No Boys Allowed
News broke this morning that W Series - a women-only, free-to-enter race series, would be coming to life next Spring. This is a series that has been trying to get off the ground for a few years now, but whose concept has repeatedly been met with backlash from women and men in the sport. But now it’s back again, and with supporters such as David Coulthard and Adrian Newey, I’m asking myself, do we really need this? My inner cynic says no, it won’t help, but at the same time, I can understand where they’re coming from. So let’s look at this properly. Far from the vitriol that will inevitably be slung around on social media, let’s analyse this - a pros and cons thing if you will.
W Series is being billed as 'an all-new ground-breaking free-to-enter single-seater motor racing series for women drivers only, with a prize fund of US$1.5 million.' The idea behind the series is to increase the talent pool for female drivers and be able to push them further in their careers than the current glass ceiling. Before being allowed to participate, drivers must go through a 'rigorous selection process.' The top 18-20 drivers from that process would then be given the opportunity to drive one of the series identical Formula 3 style cars in the inaugural season which will apparently feature some of the best circuits in Europe. (Though it's interesting to note that the opening paragraph of the series' website mentions races in America, Asia and Australia, but there's no mention of this in the 'Circuits' section. We'll have to see I suppose.)
So from where I'm sitting, this sounds both like a great idea and a bit of a rubbish one. The thing that's sticking with me most is the gender exclusivity - I understand where they're coming from, but it still doesn't sit quite right. But I shall save my opinions for later on in this piece.
The series has seemingly attracted some big names in motorsport and being able to work with them is unquestionably a good thing. Having Adrian Newey or DC on hand in the series you race in would be a fantastic learning opportunity, one that many may not have been possible for most before now.
Clearly, the lack of an entry fee is going to be a big selling point - sponsorship is always a massive hurdle for racing drivers (not just women I will add.) And the offer of prize money all the way down to 18th place is an interesting one too.
More racing seats available for women. There are a considerable number of racing seats around Europe already - some say the single seater market is already saturated, but opening more up for women should be a good thing right?
Perception - women have been competing with men in motorsport for a good while now. This year alone we've had our first female British GT3 champion, Flick Haigh (following on from Jamie Chadwick's GT4 championship win in 2015), Tatiana Calderon became Sauber F1's test driver, and we saw the mighty Ana Carrasco become the first woman to win a world motorbike championship. Creating more seats is one thing, but removing the ability to show that these women are as good as the men sounds like a bad thing to me.
That glass ceiling. Just because you've created a shiny new series doesn't mean that ceiling is going anywhere. You can increase the talent pool as much as you like, but if the sexist attitudes still exist, then, unfortunately, those will need to change first.
Bias. It took me a while to figure out how to phrase this, and I'm still not sure I've got it right. But prejudice exists, whether conscious or not and this style of race series is not going to help that. This does tie into the glass ceiling notion, but let's look at this away from the sport, like a regular job for example:
One candidate has real-world experience working in the role I'm hiring for, has proven themselves time and again within the industry and has worked their way up alongside a variety of people. The other candidate has some real-world experience but has spent a lot of time in a university environment, being taught about but not necessarily demonstrating the skills I'm looking for in an industry environment. As a hiring manager, I know which I'd pick - the candidate who is most likely to flourish and adapt to my industry, which in this case, in my opinion, is the first candidate.
I could be entirely off the mark, but I would think that as a team manager I would be more likely to take on a driver that has proven themselves in a 'standard' (for lack of a better word) race series. Ultimately, the sport is still largely male-dominated, so it stands to reason that were a manager to be selecting a female driver, they would be more biased to one who has proven herself against her male counterparts, as that is the environment she would be racing in at the top. As much as we hate to admit it, bias is still a thing.
So there are both pros and cons in the way the series is being pushed. When you look at the series itself, it feels well thought out in concept, and the cons are less the do with the running of the series itself and more around the idea of the series. Take the gender out and just aim it at under-funded drivers and I think you'd be onto a winner. But that doesn't solve the gender problem, and if I'm honest, I don't think this will either.
We all know there is no silver bullet. Getting more women into motorsport is going to be a long and challenging process, but with the right techniques, I do feel like we’re going to see a more level playing field (that’s also sustainable) within my lifetime. I don't believe this championship is the correct answer, but perhaps I am just being overly sceptical, and a tad cynical plus let's face it, I'm not a racing driver.
I do however work in another male-dominated environment: the video games industry, and I'm going to go off on a tangent for a moment because a similar problem is happening there.
The UK is on a path to experience a significant shortage in people with the right skills to work in computing and by extension the games industry. So what's being done about it? You have your usual outreach to students and skilled individuals in other sectors, but in my opinion, the most promising approach stems from education.
Digital Schoolhouse is an organisation who aim to improve computing education in schools and encourage more young people to look at computer science as a degree option and part of their eventual career path. However, a big part of this is getting more girls involved. Over the years by increasing awareness and using different techniques to show that computing is not just for nerds sitting in dark rooms all day writing code, they've seen an increase in the number of girls interested in, or actually taking computing to GCSE level in their associated schools. And now they're looking to do the same thing with participation in their eSports tournament. It's a fantastic movement to be a part of! Education is a more powerful tool than we give it credit for, maybe because it takes time to see the effects of our efforts, but the results are clearly good.
Coming back to W Series and what I think. Personally, I believe this money would be better spent on other avenues. Albeit they would be more of a long-term solution, but perhaps that's better than what feels a bit like a band-aid approach.
For example, W Series could put female teams into existing championships, Formula 3 or GP2 for instance. This would then give them their own role models with which to raise awareness and educate young girls looking at the sport. Mentoring, role models and even parents play a vital role in shaping how a young person views the world.
If you take a young girl and introduce her to a strong female hero, connect her with someone who wants to nurture her talent and teach her parents that yes, her hobby is something she can excel at and it's not weird, then she can grow into something wonderful. And I believe that's more valuable than any female-only championship could ever be.
Image credit: W Series, press release