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CEO Interview: Why motorsport needs to set targets for female driver participation

New research released by More than Equal shows that fans are ready to support female drivers, will reward sponsors who back them and see no reason why women shouldn’t compete at the highest levels. James Allen meets More than Equal CEO Ali Donnelly to find out the next steps.

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Ali Donnelly is a no-nonsense Irish woman whose career spans Sport England and a stint as spokesperson for the British Prime Minister. She's one of the vanguard driving greater female participation in sport.

Stepping into motorsport earlier this year as CEO of the More than Equal project, she was surprised to find very little data on numbers of women competing around the world and no targets for participation. The database will take time to build, but in the meantime, More than Equal commissioned research to learn about fan attitudes to women in motorsport and to ask female drivers and other stakeholders who have worked with them detailed question about their experiences.

More than Equal was launched 12 months ago by David Coulthard and Czech billionaire Karel Komarek. The mission: to find and develop the first female F1 world champion within 10 years. At the British GP Donnelly released the detailed research on which their programme will be built. While there are some depressing aspects to what they found, there are also a lot of positives, not least the readiness of fans to embrace the idea of females racing in F1.

"There's far too much anecdote and presumption in motorsport when it comes to women and girls," says Donnelly. "If you look at the success of all sports they are building on knowledge, insight and data. And we didn't have that when we started More than Equal. For example, we couldn't find an accurate number, or percentage, which told us definitely how many girls were even driving and where they were.

"You make an assumption that there are quite traditional perceptions that people hold about the ability of female drivers. And I think what the research shows is that those are outdated; people don't feel like that anymore. People believe universally, almost across all genders, ages and regions, that women are absolutely capable of driving at the very top of motorsport, if they are given the same resource, the same opportunities as young male drivers. So being able to dismiss those stereotypes and say, 'Actually, the world moved on quite a bit', was quite important."

In fact over 80% of fans, male and female, in the global survey believe that women will be racing in F1 within 10 years. There is a universally strong belief that female drivers have the necessary physical, technical and emotional skills to deal with elite motorsport. However perhaps surprisingly, given that motorsport is one of few sports where woman can compete equally with men, there is some confusion on what is allowed within the rules.

"We asked people, for example, where women can race and even with Formula 1 only half the fans said they were definitely sure that it was possible for women to race. We believe that's because women have been absent for so long at the top table, they're starting to be written out of the narrative," says Donnelly.

Fewer than 20% of fans think that racing should be in gender-segregated series and that falls below 10% among female fans. It's very clear that fans believe the FIA is the organisation that should be leading positive change in female participation. But Donnelly knows from experience of driving female participation in other sports, that setting targets is important.

"That is something that we would absolutely encourage," she says. "When we went to look at participation data we were quite disappointed by what we found. The data are quite poor. It's not adequate to inform the sport. And that is doing two things. It's making it very difficult for the sport to publicly say we have a growth narrative here around women and girls. A target will probably help with that. And second, it's also very hard to say to potential investors and sponsors, 'Come and get involved women and girls in motorsport.' The first thing they say is, 'What are your numbers?' And you can't answer that question. So it's really important. You see all sports having very lofty targets around female participation growth. We're not quite there yet in motorsport, but we'd love to see that."

Since Liberty Media took over in 2017 F1 has attracted a large female audience. They are on average 10 years younger than male fans and 40% of them are new to the sport in the last five years. They are also 70% more likely than male fans to engage with social media for F1 content.

It's very clear that there is a huge opportunity for the sport if it takes onboard attitudes to sponsors backing female drivers.

"People are telling us that they will reward the sport, will watch more, will buy more products if they see more female drivers on track and if women and girls who support motorsport, feel more included," says Donnelly. "So I think those are quite powerful pieces of evidence for us to be able to make the case for change.

"The research that we've published, does make pretty clear that motorsport is lagging behind quite significantly in lots of areas, when it comes to women and girls. In terms of participation, I think we just need a much more concerted collective effort. So if you look at the success other sports have had, with all of them the governing bodies have joined forces with a whole range of stakeholders to make change; sponsors, the media or other independent groups. I think we're yet to see that collectively happen in motorsport.

"We haven't had a woman at the top end of motorsport for so long, that if you are a brand and an investor and you're looking at two 14-year-olds, a boy in a girl, both doing really well, maybe the same talent and results, the safer bet is to invest in the boy. Because you can see as a brand or an investor that the path for him is clear. You know 100% of the grid in Formula 1 are men. The path for her is uncertain. So it takes a very enlightened brand. But in order to make that change we have to give evidence to those brands and say, 'Actually, if you do this, you will be rewarded by sponsors, and hailed so you could be part of something really historic.' So it's up to us with sport to make the case for female drivers to get the investment they need."

So having established that the fan base believes technically, physically, and psychologically, there shouldn't be any difference for female drivers, now More than Equal can focus on the second part of their mission, which is to create a world-class female driver development programme and to identify and remove the barriers that stop women from progressing up the ladder.

"I think if this research does anything, it is to help dispel those myths, and actually now allow us to focus on what really matters and that is giving girls the same opportunities," says Donnelly. "Because what's happening is that the girls everywhere who are good enough hit a range of barriers over and above those of male drivers.

"Next year, we'll be launching a female driver development programme, where we're looking at identifying young female talent and giving them, from the get-go, the same kind of support that male drivers are getting when they're that age. What makes the programme unique is it is tailored for female athletes and in an age-appropriate way.

"We are out there now looking at where that talent is and trying to ascertain what's the right first cohort for us. We know that if you give girls the same opportunities and resources that talented young male drivers are getting, they will soar.

"We wouldn't be here if we didn't believe that."

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