The women who power Formula One: Engineers, mechanics and directors on their role in changing a man's world

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This article is part of ESPN's coverage of Women's History Month.

Twelve years ago Chloe Targett-Adams joined Formula One as a corporate lawyer, and is now the sport's director of global race promotions. When she walked into the office for the first time, there were more women present than anywhere else she had worked, and it was the first time she had a female boss -- Sacha Woodward Hill, who joined F1 in 1996 as a general counsel.

"That was in a time when it [F1] was known to not have any women in it," Targett-Adams told ESPN. "It was a mixed perception even then.

"We know in the past there were female drivers, although sadly not for many, many years. Whether it's a female thing or not, there's not many of us in public facing roles, if any. I think that's always, for me, one of the most interesting things about Formula One.

"As much as there is still to do, there was a real base of women and that's something that is really important for us to remember. There are all these incredible women who really paved the way before us, whether that was from a commercial side and marketing and PR, legal or business, and even a bit on the engineering side and a little on the driving side so what that shows to me is F1 is not necessarily discriminatory against women.

"It's just that we've not done enough to really open up access and showcase women working in the sport that there always has been, that actually it is a really great place for women to work and to build a career."

But an ESPN survey can reveal the extent of the lack of women within the sport. Although 38% of Formula One Management's 569 employees are female, data from teams is substantially lower.

On the public-facing side (discounting grid girls, whose role in the sport was revised in 2018) there have been few women in the sport's 70-year history. The last woman to drive in a grand prix was almost half a century ago. Three women have been involved as development drivers within the last eight years but none have got further than a first practice session.

Other than drivers, only two women have managed teams, and neither are still working in the sport.

ESPN surveyed all 10 F1 teams on how many women are in senior roles within the team, and of the race team -- the core performance group who travel to grands prix -- what percentage are women:

  • Mercedes has the biggest workforce with around 1,000 employees. 117 of those are women, and 31% are in senior roles. In Mercedes' core race team of 65 people, four are women, and of a further 20 people working at the factory in the race support team, four are women (20%)

  • Haas, who are the smallest team on the grid -- a fraction of the size of Mercedes, employ 167 people, 15 of whom are women (9%)

  • McLaren have 66 people who regularly travel in the race team, five are women, and one woman is in a senior management role

  • Alfa Romeo said like all teams the size of the race team varies, but on average there are 51 people regularly travelling to races, of these five are women (9.8%). As for the F1 side of the company 13 women work in senior roles

  • Red Bull, Ferrari, and Williams did not respond to ESPN's survey. Aston Martin and Alpine said they were unable to provide the requested information, and Alpha Tauri said: "Whilst we do have a high level of females in senior roles here at the factory we don't have in the race team."

There are women who work as engineers, directors, in marketing and hospitality for teams and across the F1 business. The numbers are small, but they have important roles.

On Alfa Romeo's pitwall is senior strategy engineer Ruth Buscombe, who says although she was inspired by legendary F1 engineers Paddy Lowe and James Allison, a female engineering role model was missing.

"I think that was one thing I was really missing -- although there were women working in Formula One you couldn't see them, and it's very difficult to be what you can't see," Buscombe told ESPN.

"Rather embarrassingly, I went from wanting to be a princess to wanting to be a Formula One engineer, there was no happy middle. I always loved maths at school and enjoyed the problem solving part of it. When I realised you could do maths in sport and competition that was the coolest thing in the world for me. My focus then was doing the subjects that people who went into F1 did.

"I was very lucky that when I turned up to secondary school aged 11, my maths teacher's daughter was studying engineering at Cambridge and she was my hero -- I was like 'if she can do it then I can do it'. She went on to be a pilot and is a brilliant lady, she is maybe not as famous a name as James Allison, but Emily Todd was my inspiration."

Mercedes' wind tunnel technician Dr Kathryn Richards told ESPN her venture into studying STEM subjects, and subsequently F1, started when her aunt took her plane spotting at an airport. She was hooked, and her father took her to Silverstone in 1986 to watch a grand prix. The seed was planted and she went on to study aerospace engineering, and gained PHD in vehicle aerodynamics.

