driving while female: how women are claiming space in the automotive world
Women have always been made to feel like a spare part in the automotive world. Motoring TV shows like Top Gear are laced with casual misogyny and the last woman to compete in Formula One was Giovanna Amati in 1992.
But women are also pressured to steer clear of “boys’ toys” as a career option. Women only represent 20% of all employees in the automotive industry — a statistical discrepancy that is more than just happenchance.
However, women around the globe are claiming their space at every level of the automotive world. In doing so, they’re overcoming the pervasive pressure of patriarchy, and inspiring the next generation of women petrol-heads.
Driving Rights Around the World
In Australia, women account for 52% of all drivers, but men are three times as likely to drive while drunk and 70% of men admit to speeding regularly (compared to 30% of women). Just in case you needed any convincing, these statistics point to the reality that women are, unsurprisingly, good drivers.
Comparatively, until recently, women in Saudi Arabia could be arrested for driving. This changed recently thanks to the efforts of the Women to Drive movement, which successfully campaigned to help women in Saudi Arabia take the wheel and drive wherever they want, without permission or GPS tracking.
Lulwa Shalhoub, a driver and resident of Saudi Arabia’s capital, Jeddah, reflected on the freedom that getting behind the wheel has given her in a story she wrote for the BBC. She said that ‘noticing women drivers continues to fill [her] with pride and joy,’ adding that as ‘one major prohibition has been removed, [they] are hopeful that in time, others will follow’.
The right to drive has become a necessity in modern life and women’s right to drive in every nation should be seen as sacrosanct. Yet, even as international barriers to women drivers are lifted, the fight must continue at home to ensure that women feel comfortable and empowered in traditionally blokey automotive spaces.
Women might make up 20% of all employees in the automotive industry, but, according to the University of Sydney’s “One of the Boys?” report, they only represent 2.5% of all automotive tradespeople in Australia. That same report found that only half of women mechanics felt that they were treated fairly in their workplaces, and one in four reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.
The report also included key qualitative findings that showed that, despite discrimination, the women who worked in the automotive industry had ‘a deep level of commitment to their automotive work’. This passion exists even though women mechanics who were surveyed also reported that they felt ‘isolated’, ‘excluded’, and were routinely subjected to ‘sexist remarks and behaviour’.
The sexism that underlies the automotive trade also hurts women who visit mechanics for repairs and upgrades. Thirty percent of women would not recommend their employer to other women, which implies that sexism and rogue trading may lead to mechanic scams that prey on the exclusionary nature of the automotive world, as women haven’t been given the skills they need to make their own minor repairs or judge a mechanic’s trustworthiness.
Fortunately, most dealings with mechanics are now conducted online, making it easier to spot red flags when buying a used car. Women today can also find a host of women-friendly car clubs that are doing their bit to turn the tide of misogyny in garages across the nation. These efforts point towards a promising future, where mechanics and dealerships are held to higher diversity and inclusion standards.
Motorsport is the pinnacle of the automotive world, yet women are traditionally underrepresented both as racers and engineers. Today, the W Series is doing its part to change that paradigm as the competition gives the quickest women from around the globe a ticket to enter a free, single-seater competition with potential links to F1 in the future.
At the head of the W series pack is Jamie Chadwick. Chadwick, who has won multiple W series championships, told Insider that, before the formation of the W series, ‘I was racing against men equally and happy doing that,’ but that the opportunity to race in a fully funded, televised series ‘is giving women so much more exposure than they have before’.
Also in the W series pack is Abbie Eaton. Eaton, who is most well-known for her role as a test driver for Amazon’s The Grand Tour and ITVs Drive, currently races for the Scuderia W series team. As well as being a multiple-time British champion, Eaton is the driver ambassador for Racing Pride, an organisation that promotes LGBTQ+ representation within motorsport.
There are hopes that Chadwick will leap from a W series car to the faster, more widely watched Formula series — whether that will be F1, F2, or F3. In the meantime, women’s representation in high-speed motorsport is largely composed of mechanics and engineers who do all the tinkering, analysis and strategising necessary to compete at the highest level.
But representation isn’t equal behind the scenes of motor racing. Claire Williams’ recent resignation from Williams F1 means that there are no women directors at the highest level, and a recent ESPN report found that teams like Alpha Tauri have no women working their paddock on race day. Fortunately, more progressive teams like Alfa Romeo employ women in meaningful roles, like Ruth Buscombe, who works as the team’s chief senior strategy engineer.
Women’s representation in the automotive world has come a long way in the past few decades. Women like Patrice Banks are shifting the misogynistic culture that runs amok in mechanics garages, and non-profits like WITA are making it easier for women to pursue careers as heavy vehicle drivers. That said, we still have a long way to go to ensure that women are given equal access to automotive spaces and feel empowered when navigating the twists and turns of life behind the wheel.
Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer passionate about workplace equity, and whose published works cover sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more. You can see more of her work by visiting her portfolio.