Firstly, thank you for not blocking our account the last time we criticised you. I know you don’t like being told that people disagree with you. It was big of you to not block us, so thank you.
I saw your article about equality a few weeks ago, and I’d like to say well done for having the courage to write about it, knowing people would disagree. It was a solid first attempt at writing about feminism, and I want to encourage you to think and write more about this. Equality is becoming a theme in society broadly, as well as in racing specifically, and the people who jump on board the train will go further than those who don’t.
In addition to your piece, I also saw the work of women who picked holed in your argument. They could have been more gentle, yes. It is because I was aiming for kindness of tone that this letter to you took several weeks; my initial drafts were less polite.
We (people who have read up about feminism prior to becoming internet-famous) have an advantage over you in that we were introduced to feminism and learned our praxis while we had relative obscurity to hide behind as we matured. We had the benefit of friends who gently called us in when we were doing things that hurt people. You don’t have the joint advantages of internet obscurity and a loving, feminist squad to recommend reading while you think about equality.
That said, there is a certain thrill to trying out new things when the world is actually watching. It can be very rewarding to write about something new and find a group of people who understand and appreciate what you’re talking about. I have found that by running this blog, even though I initially had misgivings about standing up and bearing the brunt of the trolls on behalf of women in motorsport who don’t have the freedom of opinion that a freelance writing career affords.
In this article, when I say ‘sexist,’ I don’t mean ‘terrible person.’ We live in a society that is set up to advantage abled, heterosexual, white men; we’re all a little bit sexist (and racist, homophobic, ableist, etc), because our parents raised us with their beliefs, which were inherently sexist (racist, homophobic, ableist, etc). I mean no offense. If I were a doctor and you came to me with a broken leg, you would object if I called it something other than a broken leg. Discrimination is a sickness, and calling it by its name and talking about its structure helps to undo some of the havoc it’s wreaking.
So, with love, I’d like to introduce you to a few concepts to keep in mind as you write about women in the future. It’s not a minefield if you know where the path is. So, yes, I will call you sexist in this article, but it’s said in the full knowledge that you are no more sexist than the average for your demographic, which happens to be more sexist than younger demographics who have read the literature on equality. Herewith some signposts pointing you to the path.
No Sexism In Motorsport
This is a logical fallacy. All of society is sexist. As a microcosm of society, motorsport is sexist too. Additionally, very few power positions in motorsport are held by women, so we are disadvantaged by not having decision-makers at the table. Thus, we as motorsport are more sexist than the societal average, and this is one of the factors contributing to the sport’s decline in popularity among what Paul Mason described as ‘the ultra-liberal, hyper-connected youth.’
Going back to the broken leg analogy, if I as the doctor told you to ‘walk it off’ because it was nothing, you would sue me for malpractice. And yet that’s essentially what we’re doing when we use language that diminishes very real problems in people’s lives. By denying that there is a problem, we’re missing a huge and valuable data set that could inform how to change it. Motorsport thrives on new data; let’s not miss huge chunks because we’re scared of what we’ll find. We already know it’s not a great situation, but we can use where we are now as a baseline to measure progress and the impact of new policies.
Men have an advantage in our society, or, more’s the point, women are at a disadvantage. Basically, policy-makers make decisions to benefit enough people rather than all people. This is a largely implicit bias. For example, we all think a male engineer is normal, and see a woman engineer as an outlier and therefore treat her differently. The blindness to this bias is what angers people when men write about women and try to slant it as though women have disadvantaged themselves instead of their being affected by a society-wide system of oppression.
The same privilege/disadvantage scale exists in areas that have nothing to do with biological sex. It exists on a racial spectrum (white people on average get more chances and fewer hurdles than non-white people), on a sexuality spectrum (straight is seen as ‘normal’ and in many places people are punished with varying degrees of violence – ranging from sideways looks and snide remarks to fatal beatings – for being anything other than straight), on a gender spectrum (cisgender* men are privileged over cisgender women, who are in turn privileged over agender, genderqueer, and transgender people), on an ability spectrum (abled people are advantaged over people with disabilities), on a wealth spectrum (rich people are advantaged over poor people). And the list goes on.
Acknowledging that you have privilege does not diminish it. If, hypothetically, you and I were to go on Sky F1 together and give opinions, most of the audience would prefer your opinion by default because of your being male. Even if we were talking about feminism to Sky, and I alerted the audience to your male privilege and their implicit bias, the majority would still prefer your opinion because men are seen as more trustworthy.
You can, however, leverage your privilege. Using your social status as a white, abled, heterosexual, cisgender man, you can write about the more controversial topics, and be taken seriously. When you write about women, people see you as trying to do something; when I write about women, I get called an ugly/fat/angry lesbian.
Dare To Be Different
You say in your piece that Susie Wolff didn’t set out to change attitudes, but to introduce young girls to the sport. What she’s doing is valuable; I’m not decrying her contribution to the cause. But attitudes do need to be changed.
