Women in F1: Bernie Ecclestone - ‘They don’t want to take responsibility’

Story highlights

F1 chief says a woman could succeed him

But claims "they don't want responsibility"

Claire Williams says she surprises her father

Teams reveal growing numbers of women staff

CNN  — 

Formula One has traditionally been a man’s world but, with more women now involved in the sport, could we see an unexpected change at the top?

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone may have made some sexist comments in the past – he once told the media “women should be dressed in white, like all the other domestic appliances” – but he now suggests a female could one day take his place.

However, in true Ecclestone style, the 84-year-old also claimed that most women would not want the responsibility of such a powerful position.

“In business in general there is no reason not to have women as CEOs of companies, including Formula One Management Ltd,” Ecclestone told CNN in a statement.

“The problem is that most women do not wish to take the responsibility of being held responsible for a big company.”

Ecclestone, who attracted controversy in 2014 when he supported Russian president Vladimir Putin’s views on gay rights issues, isn’t the only male figure in the sport to have such a view.

Claire Williams, the deputy team principal of Williams F1, said her father Frank Williams shared a similar reticence about his only daughter joining the family business.

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The humble F1 team leader
03:54 - Source: CNN

“He’s an older generation F1 person,” Williams told a special “Women in F1” edition of CNN’s The Circuit. “He’s very much, ‘This is a sport for the men, and girls can’t handle it.’

“Sometimes he’ll say to me, ‘I can’t believe you go off and do what you do with high-powered CEOs, and you manage to get money out of them.’ There’s an element of surprise.”

It’s been a hard slog for women to get their foot in the door of F1.

Monisha Kaltenborn has the dual distinction of being the first female principal of an F1 team and the first woman to appear at an F1 media conference.

Speaking to CNN in 2012, the year she was appointed to the top job at Sauber, she said: “It’s hard to believe that I was the first woman in nearly 60 years (of the F1 championship).

“That does say a lot about the sport, and it is high time that changed.”

Ecclestone’s road to F1 began as a racer and driver manager in the 1950s, while Frank Williams founded his motorsport empire in 1966.

When the F1 world championship began in 1950, there was a pervading machismo underlined by the fearsome accidents and fatalities which occurred with a grim regularity.

Maria Teresa de Filippis may have blazed a trail as F1’s first female driver in 1958 but the Italian was sensationally banned from competing at the French Grand Prix because the race director believed “the only helmet that a woman should use is the one at the hairdresser’s.”

Georgie Shaw, who drove competitively in the UK in the 1970s, recalls turning up at Brands Hatch Racing School for training and being blindsided by casual sexism.

“I was told by the chief instructor, ‘You must think you’re bloody good to be here,’” she explained to CNN. “’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to find out.’ And he said, ‘You have to be bloody good or sleep with the right people.’ He was such a male chauvinist.”

But the world’s fastest motorsport has slowly moved on, and there is evidence that Ecclestone is wrong about women not talking responsibility.

In 2015 there are plenty of women rolling up their sleeves and accepting accountability for the teams’ on-track success.

Claire Williams now has a major role in the day-to-day running of her team, and doesn’t see her gender blunting her determination to follow in her father’s footsteps and lead it to more world titles.

“Women absolutely have the mental aptitude for Formula One in every single area,” says Williams, who joined the family business as a communications officer in 2002. “There are no barriers put up for women coming in.

“When I first started this role I’d heard there were a lot of criticisms. I had a triple whammy – the fact that I’m a girl, I’m young and I was Frank’s daughter. But gender has never been an issue for me.

“Sexism in F1? No, I have never – hand on my heart – experienced it.”

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Lone Wolff
03:27 - Source: CNN

Williams and Kaltenborn are the most prominent females in leadership roles on the F1 grid, but there are increasing numbers of women working in traditionally male roles behind the scenes, such as engineering.

To find out how the landscape of F1 is changing, CNN asked all 10 teams for the number of females working within their workforce, and for details of those in senior departmental positions.

Here are the details provided by the seven teams which responded:

Sauber: Employs 34 women, around 10% of the workforce. One chief executive, three in aerodynamics, one in the design office, one in systems engineering, three in infrastructure, one in logistics, seven in production, four in marketing and press and 13 in administration.

Lotus: Employs 53 women from a total staff of approximately 480. They work across all departments from aerodynamics, in the wind tunnel, engineering, the design office, marketing and PR, and the legal department. Carmen Jorda is a development driver for the team.

Williams: 15% of the team’s staff are female, including test driver Susie Wolff and deputy team principal Claire Williams. Female engineers work in vehicle dynamics, aerodynamics, software and production.

McLaren: Specific numbers are not available but women are employed in several engineering roles including a female head of aerodynamic design and technology, a simulation development engineer, and vehicle dynamics engineer

Force India: Specific numbers are not available but women work in every area of the business including the aerodynamic and design departments. The team notably employs a woman who is a carbon fiber specialist for the car.

Toro Rosso: Specific numbers are not available but many women are employed in the composite, finance, logistical and marketing departments.

Manor F1: Approximately 10% of the team’s slimmed down workforce is female.

Mercedes, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari did not respond.

To provide context, motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, also sent CNN a list of 50 women working in leading roles across its other sanctioned global motorsport series, including the World Rally Championship as well as the World Endurance Championships.

The list, which does not total all women working in global motorsport, includes Leena Gade, an Audi race engineer who has helped mastermind three Le Mans victories, FIA race steward Silvia Bellot, and championship-winning truck driver Steffi Halm.

Michele Mouton, a four-time race winner on the world rally circuit and runner-up in the 1982 drivers’ championship, is also tasked by the FIA with leading the Women and Motor Sport Commission, which aims to encourage more women to get involved at any level.

“As a sport, I actually think we do quite a lot to promote women,” reflects Claire Williams, who regularly makes public speeches about women in leadership roles.

“The likes of Susie Wolff and other female drivers are changing perceptions. There are more women coming in, particularly in the engineering side of the sport.

“It’s gathering momentum. There are no barriers to entry, to dispelling the myth that F1 is a male-dominated sport. It’s not male-dominated, it’s just that a lot of men work in it.”

Increasing the numbers of women working at all levels of F1 relies on changing the perception of the sport from the top down, says Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a UK charity which promotes gender equality at work.

“Bernie Ecclestone has got it wrong,” Smethers told CNN in a statement. “There’s no shortage of women capable of running big businesses. The problem is we put barriers in their way and companies run by men still recruit in their own image.

“This outdated attitude has to change or we will continue to overlook women who should be reaching the top and will continue to miss out on their skills and experience.”

In his statement to CNN, Ecclestone again tipped his legal counsel Sacha Woodward-Hill as his potential successor at Formula One Management, the company which organizes F1’s logistics, broadcast and promotional rights.

He also pointed to the success of Spanish businesswoman Ana Botin, who in 2014 was appointed chair of her family firm, the Santander Group. The Spanish banking business is one of F1’s key sponsors.

Ecclestone could yet play a trump card by nominating a female successor and help dispatch F1’s image as a man’s world for good.

Read: Should women have a separate F1 world championship?

Read: Danica Patrick: Why I’ll never race in F1

Read: F1’s leading female Susie Wolff could quit

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