Susie Wolff Knows How to Get More Women in Racing: Hire Them
Inspiration and hashtags are great, but you also have to start giving women the jobs.
Car racing is over a century old and women have participated since the earliest days. But somehow, the gender ratio has always been dreadful. You could easily not realize it's a sport where men and women compete in the same categories. Last month I reported that the number of women in leadership roles in motorsport still remains pitifully small in the present day. Highlighting the issue can only get us so far, though. Instead, we need to figure out a solution to start solving it once and for all. Enter Susie Wolff.
Wolff is someone who knows plenty about gender inequality. From being the only girl at most of her kart races (she competed alongside Lewis Hamilton), she went on to become the only woman to have participated in a Formula One session for nearly the past three decades. Now, retired from racing herself and the principal of Venturi Formula E team, she is one of the handful of women in an industry leadership role. And she's got a proposal to get more women into motorsport jobs: Hire them.
"Did Your Husband Get You This Job?"
When Wolff hung up her helmet at the end of 2015, she didn't plan—as a lot of ex-racers do—to work in motorsport as the next step of her career. Aware that Toto Wolff, her husband and the CEO and principal of the Mercedes F1 team, was already deeply embedded in the world, she'd assumed her path would go elsewhere.
"I took a long time to decide when I stopped racing what I wanted to do next," she told me at last weekend's Rome E-Prix. "And I was actually convinced that [I] wouldn't be in motorsport because I, with my family connections, felt that I had to find something else to do and was very much looking at [other things]."
In 2018, however, Wolff became a team principal herself, taking over the Monaco-based Formula E team Venturi. The deal with Venturi, a small manufacturer of boutique EVs, was a challenge Wolff wanted. "The opportunity came up in Formula E [and] it immediately felt right, as someone who goes on gut feeling a lot," she said.
Wolff went on, "My know-how is in motorsport. My network is in motorsport. But even with how we structured the deal and the role that I took on, I was clear that I wanted to take on that position [where] I could lead the team and I knew I was pushing myself. I knew there was a lot to learn. But I also felt that it was a great challenge."
In taking the job, she became Formula E's first female team principal. That fact alone is entirely irrelevant to getting or doing the job, of course, but the scrutiny—when you are the only person like you doing something—hits different.
"I didn't think at all about the fact that I was a woman doing it until we had our first media call," Wolff said (with a UK newspaper, if you were wondering). "And I remember it so clearly because [when] we had the call, I remember exactly where I sitting. The first question was: 'Did your husband get you the job?' The second question was: 'What qualifies you at all?' And the third question was: 'How do you manage being a mother and a team principal?'"
She flagged a stark comparison to the interviews done with another former driver who stepped up to a team principal role at the same time as she did. "These are the first questions I get, in my first interview as a team principal. And I know they're not saying this to Allan McNish; he's got two kids, he's an ex-racing driver. What gives you the right to think that my husband got me the job?"
Wolff said the experience put her in shock. "After all my years of Dare To Be Different, I thought to myself: We haven't made any progress," she said.
Why We Still Need to Fix the Problem
A lot of people who bring up issues of imbalance in motorsport get asked what they're doing about it. That's not an accusation that can be leveled at Wolff, who for years has run Dare To Be Different, an initiative to inspire young women and girls to pursue motorsport at grassroots levels, as well as to encourage them into STEM, media, and driving roles.
The questions in that first media call as team principal reinforced why Wolff is still fighting for equality. "That was a real shocker, actually. It gave me a renewed passion for everything I do with the FIA now because I don't want any other woman to face those questions when she comes into motorsport," she said.
Among other things, Wolff wants to show the way for more women. "I've been in this for long enough and my experience makes me want to make sure that the next generation has it better," she said, talking about her role beyond Venturi. "I'm a big believer that it's all about giving back, as well—you can't just take without giving back and I obviously had a big opportunity to have a career in the sport. I look back on what I achieved with Williams: stepping into the development role that turned into a test driver and reserve driver role. After I did that, you had Tatiana Calderon then Jamie Chadwick taking on the same role."
But at the end of the day, Wolff just wants to get on with her job without having to be a constant feat of activism. It's just difficult to get away from it when your work is constantly being prefixed by who you are.
"As long as you break down that barrier, more can follow," Wolff said. "I will go in first and break it down. I have no problem with that because I'm doing this for me; [there are] opportunities that I want to take on. [I want] to challenge myself. The fact that I'm a woman is just a side story. But if being a woman and doing what I do can help inspire more, then I see that as being a positive."
Inspiration Is Still Important
I'm the same age as Wolff, which is atypical for a female motorsport journalist. It's straight-up unusual to be a female motorsport journalist but particularly because, as in many roles, there's an assumption that when you hit your mid-30s, you'll probably go away quietly to have babies or something. Professionally, though, that's the age at which people gain the experience to start taking on leadership roles—or at least, to start thinking about their move towards them.
