2010-10-13

On being a woman in racing

It is no secret that racing is at the moment a male-dominated field. Being a social science major, I wonder about things like why that is and how it could be changed to be more representative of the actual gender ratios in the society. Not sure I am ready to present my theories to the public yet, but I wanted to take some time to share my experience being a woman race car driver.

The currently accepted gender roles (stereotypes) also tend to assign genders to professions and activities, leading to certain occupations being almost exclusively associated with a particular gender. Look at the picture, where the scientist and the fire fighter are men, and the teacher and the nurse are women.

Similarly, being a race car driver is something that is considered gender-appropriate for a man, and as these things usually go, men are the ones who mostly go into racing.

At the same time the perception of racing, which in no small part has been influenced by the media, is that women are only allowed in the pit lane, as "trophy girls" wearing spandex and showing cleavage for visual enjoyment of male drivers and the audience.

There is no objective reason for it to be this way. Power steering and power brakes have leveled the playing field (assuming that an "average" woman has less physical strength than an "average" man FWIW), but even without power steering, I don't find myself at a disadvantage running a Miata on road courses.

There is no scientific reason for women to enjoy speed and lateral Gs any less than men, just go to your nearest roller-coaster for a representative sample!

Also, not all performance driving events are races, and there are participation opportunities for all aggression (and testosterone) levels.

And lastly, sexism does not run rampant at the track. I have bought my spec Miata and ran each month since May this year, and so far at the track, nobody was a dick to me, and everyone was nice and helpful.

Sum total, the world of amateur racing has been consistently defying every gender discrimination stereotype I could think of. Nobody has ever said or done anything that would make me feel uncomfortable, be it an unwelcome advance or a comment about what "girls" are and are not supposed to do. Car people turned out to be an extremely welcoming bunch.

To be perfectly honest, I do wish that I were less of an exception when I go to the track. Believe it or not, I don't always like to stick out like a sore thumb, and would appreciate some female reinforcement. Women would find that it's a very non-threatening environment if they only got their asses in gear and came to one of these events, that I can no longer imagine not participating in.

8 comments:

  1. You may be overlooking the effect of genetic and/or physiological differences that do predispose males to exhibit skill more so than women which I think explains most of the lopsidedness in sports. That is not to say that I disagree with anything you wrote. This past weekend I had young female student who just started driving in June. Her mother was also a novice. The clubs I run in always seem to want more female participation.
    -Matthew

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  2. I think it's even more simple than genetics/physiological things, Matthew. I think it's as simple as money and time.

    Women, overall, still make less money then men. As much as I love to race, and although I make more money than the average woman, I still don't have adequate time or money to dedicate to racing. I also have many satisfying social activities that take up my time right now, so racing ends up consistently being low priority.

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  3. One of the things that constantly bugs me about cycling (and auto racing) is the trophy smoochy chicks at the end for the winners. It's notable (and regrettably not surprising) that women's cycling doesn't have hunky, oiled up dudes for smooches at the end of a race.

    The whole "women as prizes" thing doesn't seem to occur to the professional racing crowd as wrong.

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  4. Matthew: Potentially, at the level of the most advanced racing circuits, where only the best of the best get to run, I would buy this. Though most frequently I see evolutionary explanations (mis)used to justify the status quo that is patriarchy.
    However, we are not talking F1 and Indy Car here, but about an amateur track day -- where I see a very wide representation of skill, yet a narrow demographic. This is a nice way of saying that I see a ton of men who suck at driving on the track. No reason for women not to come out and suck at driving too!

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  5. @dollraves: good point. Resources such as money and time may very well be more scarce among women. The appalling inequality of pay left aside, in a standard-issue het family, a man is more likely to be able to go do a track weekend while his wife takes care of the kids than vice versa.

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  6. Jason: I would love me some oiled hunky dudes! I would even pick up cycling if there were trophy dudes available! :)

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  7. FWIW: Nike Women's Marathon, SF uses the SFFD volunteers to hand out Tiffany trinkets at the finish line and probably as un-oiled hunks on the podium. Alex, maybe take up running? This is the only candified women's event I know of off hand.

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  8. Let me emphasize that I am speaking about the inherent predisposition for male behavior to "show off" or display their skill and not about the physical strength diffences between the sexes. I do not think I was very clear.

    Behaviorhal experts have long observed that males have an instinctual compulsion to chest thump whereas females tend not to. A lot of men buy sports cars to show off. A lot of guys go the the track at least once for machismo.

    They theorize that most of male sports is driven by that primal drive. They make it more believable than I do I am sure.

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