"I was a big fan of Michael Schumacher at the time," Richards says. "I wanted to go to the Benetton factory and see the wind tunnels. I wrote a letter and it was picked up by a guy called Willem Toet [Australian F1 aerodynamicist and now sales manager at Alfa Romeo] and he replied and said yes, come along and bring a guest."

As Richards comes towards her 16th year at Mercedes (formerly BAR-Honda when she joined), she says Toet's support when she was starting out as a student was key: "If it hadn't been for him I wouldn't be where I am today."

Women at work

Of the women ESPN interviewed, there were mixed responses on how aware they are of gender bias on a regular basis.

Steph Carlin, commercial manager of Formula Two team Carlin, told ESPN it just takes one comment to be reminded of inequality.

"For the majority of the time, it's a really rewarding job so I don't see myself as a woman in a male dominated industry, I just feel like most of the time I'm trying to do the best job I can," she said.

"We have 15 drivers at Carlin and that's different every year, and different driver managers, and then all of a sudden you're woken up with a bit of a jolt when somebody would prefer to speak to Trevor [Carlin, team founder] instead of me. It doesn't happen very often and most of the time I don't even think about being in a male-dominated environment but every so often, maybe once a year, there will just be somebody who would like to speak to Trevor because he's the person they feel they need to speak to and normally Trevor will say 'no Stephanie will deal with that.'

"It's only when you have conversations like this and you look around and how many other women are there at a management level in racing, it's still quite rare."

For Richards, being the only woman in her department and the only wind tunnel technician in the sport doesn't bother her. At Mercedes, she has a few aerodynamicists who are women for company. But she has inspired more women to study STEM subjects and taken on women for placements and work experience with the hope there will be more coming through.

"I'm quite used to it now actually, it doesn't really bother me," she says. "When I went through college there were women on my course so I've been quite used to it since an early age and I just accepted it straight away when I started. I've never had any problems, I get on well with guys, I'm almost like one of the guys and sometimes act as them as well but I don't have a problem.

"I've managed to get some young females in work experience. One of them wants to be a driver, another wants to be a mechanic. So in that perspective it's made a difference on some people's career paths."

Buscombe says it depends who you're surrounded by. "Certainly in Alfa [Romeo] it's definitely not a factor, when I was hired the team principal was a woman [Monisha Kalternborn who departed in 2017] so you can really see the environment there. They just want the best.

"I think there is [an unconscious bias]. I think if you asked everyone in F1 and their results were anonymous they probably would say as a result of their upbringing they have to challenge their own beliefs and their own perception of what makes an engineer.

"That's not necessarily just male, it goes for women, we all need to make sure we don't walk into a room with subconscious bias and create opinions about someone because of the way they look, the colour of the skin, what they believe or who they love, and it's a unanimous problem that all sports and companies have. It's only going to get better if everybody checks their privilege at the door and focuses on being aware of bias and once you're aware of it you have a chance to challenge it."

How important is a female driver?

How important is it to have a public-facing role model, like a driver? Targett-Adams says: "I think it's really important because the more visible females you have in Formula One, the more obvious it is for a young girl to show that that is something that's possible from any background that you don't think, 'oh, that's for other people'. And it's that it's about inspiring the next generation, isn't it? But also about creating those opportunities."

F1's director of marketing Ellie Norman told ESPN: "The most visible role is your driver and your team principles, but there are so many other roles, whether it is engineering or it's marketing, there are lots of strong female role models leading and driving a lot of the business in Formula One."

"We see more and more talented women in all roles throughout the paddock now. And in 2021 we have W Series joining so they're going to be at eight events across this year. The role that W Series can play in women joining that racing triangle, because one of the brilliant things about F1 where it's different to other sports is there isn't a women's team, so from a competition perspective, women have always been able to race against men and it comes down to: how good are you?"

How good are you, but also how much money do you have? Formula One is an exclusive sport and requires huge sums of money to compete.

"That in itself is a huge barrier for people of all backgrounds -- that needs to be addressed. Scholarship system for all talent," Carlin says.

"There's nothing wrong with transparency and honesty," Targett-Adams says. "No one is trying to hide away from anything. This is where we are and this is where we want to get to, so there's a good start. Let's not celebrate it [the lack of diversity], because you can always do better, but let's acknowledge it."

