A grid with a fine line

fine line

I have been working in the motoring industry long enough to accept that I am part of a minority. Cars have always been a speciality and passion of men and in all likelihood, they always will be.

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It is thus no surprise that race tracks are typically the playground for masculine contestation. The powerful machines, the speed, the adrenaline, the battling and the danger involved – let’s face it, it just is a very manly environment. Personally, I am absolutely fine with that and even enjoy it because I know I could never work in a female-dominated industry such as fashion. I just couldn’t. I am not saying working with men isn’t challenging. I’ve had my fair share of narcissistically inclined macho talk, public humiliation, sexist comments and every now and then, I still get those remarks that make me want to burst out in frustration.

I remember my first job where I was told that “girls don’t belong on a race track”. That was not even ten years ago. Still, when I heard that grid girls have now been banned from FIA WEC race tracks “on the basis of sexism while also supporting women working in motorsport”, I was a little baffled. I know many women working in the industry who have welcomed this move by the FIA, mainly because they think the cleavage-happy grid girls in their tight outfits would threaten the reputation of all other women working on the track and carrying out more respectable tasks. First of all, equality would mean that we respect all jobs, not just the ones that require an academic education or specialist training. Secondly, and with all due respect, I think that the fear of beautiful girls on track sending out the wrong message is bollox and mainly a sign of self-doubt, which is unfortunately typical for women and forms the perfect ground for the very discrimination we are trying to avoid.

Are purely female racing series the answer, as Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone recently suggested?

There are countless people working on a race track in all sorts of roles. Regardless of their gender, they carry out various tasks, from picking up the garbage after the fans on the grandstands, to waving the flags on the side of the circuit, to creating the ruleset that decides upon the outcome of the race. Nature and hierarchic position of these jobs is decided by their function, not their gender. So why do grid girls suddenly represent all women working in motorsport, from the team owner to the PR rep, to the female race driver? Aren’t we lowering our own contribution by picking one cliché role and applying this stereotype to everybody else of the same sex? Would men do that? Does Lewis Hamilton feel lowered because it is men who are sweeping and picking up the debris from the race track behind him? I doubt it. So why are we reducing ourselves to sex whereas we are hired to carry out a specific job, based on our competence, experience, skills and qualities?

One could argue that the job of a grid girl is purely to be eye candy for men and that in itself is sexist. True that. But if we go down that route, next thing there’ll be no more hostesses at motor shows, no Pirelli calendars and no advertisements of convertibles with beautiful blondes driving down Route 66 anymore. Why do we need them anyway? Simple. From a marketing point of view, every image you send is intended to appeal to a certain target group. And if you know your target group well, you are trying to stimulate their emotional response and attachment towards a product with every contact. Looking at motorsport in particular, yes, there is a need to reel in new audiences and ideally, these should also include young women. However, out of all global mainstream sports, motorsport is currently still the sport with the biggest gender gap. According to a study carried out by Repucom, its female audience is less than 70% of the size of the male one. Hence, the appeal to sponsors promoting typically male products. Hence the banners and spots advertising beer, performance tires, razor blades and deodorant. Hence the display of sexy girls next to sexy cars. But is sexy still appropriate when the driver in the car behind them is a woman?

The abolition of the controversial tradition comes at a time when more and more women push into race seats and management positions of motorsport teams. Yet, the opportunities remain scarce, our competence is often contested and competition is tough, especially for female drivers. In most racing series, especially when it comes to the pinnacle of the sport, it is two criteria that bring you to the top. Skill and/or money. If you are a talented driver but have little support from your parents or sponsors, you have no chance to start a successful racing career at a young age, something that has become even more important in recent years. Skill and money are somewhat dependent on each other because usually, the money goes where the talent is, and vice versa.

Young girls rarely get the kind of support required from their families and sponsors at an early age, which would allow them to develop their talent and will early enough in order to compete with their male counterparts. This is partly due to traditional role allocations in families and the kind of activities that girls are typically put in touch with by their mothers, versus the kind of activities that boys are put into by their fathers. That being said, the inequality starts way earlier than at the point when woman and man compete for a seat in a cockpit twenty years onwards. On the other hand, organizers and sponsors show increased interest in female ambassadors of the sport as they begin to understand the benefits for reputation, audience share and advertising effects. Women have therefore also been trying to attract sponsorship support with the very stereotype qualities that they are trying to battle: sexiness, mediagenic appeal and better communication skills. A very fine line.

Are purely female racing series the answer, as Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone recently suggested? Regarding the issues that Formula 1 faces in its current form, this doesn’t seem to be a valid idea. Other sports such as professional football show that achieving the same level of interest for the women’s league as for the men’s league isn’t exactly easy. And in reality, women do not necessarily want to watch women compete. Surprisingly, they want to see men. We, too, want to enjoy the powerful machines, the speed, the adrenaline, the battling and the danger. And, in all honesty, three good-looking lads on the podium. Luckily, there is plenty of eye candy for us to look at. Maybe we should not begrudge the men of those few grid girls.

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