Motorsport equality – Interview with Sarah Connors

Following on from our article on Addressing The Growing Duality of Sexism in Motorsport Media, we speak with US-based motorsport journalist Sarah Connors.

The creator of a petition calling for the removal of Motorsport.com‘s ‘Paddock Beauties’ gallery, she discusses the need for renewed efforts to establish greater gender equality in motorsport, the impact of persisting stereotypes, and initiatives that are making positive in-roads into creating a more inclusive future for the motor racing industry.

Could you elaborate on why you started the petition calling for the removal of the ‘Paddock Beauties’ gallery on Motorsport.com?

I started the petition because I’m a frequent user of Motorsport.com. I very much enjoy browsing their galleries; they usually have a much better selection of photos from series outside of F1 than sites such as Getty Images. It’s a nice way to re-live races I’ve watched on tv — photojournalism is an art, and in most cases Motorsport.com’s photography is second to none. On the flip side of this though, as a frequent user, being barraged with the “Paddock Beauties” gallery every time I clicked through the site was, essentially, a constant reminder that this particular media outlet holds to a standard of viewing women as objects, and it hit a point where I just became tired of it. The petition happened because I had faith that spreading such a thing over social media would gain a decent amount of support; I had seen similar petitions work very well in other arenas of life, and I thought maybe it’d work here too.

What is your response to the popularity of the petition?

Definitely a very fierce sense of pride in many motorsport fans. Although there was backlash from a very small sub-segment of motorsport fans, the vast majority were either supportive or willing to listen to reason, which gives me a lot of hope for the future of equality in the sport.

Do you see the removal of the ‘Paddock Beauties’ from Motorsport.com as a success?

Yes. I believe very strongly in the power of small victories; every small step forward is success by increments. Motorsport.com’s removal of the gallery is what we set out to accomplish, and we were successful in getting that done; now we need to set our sights higher.

Have you seen any tangible process in promoting greater gender equality in motorsport in recent years?

I do, yes – although I think there could definitely be more. I think causes such as Susie Wolff’s Dare to be Different have been a good tangible start in working toward equality in motorsport; visibility is so important. It’s things like tweets about there being more women crew members in Indycar than ever before; it’s profiles of women working for Mercedes AMG F1; the increase of visible pieces of proof is so important, and I definitely feel like there’s been more of this visibility over the past few years.

As a journalist and a motorsport fan, have you ever experienced prejudice based on your gender?

I have, yes; I can’t tell you how annoying it is, too. Men assume that you don’t know what you’re talking about; I’ve been at a bar watching Indycar and have had men explain to me what I’m watching — getting their facts completely wrong. And if you dare to correct them regardless of how gently, they mock you for your passion, for being a know-it-all. God forbid I try to have a conversation about a sport I love. At the track, I’ve had men speak disparagingly about my looks in a language they thought I didn’t know; I’ve heard men talk a whole lot of garbage about women drivers based solely on their gender, have sat around men wolf-whistling at grid girls with no regard for who might hear them. It’s all so uncomfortable.

What impact has the perpetuation of gender stereotypes through the presence of grid girls and galleries such as ‘Paddock Beauties’ had on your support for motorsport?

It’s exhausting, honestly. Being a hardcore motorsport fan takes a lot of energy – and to have to constantly prove yourself on top of that, while men are given a free pass to ogle women as a sideshow to the sport they’re apparently here to watch? It’s tiring, and listening to men’s bad opinions on the subject is tiring, and constantly having to explain WHY their opinions are bad is tiring….honestly if I didn’t love the sport so much, that’d be enough to drive me away, and I don’t doubt it’s driven others who don’t feel as strongly about the racing away for sure.

What action to you feel needs to be taken to promote gender equality in motorsport, and who do you think should be responsible for enacting this change?

A good start would be eliminating grid girls, and I believe that falls on the race promoters. The people up top don’t view women as an important enough segment of the fanbase to make us feel comfortable by taking this step, which is unfortunate, since it’s a huge segment that could easily be catered to with minimal effort. Additionally, offering small incentives to teams to showcase their female team members on social media would be another little step. On the media side of things, promoting more women journalists and evening the playing field on the coverage side would be good. The old boys’ club is definitely holding things back in every aspect of motorsport, and it’s only when we break through the stranglehold on sticking to Tradition Above All Else that we’ll really be able to move forward.

As a motorsport journalist in the US, have you seen any successful campaigns to promote gender equality in America that could be applied elsewhere?

I’m not sure about specific campaigns but visibility is definitely higher here, from what I can tell. From Danica Patrick in NASCAR and Pippa Mann in Indycar to Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen in IMSA, the fact that there have been 3-4 women in a few of the Indy 500 fields in recent years, the fact that John Force’s family band in NHRA includes his daughters and the fact that a Disney movie was made about women in NHRA, to the history of Shirley Muldowney and Janet Guthrie and the fact that women fans have been a big part of the history of the Indy Motor Speedway — we’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the number of women participating on crews and as race engineers is increasing and is often talked about by the media here! For example, ESPN did a whole story on Andrea Mueller, who is NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney’s race engineer.  The way the stories are covered feels very organic and not forced — instead of making a big deal about her being the first woman to do this thing, it talks about how she got there and her qualifications, just as it would a man entering that job. It’s pretty cool, and again while it’s not perfect, it’s definitely an approach non-US media outlets could take a look at and learn from.

On the flip side though, NASCAR has the “monster energy girls” which are used in everything from race promotion to grid modeling to TV spots, so we’ve definitely got a long way to go.

Do you have any parting comments?

Just continuing appreciation — it’s been wonderful to see these little steps forward come to fruition, and I hope there are many more to come.

To hear more from Sarah, visit www.thegridgirls.com and follow @sarah_connors on Twitter.

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