Women in Motorsports

I had been kicking around the idea of addressing the presence of women in motorsports for some time now. It fell off the top of my mind, but I was reminded that I wanted to write something about it when I read a profile story recently on TheAthletic.com

The story was about Hannah Schmitz, principal strategy engineer for the Red Bull Formula 1 team. Team principal Christian Horner called her the linchpin of the team.

The story went on to highlight the elements and challenges of her job, and some bold calls she’s made over the last few years that have resulted in team wins. They were bold because they broke from conventional wisdom in each race they occurred, but each resulted in victory. Schmitz is as sharp as they come.

As you might imagine, the story referred to racing as a “male-dominated environment.” I suppose there are instances where that phrase is appropriate — coal mining, for example — but I don’t think it applies to racing. Not anymore, anyway. Here’s why.

We know from occupational data that more men than women are drawn to careers associated with things, and more women than men are typically drawn to careers associated with people. Motorsports is about racing things. Of course, there are people involved — and in the case of F1, lots of people — but the purpose of those people is as primary caregivers for the thing, the car.

The preponderance of men involved in racing isn’t because women aren’t welcome. If we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s more likely because a larger percentage of men find it interesting than do women. Men are not in racing to “dominate.” They’re there because that’s where their passion lies, and they’re lucky enough to work in motorsports. It’s not inconceivable that there was a time women didn’t feel welcome, or perhaps when they really weren’t welcome, but not as long as I’ve been around motorsports.

Never once have I ever seen a woman not welcomed in a racing environment. Never once have I seen anything that would qualify as harassment, nor have I seen women denigrated for their gender, whether their job was behind the wheel or behind pit wall. Objectively, given the small sample size, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. It just means I haven’t seen it, which I think is at least somewhat indicative of the welcoming nature of motorsports.

There is no question Schmitz is qualified to be in her position with the Red Bull team. With a University of Cambridge graduate degree in mechanical engineering, she worked her way up from modeling and simulation to strategy-focused roles and eventually to her current role as principal strategy engineer.

It’s arguable that women in motorsports enjoy special attention, particularly from the media, over men in motorsports because they are something of an aberration in a sport populated by men. Notice I didn’t use the word “dominated.”

It’s telling that the subject of that story on TheAthletic.com was Schmitz. I couldn’t tell you the names of the principal strategy engineers for Ferrari, or Mercedes or Aston Martin or McLaren, Haas or Alfa Romeo. Nor could you, I’m guessing, because those roles are filled by men. Nothing newsworthy there.

I also remember reading about a female driver in a U.S. semi-pro series who garnered headlines because she finished 10th in — again — a “male-dominated” series. You’d never have read about a 10th-place finisher if the driver had a Y chromosome. The important thing is that the media was writing about racing in a positive light.

In all candor, that special attention on women in racing is a boon for motorsports, and one need look no further than Danica Patrick. Patrick didn’t win any races in NASCAR, but her two pole positions, 20 top five and 63 top 10 finishes kept her in the news, and NASCAR was all the better for it. There’s no telling how many young girls she inspired or how many are racing now because of Danica.

It would be great if we could get more women interested in motorsports, so that there are as many women as there are men. Given the occupational statistics I cited earlier, I don’t think the percentages will ever hit equilibrium, but if my experience in motorsports is any bellwether, they are more than welcome.


  1. I’ve been a member of NASA for 10ish years now and I read maybe one or two SpeedNews articles a month and generally do not post. I’m an ex racer and current instructor. I legitimately cannot believe this article made it past an editor.

    Genuine bottom of the barrel take on women in motorsports by an old white dude. This article boils down to “the only women in motorsports that get air time are mediocre at best therefore the sport is not dominated by men.”

    Maybe take a step back and realize that the fact that we don’t have many talented women in prominent positions in the sport is BECAUSE IT’S MALE DOMINATED. Like, how are young women supposed to be inspired to join the sport when before Danica you had Janet Guthrie in the friggin 70s and Michele Mouton driving rally in the 80s. You need someone who’s okish to inspire a generation of women who want to go “wow, I can do that but better.” Furthermore until there are enough women in the sport, men are the de facto gatekeepers for professional women to enter and do so at their leisure.

    “Never once have I ever seen a woman not welcomed in a racing environment. Never once have I seen anything that would qualify as harassment, nor have I seen women denigrated for their gender, whether their job was behind the wheel or behind pit wall” this is literally saying “because it’s not been my experience I conclude that it doesn’t happen”

    The ONLY part of this article I may agree with is that we are, as a sport, getting better at broadening the scope of people that we “let in” to the club.

    NASA as an organization is a business and this article really just slams home that it has no idea how to attract the next generation of young racer.

