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How women in motorsport are fighting back against industry sexism

"I decided not to sacrifice my femininity just to fit in"

By Jess Shanahan February 4, 2016
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As a woman in the automotive sector, I think we experience less sexism in this industry than many others – but it’s still there. Subtle jibes, ‘compliments’, incredulity that a girl can explain the intricacies of an engine, little taps on the bum…

I can cope with the men who say how strange it is to see a woman talking about cars. We are a rare and exciting species in this male-dominated industry and, for the most part, the comments are innocent. However, you can sometimes tell that what the man is really trying to say is “I don’t think girls can do this.”

I work in motorsport PR and present my own motoring show. I talk about cars a lot and I know my stuff, but I do come across barriers or people who think I can’t do this because of my gender. Often the jibes aren’t about my sex directly, but rather about my clothing choices or hair colour.

One man decided to leave a comment on my review of the new Mazda MX-5 that began: “I realise that women still face huge barriers in business and professional life, but how you present yourself is also important…” then launched into a monologue on my appearance that included a criticism of my ‘overly bright clothes.’ As if they affected my ability to do my job somehow.

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Of course, I’m not alone; Mandie Holgate spent nine and a half years as the body shop manager of her dad’s car business and experienced some interesting stuff in that time. She says:

“I found myself having to play up to the roles expected of me. With some men, I can be the straight-talking body shop manager I really am but If I had a sexist engineer coming in, I’d be very girly and would play the secretary who knew nothing about cars in order to get the best quote from him.

I’d say things like, ‘I don’t know much about the car but here are the details.’ If they saw I knew what I was talking about they’d just talk down to me so I had to come up with a way around it.”

Sexism appears in motorsport too. I spoke to Brij Schuil who runs the Motorsport Sisterhood and has written on a number of topics that seem to anger men across the internet. She says:

“I have had men refuse to publish pro-women articles, which could count as an insidious form of sexism, as they are seeking to silence me and deny my right to an opinion.

“That said, there is a group of boys (note I didn’t use the word ‘men’) who troll anything that smells vaguely like feminism. From boys who comment ‘why do we want to hear from a feminist anyway’ on an article about the various arguments for and against grid girls (in which I tried to sound as neutral and objective as possible, given my opinions) to ones who spam my mentions whenever I express an opinion that disagrees with theirs.

“I’ve been told my opinion doesn’t count because I’m fat. I’ve had personal attacks after I coherently replied to their criticisms, and pointing out their grammatical errors just makes them dissolve into tweet storms calling me fat and ugly.”

Unfortunately we sometimes get a glimpse into how men in this industry talk about women behind their backs, as one industry expert – who wished to remain anonymous – explains:

“I was doing a radio interview, and the channel’s Skype chat was going mental, so I clicked to stop it making noises that could be heard on the recording. I came in on a conversation in which one of the male regulars on the channel was saying he’d ‘cum all over’ the panellists of my regular all-girl show.

I called him out on it politely, and he said he was sorry (as did the producer who was also there). It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

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A lot of women see the need to change how they act in order to fit in, and even some of the most confident of racing drivers have felt like that at some point. Championship-winning driver Rebecca Jackson says:

“When I first started racing, I tried to blend in and wore casual jeans and hoodies but halfway through the season, I mentioned to someone how I hadn’t worn heels for two weeks due to hurting my toe while salsa dancing. He told me he couldn’t imagine me in heels and I was horrified!

“I pride myself in being girly so from there on I decided not to sacrifice my femininity just to fit in.”

Rebecca understands that many women try to fit in like she did, but she doesn’t think they have to. She explains:

“I think you should be proud of who you are and we shouldn’t deny the fact that we are women. If you are glamorous you should maintain that and be confident in yourself as a person.”

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I’m very lucky in that most of the men I work with don’t treat me any different than they do their male colleagues. I like it, but I need to step up my banter game.

Sexism is a problem in the automotive industry and in motorsport, and we’ve still got a long way to go. But with more and more strong women showing what they can do both in and out of a car – as well as standing up for themselves when faced with sexist comments – perceptions and actions are slowly starting to change.