A variety of voices makes for better problem solving

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Diversity is as much about representation as it is about sharing ideas. When people from different age-groups, genders, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds get together, there's a lot more people bringing a wider variety of skills and expertise which previously is unlikely to have been part of the discussion.

With that comes innovation and more problem solving, says Targett-Adams: "In F1 there's obviously a huge amount of engineers, so better problem solving is always going to be a good thing. Then from a business perspective, clearly you then can generate more growth through that so to me it's a win-win."

Going into her 10th season in the sport, Buscombe says the landscape of F1's talent has changed massively. When she started, there were no women on the pit wall. Now there are some, but she won't stop fighting for equality until there is at least 50%.

"The cars will go faster and the racing will be more exciting and the championship will be more technically brilliant and more entertaining to watch if we have the best person for the job in every single role, from technical to media, to mechanics to drivers, even though it's not going to be a quick fix," she says. "Trying to move forward to a place where we have more equal opportunities, inviting people in and getting the best candidates whoever that is is a really important process."

"It shouldn't be a numbers ticking exercise, because strategy is statistics -- I can say this with some level of professional skill. Statistically it's impossible that all the best candidates come from sub-sections of society. So we're going to have the best drivers, engineers, and the best sport if we take it from everywhere.

"Imagine how rubbish F1 would be without people like Lewis Hamilton racing, because of the colour of their skin and I hope in 20 years time or even sooner we are saying similar comments about women and people outside of Europe who don't have that opportunity from the grassroots level up."

Some of the sport's stakeholders are also looking for change. In June, F1 launched We Race As One which aimed to highlight inequality. Mercedes had a black livery across 2020 and launched Accelerate 25 -- a programme to become more diverse and inclusive, with at least 25% of new starters coming from under-represented backgrounds. There are other programmes: FIA Girls on Track, which recently opened the door for a spot in Ferrari's driver academy, as well as Formula Student, which encourages school children to take up STEM subjects.

Norman highlights a specific example of an unforeseen issue between genders where the governing body (FIA) can help level the playing field. "I remember Tatiana [Calderon, who drove in Formula Two for BWT Arden] talking to me about the brake pedal in F2 cars. Her foot size is smaller than a lot of her male competitors which meant that with the brake pedal being uniform across all of the cars, when she was pressing the brake pedal, it was pretty much her toes on the pedal instead of the ball of her foot. So there's less pressure going through that pedal. The team was able to work with the FIA to show that there is a physical difference here, which is detrimental to her ability."

Claire Williams told ESPN that before she left Williams, there was progress with training and the aim to eradicate unconscious bias and provide support that under-represented groups may need.

"I do think it's important that you have representation across every area of your team, or any industry in life," she says. "You do it because it's the right thing to do and it was so important to me and it's important to have those women in all different divisions because they are role models and they send a message to the next generation of girls who are looking at F1 as a potential workplace destination and if they see women in the sport, they will then feel it's ok for them to come into the sport."

Many people argue that in the pinnacle of motorsport, it's about finding the best person for the job rather than meeting quotas. The problem is the talent pool of skills-based roles among under-represented groups is small, and it's too early to track any progress from the initiatives. Change must come from the top of the sport at owner and governing body level down to the grassroots to increase interest and uptake. The women in today's roles have paved the way and are an inspiration to the next generation.

"The amount of women coming up through engineering as mechanics is so small compared to the amount of men," Carlin says. "In terms of the average applicant, we very rarely get applicants that are female and I really do think it's because the issue lies at the grassroots where school children are making options and decisions as to what route they're going to go down.

"It really does start in school and there's fewer girls making those decisions and taking those options than the boys. And in the same way, the mechanics that go on to do courses at college, the uptake of women at that point is so minute compared to men -- that's where the real issue lies and why I see so many few female applicants by the time you get to our stage."

Carlin adds it is a positive step that in 2021, people are having conversations on diversity that they were not having before. More can be done than putting stickers on racing cars, such as research and investment, and perhaps encouragement that women can be princesses and F1 engineers.

Additional reporting by Laurence Edmondson.