When authority figures proclaim their prejudice

Although some people have contended that his words were taken out of context, it would still be remiss of me not to discuss Bernie Ecclestone’s comments about female F1 drivers, stated at a conference earlier this week. Ecclestone contended that women in the sport would “not be taken seriously” and were “not physically” capable of driving a car under the conditions required.

Even if we believe that any discrepancy in raw strength is a factor in choosing the elite drivers of this sport – which is dubious given the technologies involved – this is outright ruling out and discouraging an entire gender from participation. In addressing the former point, accomplished British racing driver Pippa Mann stated on her Twitter account that: “Perhaps someone should remind him that IndyCar doesn’t have power steering, and we’re strong enough to drive those.”

As for discouragement, this is probably the single biggest factor behind the lack of female participation in elite sport. When a sport fails to put forward role models for young people to aspire to, when there is a lack of prominent visible figures of differing gender presentations, it is hard for anyone to envisage achieving that success unless they match the seemingly ‘requisite’ appearance. This inevitably leads to a smaller pool of potential elite sportswomen, and further compounds any existing biological disparities (although, as already mentioned, assisting technologies such as power steering mean that these are minimal at most).

The fact that F1 has had any female drivers at all is a testament to the fact that this is entirely logistically possible. That the last of these was in 1992 shows a worryingly backwards trend in this prestigious sport. Ecclestone’s statement will do nothing to help this.

Comments such as this one occur far too frequently in sports. It was recently reported that the chairman of a regional leagues football team was overheard criticising the female official refereeing his team. The terms he used to criticise this official were particularly telling: “he was overheard saying Harmer was not fit enough to referee a women’s match, let alone a men’s game.” In a later post I will address the prejudice against women’s sport and its quality at greater length.

At least in this particular case the person involved was fined and banned by the league authorities, a recognition that this comment was unwarranted and unhelpful. No doubt Ecclestone will escape such censure, as he has for previous unwise comments, thereby further institutionalising the prejudice. It is problems such as these that make for such a glacial rate of change in attitude.

 

Questions arising from this week: how do we challenge the prejudices of major figures and policymakers in organised sport? Should we try to enforce change through gender quotas or by trying to establish an equally prominent female F1 racing competition?

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