F1 for the girls!

Peter Luff, MP sent ScienceGrrl a copy of the BBC Top Gear magazine article “So you want to work in F1?” – it was addressed to ‘schoolboys’. Worse, the associated graphic depicts an all-male F1 team – well, except for the female hospitality and media staff in short skirts. “Not helpful” he said, and we agreed.

Part of the Top Gear article's graphic

Part of the Top Gear article’s graphic

The rest of the article was pretty great – focusing on the newly opened Silverstone University Technical College (UTC), a place for 14-18 year olds to break into the specialist fields of High Performance Engineering & Technical Events Management’. But we (and many of you!) felt that it was a missed opportunity to inspire girls towards a career in F1 – and we set out to discuss the piece with the Top Gear team, with the help of Peter and Dr Lucy Rogers.

We had two main concerns. Firstly, the language chosen to open the piece explicitly excluded girls. Secondly, although the Caterham F1 team was accurately represented in the graphic – we felt choosing, for example, the Williams F1 team that includes Susie Wolff as a test driver would have demonstrated an awareness of the gender gap in this field. Part of the solution is to actively challenge gender stereotypes through showcasing female role models.

As one of the #womeninF1 told Corinne Burns, organiser of The Science Museum’s High Performance Festival, – “I was never exposed to the idea that there were things women didn’t do”. Instilling a sense of a ‘right to be there’ in girls is something we all have a responsibility for – from the toys they play with, to the role models they see – and we must challenge the stereotypical gender roles that limit children whenever we encounter them.

Science Museum High Performance festival, 2013
Photo Credit: Science Museum

Neil Patterson, Principal of Silverstone UTC, agreed with us. He told me that whilst he was ‘chuffed’ the school had been featured, the language and imagery jarred with him. Silverstone UTC’s first intake is around 11% female and they are working to make the courses accessible for a diverse range of students.

I spoke to four students currently in Year 12 (2 male, 2 female), the consensus was that the language in the article had been ‘careless’ and that overall, the piece didn’t represent the changing face of F1. What really came across though was their shared passion for motorsport and engineering – and how thrilled they were to be studying at the UTC; for the chance to learn directly from the industry and because they are really there in the thick of it – “I’ve never seen so many races in my life!” The idea of getting their passion on to the page was just too exciting. So I raised it, and our concerns, with BBC Top Gear editor, Charlie Turner.

He immediately accepted our criticism of the magazine’s choice of language, saying that on reflection they could (and should) have pitched it differently. A great conversation followed, about Top Gear and how the magazine wants to inspire its young readership towards careers in F1 and engineering in general. We discussed the role of fathers, who on seeing female role models in the magazine may be encouraged to see this as a viable career choice for their daughters, and the value of championing schools like Silverstone UTC to show young people how to make their dreams a reality.

Charlie is proud of the visibility that BBC Top Gear gives women in motorsport and engineering. This was something we also heard from several of you, who expressed surprise at the article. Whilst Charlie restated that the team graphic was an accurate depiction of Caterham, he also accepted that in a careers piece there was an opportunity to inspire – and made a commitment to actively promote female role models in future careers articles. We agreed that covering both male and female success stories as Silverstone UTC matures would be a great way to do this, and we can’t wait to hear about them. Charlie fully engaged with our concerns and I left the call feeling hugely positive that we were on the same page – and with an open invitation to get back in touch.

Of course, I had to finish by asking Charlie to do away with the short skirts in future careers graphics. He said he’d pass the message on to the illustrators….

More about #womeninF1:

Lena Gade “Life in the Fast Lane”

Dr Cara Tredget “How do we get more girls into science careers?”

Car Throttle “9 Top Class Female Drivers Who Have The Aptitide To Tame F1”

Cheryl Tay Women in F1 speak up: ‘Gender doesn’t matter if you’re good at your job’

Sky Sports – F1 2013 – McLaren Performance Engineer – Bernadette Collins (video)

Leena & Teena Gade, sisters who are both race engineers (Photo Credit: Science Museum)