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.