    Absolutely 0 IQ brain dead take.

  2. I don’t even know where to start with this article; but very disappointing it was even published. … “I don’t see something happen so it must not be a problem” is such fundamentally flawd thinking. Would you say: “I’ve never witnessed a heart attack, so surely this isn’t a problem for anyone.”? Do you have any idea how this can affect people who have been discriminated against? The worst part is, you probably have witnessed biased against women in racing, and all other sports for that matter, but you are too ignorant to notice it.

    • A deeper thought would have been to try and hnderstand why so few women enter motorsports. My take… Just look at stereotypical toys you would buy young boys v. young girls. Even if you as a parent buy your daughter toy cars and sporting equipment, their friends won’t have the same interests because their parents are likely to influence them with gender stereotypical toys. Or try to get your young daughter into racing only for her to realize she is the only girl, she will be likely to lose interest. Society as a whole is very biased against women in motorsports from the day they are born, and countries outside the US are even worse. If we want to see more women in motorsports then society as a whole needs to acknowledge that cars and racing aren’t for boys but for everyone.

      • I disagree. The change has to happen within the individual. You don’t need to push anything on anyone. If a female is interested in cars, whether it’s car toys when she’s little or to drive on the track, she’ll ask for it or initiate it. That interest will overcome any societal preconceptions, stereotypes or norms.

  3. I actually tend to agree more with the article than I disagree. The big question here is……….are there so few women in the sport/hobby(as drivers and really what the focus should be) because they’re not welcome or because of a lack of interest. Many years ago I think it was both, but for a long time now it’s only the interest, as Brett points out. It’s actually gotten to a point now that if a woman has talent, even less talent than a man, it’s actually easier for her to get on a pro team. This is mainly because it’s MUCH easier for them to get sponsors and many teams would actually prefer a woman over a man. The team and sponsors(as well as the sport) love it because it attracts the attention from viewers/fans. It has the potential of bringing in new viewers/fans. There are many more women in pro and amateur auto racing now than have been in the past. Some are extremely fast. Danica Patrick is the biggest name in recent years. She came up through open wheel racing and was in Champ Car/Indycar before going to Nascar to finish her career. But there are others……..Katherine Legge, Simona De Silvestro, Samantha Tan, etc.
    This is one sport where women and men can compete on one level playing field, unlike just about any other sport out there. I think anyone that knows motorsport has come to that realization long ago and it’s just taken a while to see women coming into it. The unfortunate reality is……….there just aren’t enough women out there with the funding/support and most importantly the INTEREST to get into it, even at the amateur level. That’s a very small pool to pull talent from.

  4. Thank you, Brett, for writing about that which is patently obvious, but most people are too afraid to say. Along the same lines, aviation closely resembles motorsports, i.e. the pilot population “stubbornly” remains around 10% female despite “every effort to solve the problem for decades”. Has it occurred to anyone that maybe it’s not a problem? Maybe more men are just interested in airplanes and race cars… and that’s OK. I’m guessing there’s inverse representation among hair stylists, and it’s neither false nor sexist to say women are just interested in hair styling… and that’s OK, too.

    But predictably, cue the OMG OFFENDED online warriors for gender justice, who are shocked! that there would be an idea published not approved by their worldview…

    The car doesn’t care who’s driving it… the track doesn’t care who’s paying the fees… the vendor doesn’t care who’s buying tires and brake pads… and none of us care who’s in that car one position ahead of us. I’ll second the anecdotal observation that I’ve seen nothing but support and friendly reception for the women in my NASA region, including a long-time racer who mentored his daughter into our class where we all warmly welcomed her… It’s not a problem, and those fervently arguing otherwise are looking for controversy where it doesn’t exist.

    • The irony of this comment is simply mind numbing. No one is “too afraid to say” this stuff it’s just factually inaccurate.

      I was interested, Brett uses coal mining as an example of a male dominated field. According to national labor statistics around 4% of miners are women. You mentioned pilots, PPL holders, as you say, are around 10% female and a drop to 5% commercial license holders. According to the FIA. ONE POINT FIVE PERCENT 1.5% of racing license holders are women. So worse than both of your examples, truly well done.

      “It must be women just don’t like motor racing” I hear you say. According to liberty media (you know the f1 group?) 40% of fans are women. That’s a pretty stark difference between people who are actually participating and who have an interest and you have to ask why (or in your case, I guess you don’t you just stick your head in the sand)

      Lastly “online warriors for gender justice,”? Give me a break. Notice how the people that disagree with this sad excuse for an article actually put that credentials in, and thier real full names? You can find me at any event and I’ll have this exact same opinion in person “Jeff”

      “It’s not a problem, and those fervently arguing otherwise are looking for controversy where it doesn’t exist” Another complete logical fallacy. I’ve never seen anyone get shot and furthermore I’VE never shot anyone. Anyone that says gun violence exists is just looking for controversy where none exists.

