Formula 1 and sexism: enough is enough
For most of us, the United States Grand Prix was a classic race at COTA. It had a thrilling combination of wheel-to-wheel action and strategy; it had glamour and off-track action; it had Lewis Hamilton fighting Max Verstappen. It was, by all accounts, a great race to watch. This is why women who watched the race will be surprised to learn that, according to F1 Accredited Journalist Joe Saward, the best thing it offered for us was the appearance of Brad Pitt. In a recent article, Saward stated that “the big news for the females of F1, of which these days there are a large number, was that Brad Pitt was wondering around”.
These comments are just the latest in a pattern of sexism in Formula 1. The suggestion that women in Formula 1 can’t just like F1 but are also intrinsically attracted to the men within it, is unnecessary sexual, and demeaning.
Saward’s article furthers the impression that women cannot just be fans of F1 - we have to be there, at least to some extent, because of the attractive men we might see. It’s demeaning to women in Formula 1, and it reflects the sentiments of similar comments this season, such as Christian Horner’s suggestion that women are drawn to Drive to Survive because of the attractive drivers. It’s the same culture that drives harassment of fans online and at race tracks; it’s the same culture that makes team principals and owners believe women are intrinsically worse drivers than their male counterparts. Saward’s comments are just the latest fuel to this culture wherein women are second-class citizens in the Formula 1 universe: they aren’t able to just watch the races or work in the sport; women are all attracted to men and they’re all distracted from the main event if a good-looking man appears.
Formula 1 isn’t even the only sport where this happens. Recently, well-known NHL personality Paul Bisonette made a comment on a live game that player Tyler Seguin was responsible for ‘half the female audience’ of the sport. Whilst some NHL fans defended Bisonette’s comment as a ‘lighthearted joke’ and alluded to some fans calling Seguin attractive (which they are perfectly entitled to do), many rightly condemned Bisonette’s comments. Much of the controversy stems from the ongoing Hockey Canada scandal, which has involved countless accusations of sexual assault as well as spiralling attempts from the organisational body in Canada to cover this up. To suggest women participate in hockey because of their attraction to male players in an era of recognising the constant suffering of women in the sport is both humiliating and infuriating. The misogyny present at all levels of ice hockey (and in many cases perpetrated by women too) is a reflection of what happens when the chronic sexism problem in most sports is allowed to fester uninhibited. If we have not reached this tipping point in Formula 1 yet, we are closely approaching it.
Whilst F1 is no stranger to sexism, the past few seasons have been instrumental in exposing sexism in the sport. I have written extensively about gender-based discrimination in Formula 1. Most recently this has manifested through the widespread harassment at races and in online spaces, as well as well-documented cases like that involving Nikita Mazepin. This culture of sexism might be, in some ways, on the decline in the sport, as more measures are introduced to uplift women. However, this hasn’t succeeded in shifting the triple burden of women in F1, where they receive the sexism that comes in form of comments like this, whilst also not being able to properly represent themselves, because of the roles in media that they might want to provide better journalism, for example, have already been taken by men. Saward, for example, has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, is a well-reputed journalist, and visits races all the time. So when women want to grow as journalists in this field, they have to compete against an industry they’re more or less locked out of, because misogyny is still prevalent.
The third force women face, though, is that the sport doesn’t seem to be doing enough to prevent attitudes like this from festering. There has been no indication from Formula One Media that Saward will lose accreditation. Whilst F1 Twitter appropriately lambasted the comments, this hasn’t appeared to be to the extent needed to shut him out or really show him what he did was wrong. Saward’s comments aren’t even a surprise to some people in the industry, yet there appears to be no concerted effort from the powerbrokers of Formula 1 to make an example out of clear sexism, even when they continue to discuss how to further the position of women in Formula 1.
In recent years, huge strides have been made to both expose the problem of gender-based discrimination in Formula 1 and begin to fix it. Initiatives like Girls on Track display the genuine progress that is being made. Situations like this, though, reveal just how far we have to go. Formula 1 has a growing audience of women, so as our sport diversifies and becomes more inclusive, attitudes need to change as well.
Empowering women is profitable for Formula 1, but more importantly, change is essential. It should be non-negotiable that women are allowed to feel safe and supported when they engage with our sport. We are more than an afterthought. We are more than a lower class of fan that pays money into the sport but receives a substandard welcome back, in the form of media that sexualises and objectifies them. The fact that it’s a media personality making these comments confounds the problem against women: they provide the lens we perceive our sport through. If this lens is skewed to diminish the passion for motorsport that women have, is it any wonder that a culture of sexism is able to be upheld across the fandom?
So many people in Formula 1 believe in this goal. So many people in Formula 1 want to see better representation of women in the paddock, on the grid, in viewership figures, and in factories. In order to achieve this, though, we need to continue to call out the misogyny we see, as well as asking action to be taken against it. It isn’t enough anymore to sit back and watch it happen, and neither is it enough for organising bodies not to take decisive action when they see incidents like this.
We need to demand more for women in Formula 1, and it starts with calling out comments like these.