Does Gender Stereotyping still exist in Motorsport & Engineering?

Go to autosport.com, planetf1.com or crash.net. Take a little look down the list of stories on their website. How many are about women?

Thought so.

But why is motorsport so intrinsically and inherently dominated by men? And is there anything preventing women getting involved either behind the wheel, or in automotive engineering?

In my exclusive report for the BBC, I have found that women are on the rise in the industry, that nothing is standing in their way but it will be a long time, if ever, before it totally changes.

Fast cars. Glamorous locations. And men.

Motorsport is dominated by the male species, almost exclusively by male drivers and predominantly male engineers.

Katie Lawrence, Race Operations Engineer for McLaren Applied Technologies, has started increasing her presence on the F1 grid in 2013 and sees a trend.

“I personally have noticed a huge increase in the last couple of years,” she says. “I went trackside in Formula One two years ago and then again this season. It was incredible.”

“I think there were 3 girls here when I started. In the three years I’ve been here it’s grown hugely. I would like to say it was a shocked to the system but actually on my masters there were 40 of us and just 3 girls. I was quite used to the minority.”IMG_3009

But if Katie says the situation is improving, why is she so outnumbered in academia?

46% of physics GCSEs are taken by girls. At A-Level that figure falls to 21%. Undergraduate degrees are around 13% female and in the big wide world, less than 10% of engineers are women.

“We have very entrenched traditional views,” explains Bola Fatimilehin, Head of Diversity at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “Shifting those views will take very persistent and long term strategies.”

Those entrenched traditional views. Engineering involves spanners and grease and getting your hands dirty right? Well yes – but these days it involved computational fluid dynamics (CFD), complex mathematical formulas and creative design.

“That myth has been very rapidly dispelled,” says Roger Vasler, Team Principal of City University’s Formula Student team City Racing. The girls that work here are just as adept at getting onto the car and taking parts off and in some cases are more diligent.”

Behind the scenes, women are becoming more visible. Two team owners in Monisha Kaltenborn at Sauber and Claire Williams at Williams. But inside the cockpit, F1 has been bereft of a female driver for 20 years. Nascar’s Danica Patrick is the most famous female driver worldwide.

IMG_3003Max Chilton races for the Marussia F1 team, for whom the late Maria Di Villota was test driver for in 2012.

“It is quite a male sport. There’s nuts and bolts and grease,” he tells me. To me, there’s no reason why there can’t be (a female F1 driver). There are women in the sport that have proven they can do a good job.

“I disagree with some people in the sport that say there will never be woman Formula One driver. It’s just a matter of time.”

However one female racing driver from Kent, Laura Tillett, says she’s experienced sexism throughout her time in the sport.

“I get a lot of people say to me ‘Oh, you’re just a girl, I’ll beat you,’ and then I stick it on pole. They just don’t expect you to be as good as them. Motorsport is one of the only sports where women can compete with men evenly.”

However, the MRF pilot did add that being a girl in the sport actually helped get her greater exposure.

Nonetheless, changing society isn’t easy. And it’s at the youngest possible age that these stereotypes can be targeted.

“I don’t think people are put off engineering because it’s all men,” Katie continues. “They just don’t know it exists. I didn’t know when I went to university and I went to an all boys’ school. I think it’s a promotion of the stem subjects: Science, Technology, engineering and Maths at school. We’re not opened up enough to any industry related to any of those industries.”

But there are programmes and initiatives in the open designed to help. F1 in schools is one such example.

“We are working with organisations like tomorrow’s engineers, the one stop careers advice for engineering, getting messages out to schools and to teachers in particular, so they can get through to young people,” says Bola.

And in the industry itself? Well although more women are entering the industry, the proportion isn’t changing radically.

“Companies are beginning to wake up to the fact that there’s a benefit in having the girls in engineering,” states Roger. “As far as Formula One, and other racing formula are concerned, there’s probably a bit of a throwback to the old days when men were men and women weren’t to be seen.

“They are getting there.”

The lack of role models is a big concern though. If that improves over time, we will see a change.

But as Katie is living proof of, you just need the right attitude, the right mentality, and it doesn’t matter what your gender is.

“You’ve just got to be determined to give it a go and I’m just going to keep pushing,” she concludes.