Women Formula One fans should be used to sexist comments by now. We hear them on a regular basis from Ecclestone (there are far too many instances to link to here); Perez, Verstappen, and others have made blatantly sexist remarks; even Susie Wolff has defended one of Ecclestone's whoppers, calling her own feminism into question. So why are the fanwomen getting (to quote one on social media) "salty AF" over this incident?
I asked Prof Daphna Joel what she thought of the video embedded above, and she responded by asking why I was wasting my time over yet another "stupidly sexist" comment from a driver. I'm taking the time to write about this is for three reasons - 1. Vettel is a four-time world champion, and his opinion has credibility both in and out of the sport, and he's held up as a role model to young racers, and 2. Vettel is a repeat offender, regularly treating women as an Ecclestone protégé would, and 3. There is a pernicious mix of fact and opinion, and this needs separating out. So going line by line, we're going to analyse this interview in the context of motorsport culture.
Let's start with Bridget Maasland's question, "Why are women not compatible enough to race at the highest level?" because that's where Prof Joel's objections started. The idea that humans exhibit gender dimorphism to the extent that we can generalise task compatibility for or against an entire gender is considered outdated and parochial by the scientific community. (Sources 1 and 2 of a multitude, if you want to read more but don't want to spring for a copy of Cordelia Fine's "Delusions of Gender".) This notion of the inherent compatibility of one gender over another underlies many of the sexist comments we see in motorsport. In this industry that prides itself on inhabiting the cutting edge of research, it's time to drop the pseudoscience. But give Maasland her due, she was raising an unpopular topic in the public sphere, and she deserves credit for that.
Vettel's initial response to the question, "I don't think there is a reason why we can't have women racing," is valid. Sergio Perez would disagree, having commented that losing to a woman would be a bad thing. This is an opinion echoed by many men in motorsport, albeit largely unexpressed in public fora.
He followed this up with, "...but there's not enough women trying. Simply, if you look at it that way, I think the ratio is very much in favour of boys at that age, in go-karts, and then it's obviously a bit more difficult later on." To quote Prof Michael Kimmel, who also responded to my email blast, "The guy's half right, right?" Kimmel went on to comment "It's empirically true that there are not as many girls as boys coming up through the 'pipeline', but not for the reasons [Vettel] gives. It is not because of girls' motivation as much as it is about discrimination and harassment, girls being told they may not do it, cannot do it, shouldn't want to do it, or aren't capable of doing it."
And there we get to the core of the issue at play. Vettel, despite having a woman on his long-term support staff, and a (seemingly) supportive mum and partner, hasn't noticed the systematic and often subtle discrimination directed at women and girls. Nico Rosberg said he wouldn't take his daughter racing because "go-karting is now more dangerous than F1." While that may have been a simple protective instinct, there seem to be few qualms among the rest of the paddock about taking their sons karting.
In the RTL interview, Vettel continues, "Another reason why I think boys...maybe it's a bit more natural for men to...[gestures vaguely]" Maasland supplies, "To like cars?" Vettel replies, "Yeah, to like cars and go racing." In that statement, he circles back to Maasland's initial assumption about gender being an accurate predictor of preferences and career choices, in the face of scant scientific evidence to support the opinion.
Vettel concludes his answer by saying, "In racing, you have to make decisions very quickly, sometimes not think about them, because you simply don't have the time, and maybe women tend to think about stuff for longer." To those who would say that it's just a joke and therefore doesn't matter, we joke in the context of a culture that believes that things are funny because they're true.
Joel's response to this was, "Women think longer than men? I don’t know of any such study - although this doesn’t mean there isn’t one. There are over 50,000 studies of sex/gender differences; I don’t know them all. But even if there was such a study, I’m sure that if you read it, you’d find that there was an overlap between men and women, as there is for any other psychological variable." I looked on Google Scholar to see if I could find a study to support the assumption underpinning Vettel's joke. The only conclusion I could find regarding gender as a predictor of decision-making was that women tend to make more ethical decisions than men, and even that is a shaky generalisation to make, given Dilma Rousseff's recent corruption scandal.
Kimmel commented, "Most human beings aren't able to make such fast decisions traveling at such high speeds with such possibly tragic consequences. Some of the human beings who are able are male, and some are female. We don't know how many are female because...well, see the answer to there not being enough girls in the pipeline.
"[Vettel's] answer is as logical as this: since testosterone generates aggression, it might cloud the ability of male drivers to make good split-second decisions, as the hormone puts beating the other guy over being safe. Therefore, men are more likely to crash, so maybe we shouldn't let men drive. I don't think either is 'true' of course. But neither is at all logical."
I have no desire to antagonise the gendertrolls, but this lack of logic - and evidence to support conclusions - is typical of the sexist remarks we see in motorsport. From Ecclestone's assertion that women don't want to take responsibility for a large organisation, to sexist jokes about women's abilities to drive race cars, the real reason we see so few women rising through the ranks is because of varying intensities and flavours of misogyny. Until people can recognise that, there will be no change in motorsport.