      Yes, welcome to 2023 where YOUR worldview is the one being challenged and we no longer mail in clipped up Auto Traders to sign up for track days.

      • Regarding 40% of fans being women……….just because they’re fans doesn’t mean they’re interested in driving, especially racing. Some may drive, but the proportions of female fans that drive vs male fans are clearly lower.
        Now we go to individual countries and 40% of what number? In the U.S. there aren’t nearly as many people interested in F1 as there are in the rest of the world. So that’s 40% of a much smaller sample size. So look at the females that are in pro racing. Are they from the U.S. or other parts of the world?

      • The only mind-numbing irony is that the one commenter obsessed with identity politics grievances is the one person who belittled the author for his immutable characteristics… you referred to the author as – direct quote – “an old white guy” as though that invalidates his ideas. Congrats, you’ve not only publicly demonstrated to the internet that you’re a racist and a bigot, but a hypocrite blinded by political ideology…

        Re: the examples of female representation in various industries… the point completely escapes you. Regardless of the statistics, both aviation and motorsports are open and welcoming to women. It’s literally the entire point of Brett’s article. If women were barred, harassed, shunned, or excluded in any way, there would be a chorus of opposition to that environment, from all of us. But this doesn’t exist, in any way, no matter how loudly you howl about it. There’s no reason to force women into driving race cars or flying airplanes so idiots like you can be satisfied with the gender balance. Everyone gets to do what they want, problem solved.

  5. OK, I was initially irritated about the article and I’m still put off by the cavalier attitude that Brett expresses, but, reading the article in TheAthletic.com, Hannah Schmitz is the quoted source of the “…male dominated environment…” statement. The context is that her parents were supportive and she had a very good mentor who guided her through her early studies before she went to college. The “male dominated environment” sticker on this package may just as well be her pursuit and study resulting in obtaining multiple mechanical engineering degrees. Engineering is a profession that is male dominated, with women graduates (in the U.S.) ranging below 20% of the class in any of the past 5 years.

    The long and short of it is that mechanical engineers are very smart and dedicated professionals; it’s tough to get admitted to an accredited mechanical engineering program and even tougher to graduate, regardless of gender. Don’t think that automotive engineering programs are the answer. There are only 6 Automotive Engineering Technology programs accredited by ABET.

    Degreed mechanical engineers are in demand. Any person who consciously makes the decision to bring their mechanical engineering skills to professional motorsports does it because of their choice. This is highlighted by Ms. Schmitz’ story that she chose Formula One.

    Brett, your observations and conclusions about gender equity in professional motorsport are your own and I support your right to publish them. I disagree with your conclusions (I can’t speak to your observations), but, in this case your use of the quote “…male dominated environment…” statement to underpin your conclusions is wrong in logic and doesn’t even tell a very cogent story.

  6. I was hoping this column would spark conversation, but I never wanted it to create discord among the people in my motorsports family. I hope the conversation can be respectful and free of ad hominem attacks.

    As I mentioned, I kicked this idea around awhile. I wrote the draft back in May and had been tweaking it ever since. I guess I never got it to turn the corner and convey the message clearly. I was told it has some blind spots from someone whose opinion I respect, and it might not have been fully baked. Given all the comments, we might have been better served if I had waited and polished it further.

    It should be clear that I take issue with the notion that motorsports is “male dominated,” as though women aren’t welcome.

    Racing has inherent barriers to entry, and we all know them. They apply to everyone, but gender is no longer one of them, if it ever was. Seventy-four years ago, NASCAR held its very first race on June 19, 1949. Driver Sara Christian competed in that race. She let herself in, and women have been doing it ever since.

    As I admitted in the column, it isn’t inconceivable that women in racing likely were discriminated against, regardless of whether I’ve seen it. It could still be happening, but that kind of silliness is simply unacceptable today, and I would hope people call it out when they see it. I’ve never seen a hint of it, and I think it’s been rendered moot by all the women who have been involved in racing in postwar history. Scores of women who wanted to go racing badly enough not to bother with what men think have made successful careers in racing. They’re household names. There’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to women in racing, and the list is enormous.

    I’ve studied mass communication enough to know that because women are fewer in number in motorsports than men, they will continue to be a focus for the news media, especially if it’s not media that understands racing. And, as I said, that coverage is beneficial to motorsports.

    I’m left to wonder how long women have to participate in motorsports before this male-dominated narrative goes away? I look forward to the day stories on women in racing are about women doing a job they love rather than some antiquated story line.

Join the Discussion