware of people’s intersecting identities and privileges/disadvantages, we would be more willing to give the more disadvantaged members of our community a leg up. Not a segregated series special for LGBT+ people to be a freakshow side-project. Never segregation. Just the boost that is within your power as a wing-buddy/ally. Look for those seemingly insignificant opportunities to amplify signals for the queer people you know/know of; call your friends in on their discriminatory behaviour; be open to change when someone calls you in on behaviour that’s been bugging them. Feminism is very ordinary magic, and it’s often made up of an encouraging word given here, and a little bit of knowledge shared there. Everyone can do that.
In case you missed any, the interviews are linked here in order of publishing:
Matthys Strydom, G, South Africa
Evan Darling, G, USA
Chris Stevens, B, UK
Thierry Courtois, G, France
Thierry Courtois is a professional graphic designer working for some of the biggest brands in the world. For the past three years he has done various freelance work in both motorsport and football. He has worked on projects with racing teams including Mahindra Formula E. He has done design, branding and photography work for various media sites, and is an active member and currently working on a marketing/branding project for Arsenal's Gaygooners.
Bridget Schuil: What were your biggest struggles in motorsport before coming out?
Thierry Courtois: Well I was never involved in motorsport prior to coming out as I did that when I was 17. As a kid/teenager I always wanted to be involved in F1, first as a driver (ha that never happened) and then as a designer (I wasn't good enough at maths). For me, the fact that there were (and still are) no sportsmen/women who are out whilst they are in their sporting careers sent signals that you can't be gay and work in sport. You won't be taken seriously, you won't get on with team members because you can't get involved in 'banter' and that you wouldn't be able to share hotel rooms etc with colleagues.
So I gave up any notion of being involved in anyway. Instead of was classed as a "weird gay" because I was gay but really into sports and not camp etc. So I didn't fit in with the LGBT+ community and I didn't fit in with the straight community either.
BS What have been your biggest struggles since coming out?
TBC Being taken seriously is often an issue. I walk down a pitlane and I get looks and laughs from mechanics, etc. It gets to you a little bit. I don't see how being gay prevents me from being able to do a job well or having an interest in sport that goes beyond liking a player or driver.
I also felt that a particular driver acted differently towards me after I made a comment that clearly alluded to my sexuality and that took me by surprise.
BS Now you're publicly out, do you get a lot of online hate?
TBC I've not had anyone purposely direct homophobic related comments at me but I have witnessed a lot of homophobic comments around sport. I don't stand for it and I will call it out when I see it.
I've also actively called out a certain former-F1 driver for his constant use of homophobic terminology in his tweets and instagram posts - not that he takes a blind bit of notice as he continues to do it. I guess he's like football fans that think it's all just 'banter'. Well it may be banter to them but it isn't banter to someone who is LGBT+.
I have had hate thrown at me online and offline and whilst it hasn't been homophobic in content, it has felt that I was targeted because of it - for some reason they think I'm a weaker person because I'm gay. Well they REALLY don't understand how strong you are/have to be when you are LGBT+!
BS What would you say to people who said that Danny's coming out was 'not news'?
TBC I managed to open someones mind a little. They were saying some really inappropriate comments and disregarding the purpose of a sportsman coming out and I challenged them on it. I explained why it was important and relevant but without attacking them and thankfully they listened and took it on board and realised their comments were inappropriate.
BS There was an incident recently where an LGBT+ tie-in to a motorsport event was postponed due to concern by the organisers over 'inappropriate behaviour' at the event (eg. they were worried people would turn up in assless chaps). Does the LGBT+ community need to re-think its stance on the ethics of self-expression, or is this a stereotypical, and unfounded worry on behalf of the event organisers?
TBC Better communication with the community and fan groups can help organisers understand and anticipate the provisions required at events. Arsenal and the Gaygooners have a very good relationship with lots of open dialogue on both sides - motorsport and many other sports lack this.
BS Other sports have official LGBT+ organisations, for example Arsenal football club have a gay fans' club. When Danny Watts came out, there was talk of starting an official FIA organisation. Do you think, given the political orientation of motorsport governing bodies, that it would be better to have a queer-led queer org, or an official initiative run by well-meaning straight people?
TCB I am a member of the Gaygooners and do work with them at the moment. I think it is extremely important that any such organisation is run by members of the LGBT+ community. There is no reason why straight supporters can't be involved and there needs to be open dialogue with a body like the FIA and the teams and there is no reason why this can't be a straight representative. But when it comes to the promotion of LGBT+ rights and action against inequalities - it has to be directed and campaigned by the community itself.
What can motorsport entities do to be more supportive of the LGBT+ community?
For starters they need to recognise that there is a large number of fans from this community across all series and all levels - as well the drivers, team personnel etc. Motorsport lags way behind football in the UK and maybe it's a result of the international travelling circus as opposed to mainly domestic aspect of football. If football has a long way to go for LGBT+ inclusion in the stands and within the sport to allow a safe and welcoming environment, then motorsport is decades away.
As the number of LGBT+ supporters is still quite small, most fans, teams etc don't feel anything needs to be done and in many cases they actively disagree with any potential step forward (that is, the issue with grid girls, widespread normative sexism, and the homophobic terminology used).
BS What can individual fans and motorsport workers do to show their support for the LGBT+ community?
TBC Educate, promote, inspire and stay vocal. Football is listening thanks to the tireless long term work of folks like the Gaygooners - there is no reason why motorsport and other sports as a whole can't do the same.