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.