You quoted Ruth Bunscombe as saying, ‘It’s so important that we fight the archaic stereotype that women and motor sport “don’t go together” to prevent misinformation and dogma prescribing a subset of career choices for girls.’ That statement contradicts your assertion that attitudes don’t need changing. What Bunscombe calls ‘misinformation and dogma’ runs deep in our society.
When Tatiana Calderon’s Sauber test drive was announced, the English press almost all called her ‘woman driver/girl racer Tatiana Calderon’ in their headlines and lead paragraphs. These constant reminders of her gender from the press are a form of discrimination, when set against the background of the comments from Bernie Ecclestone and a multitude of other prominent and ‘reputable’ men about how sub-standard women drivers are. (For contrast, the South American press called her ‘la piloto colombiana,’ or ‘the Columbian racer,’ which is a less discriminatory title.) Calderon isn’t a woman driver; Calderon is a racer, and should be written about as simply that.
F1 and the Karting Drop-Out Rate
You mention that girls drop out of karting at an alarming rate. Do you know why? From the data set I’ve been collecting over the past two years, there are several reasons for this. All of them are sexist in some way, which I will explain in the paragraphs below.
Money is the primary reason girls drop out of racing. Because the dominant narrative is that women can’t drive, are sub-standard athletes, etc., sponsors are reticent to fund girl racers. The ones who are funded are generally the ones who adhere to society’s feminine norms – see Danica Patrick – rather than the ones who deviate in personal style – see Simona De Silvestro and Bia Figuereido, among a legion of others who are ‘sporty girls’ rather than ‘girly girls’ and struggle to leverage brands market-segmented towards women. This is sexist because it only allows one narrative of women. They must be pretty, compliant, and not rock the boat, or they don’t get funding.
Another primary reason women drop out is because of sexist treatment. They will never say as much to you, a man who will quote them in print and give them a reputation as a complainer. They will tell me about their sexist treatment, on condition I don’t print their comments. This is how I know it exists, but it is still unspoken because they don’t want to compromise their careers by being a complainer. If you’ve ever spoken to an engineer about Pascal Wehrlein (who, it should be noted, has less white privilege than you and I), you’ll know that being called a complainer isn’t a desirable characteristic in a driver. It is therefore rare for a woman to speak up about the sexism in motorsport.
What you call ‘getting asked out a lot’ often takes the form of sexual harassment. Women don’t want to be asked out while they work. Asking them out while they work is assuming that they are sexually available, which is sexist.
This ‘getting asked out a lot’ that you speak of happening to women in motorsport sometimes escalates to rape. Again, we rarely hear about these cases. Research shows that only about 10% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police. As you read the Elena Myers article I linked to, notice how it is the victim of the crime whose life is negatively affected by symptoms of PTSD as a result of the incident, while the rapist is out on bail with no consequences other than a civil suit. That is normal for rape cases. The man is trusted; the woman is dismissed, minimised, victim-blamed, and in some countries even punished with lashes for reporting a violation of her bodily autonomy.
There are other sexist things in motorsport that contribute towards the problem of girls leaving the sport. (Male) F1 drivers make comments about how women can’t race. Circuit designers make women’s bathrooms fewer and further between than men’s bathrooms, forcing women to run to the other end of the paddock for a pre-race wee. People discourage girls from racing because it’s ‘unladylike’ or ‘unfeminine’ and ‘boys don’t like competitive girls’ and other blatantly sexist rubbish, which they eventually buy into if it’s repeated enough. Parents publicly shame their sons for losing to girls at karting, which makes the boys bully the girls.
This bullying of girls on-track extends right through the feeder series to what Pippa Mann called ‘the pit-wall swipe,’ a colloquialism to describe male drivers closing off an overtake by pushing the female driver into the nearest wall, which mostly goes unpunished by the stewards because it’s ‘a racing incident.’ Seriously, watch Tatiana Calderon’s races; note how many times the commentator says, ‘[Other driver] has crashed Calderon out,’ compared to how many times the commentator says, ‘Calderon crashed herself out.’ I studied her performance last season (after a male journalist dismissed Calderon as ‘another South American crasher’), and the vast majority of incidents weren’t her fault.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of sexist issues to tackle in motorsport. There are many more, but time and space limit. That said, these are issues you are well-positioned to write about in terms of your sway within the community. If you don’t understand something I’ve said and would like to ask questions, mention or DM @mtrsprtsstrhd on Twitter, or inbox the Motorsport Sisterhood Facebook page. If you would like to read some books about feminism that were written from a male perspective before asking questions, Guyland by Michael Kimmel and The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry are both stimulating and thoughtful reads. If you would like a proof-read on an article about women to make sure you don’t earn the ire of every feminist on the internet, inbox the socials for our rates, turn-around times, and submission protocols.
* Cisgender: the gender assigned a baby at birth matches the gender they identify with as an adult; not transgender or another gender identity minority. (Please do NOT refer to cisgender people as ‘normal’ because trans, agender, and genderqueer identities exist as a natural part of the gender spectrum – and have done for millennia, according to historical and archaeological evidence – and therefore implying they are ‘not normal’ is viewed as pejorative.)