"I've seen it in Toto [Wolff]'s organization," Wolff said of her husband. "As soon as you have women at my level—he has a female general counsel and has had for a long time—you immediately see [other women in] the organization look up and think, 'Okay, well, if she can go and sit on the board, then I can do it.' And I think it's always about having those positive, inspiring role models—Britta Seeger, who sits on the Daimler board, has triplets," she added.
Wolff was keen to point out that being a mother forces you to think fast, make decisions in minimal time, and be used to responsibility—leadership qualities strangely overlooked by stereotypes.
"I think it's just about getting more women into the sport for them to rise up," she continued. It's basic math: Hire more qualified women and you'll have a bigger chance of them graduating to management positions. As an example, Wolff said, "I have a female team manager [who] used to work for Williams and now she's the only female team manager in the [Formula E] paddock. She's there because she's the best at the job, not because I particularly went out just to find a woman.
"But I do think as a woman in my position, I'm much more open to a culture where women can thrive and where I give more opportunities to women because I see what we're capable of," Wolff said.
You Just Have to Hire More Women
Wolff is very clear about how to get more women into motorsport. The same thing that's worked in the past is always going to be true: You have to give women the jobs.
Motorsport has been forced to do some reflection in the past year. Even F1. Thanks—and it really is down to this—to seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton's pressure for action, it's had to break out its #WeRaceAsOne push. Although there have been some tangible changes, actions have been erratic and the initiative has been criticized heavily for inconsistencies that put the lie to its whole premise. Inequalities in motorsport—gender-based, racial, and related to sexuality—are structural. And structures are, sadly, woefully immune to advertising, no matter which influencers you sign up.
Wolff said that 2021 is the point where people have to take action to right the inequality. "It's a big topic in society. So you can't ignore it in motorsport," she said. She commends the passion and the support, but without solid action, the movement is just words. "Who's actually going to do something?" she asked rhetorically. "You can do a great little project and hashtag everywhere—[but] it might not do anything because actions speak louder than words."
To her, it comes down to positive discrimination. "Just create the initial team. If you don't, it's going to take way too long for [things] to happen."
Don't get her wrong, though. Wolff isn't saying that companies should automatically hire any woman who applies, as any woman in the field must be competitive. "Motorsport is very performance-based, and as much as I'm in a leadership role, my number one priority is always going to be the performance of the team because that's how I'm judged," she said. "It's not how diverse the team is, it's not how good a leader I am, it all comes down to results on track. That's what I'm judged on.
"You have to reach that top management level," Wolff said. "You can't just be plucked out and put there because then you're going to fail." Motorsport is a pretty arcane world; even coming from other industries, if you don't understand how the strange politics of paddocks run, then it would be impossible to learn fast enough at a senior level. So to change the numbers at the top, you have to start getting women in at the bottom.
The problem is when there are qualified women, certain organizations don't make the effort to find them and line them up against the default male candidates. "In the recruitment process, look at unconscious biases," Wolff advised, "and if you've got candidates who are very equal, pick the woman. Be positive and say, 'Okay, I'm going to pick her because she's bringing diversity to the rest of my organization.'" Merely taking that first step to boost the number of female employees will already jumpstart the process of getting more women into leadership positions that much quicker.
Thirty percent of the Venturi staff are women, which is a huge amount for motorsport and clear proof that Wolff is taking action to address the imbalance. Wolff didn't mention a specific figure and noted that she doesn't "agree" with "quotas." However, she does "see being proactive as a way to change the situation, whether that means you have to: understand why women maybe aren't applying for the jobs, go out and find them, get them interested in the jobs, and then decide whether you're going to employ them."
In a sport where the numbers are so far off from any kind of equality, this is not a case of twisting the odds in women's favor. The playing field is just so unlevel it's inherently stacked against us. But improving issues that might have prevented women from applying for motorsport jobs will help men in the industry, too. If only one type of person—overwhelmingly white men from wealthy, western European backgrounds—is seen as suitable for so many of the roles, it's also excluding or actively harming a lot of other men who don't fit that bill, either.
Barriers to people working in motorsport are pretty similar across the board. It's an insular, nepotistic industry, where even drivers often have the same surname as previous ones and you're much more likely to run out of money than talent on the route to a professional role. The work schedules during race season, especially in F1, can burn people out. But reaching out to broader demographics and making motorsport jobs more accessible means increasing a talent pool and creating a more level playing field to get the very best people for an elite sport. Not just the people who happen to know about it via someone else or the people who resemble the last person doing it. With this in mind, there's nothing that works against the interests of motorsport when trying to improve recruitment practices that avoid biases in choosing candidates.
Wolff's proposal of simply picking qualified women for jobs in the first place will hopefully eliminate those pesky identifiers—"female engineer," "lady driver," "woman in motorsport"—and makes us just people who can do the jobs.
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