Bridging the Formula 1 Pay Gap

Bridget Schuil analyzes the Formula 1 pay gap and offers strategies using human instincts.

Last week, the British government released data it had collected on the gender pay gap in the UK. The requirement set for the exercise was that companies with two hundred and fifty employees or more needed to submit a hiring and pay report to show the pay gap situation. Several Formula One teams have submitted data, and you can find two good summaries by Sidepodcast here and here. The response on social media fit into three camps: 1. “Finally! We have proof!” 2. “The feminists are lying to us,” and 3. “Can we please have better resolution data?” (Declaration of bias: I straddle camp numbers one and three.)

Four quick side notes before we begin:

  1. The current regulations only require reporting of gender and hourly wage. Were we to include ethnicity, nationality, disability, marital status, number of children, and other demographic data, we would get a more complete picture of the unevenness of the playing field. It’s likely that we would find black and brown people, non-British people, and people with disabilities are more unequal than the rest. I have intentionally left sexual orientation and minority gender identities out of the above list. Almost no queer and trans/non-binary people in motorsport are out, and therefore it’s difficult to determine whether their pay rate has been affected by their sexual orientation. The point remains, however, that white, straight, abled women have been the major benefactors of most “affirmative action” initiatives in the past.
  2. The question asked is only about hourly wage per worker and bonus pay. It doesn’t include benefits like parental leave, pension plan, health insurance, travel and housing allowances, training costs, sponsored products, and other perks. These benefits are usually given more to management and executive staff than people in technical or entry-level roles, so, given the male bias of management, this could be an area of inequality.
  3. The data set doesn’t include years of training or education, years of experience, time spent in the position, pay in the person’s previous role, and other factors that are used to weigh salaries.
  4. The data does not include psychological factors, or whether an individual has been discriminated against in more subtle ways that impact job performance. Examples of this kind of discrimination include: sexual harassment; micro-aggressive comments and behaviours; stereotypes and societal expectations; gaslighting and other forms of emotional abuse.

The question around this kind of information is always: “how do we fix this?” The obvious solution is to just pay women what we’d pay men for the same job. The logic of it is simple and internally consistent, so it’s the best option.

The problem with paying women the same as we pay men comes in balancing the books, and correcting for other factors like the ones detailed in point 3 above. When those people were hired, they were hired at a women’s rate, so there isn’t room in the budget for them to have a pay raise this quarter, maybe not even this year. This kind of problem gives executives and finance managers anxiety attacks as they do the mental Tetris to fit the number of worker hours required for the task into the money available.

Realistically, the numbers of women employed in F1 are low, and, due to the leaky pipeline, the overwhelming majority of women are in non-managerial roles. The financial cost of giving women their slice of the pie is pretty insignificant at this point in the game. Industries who’ve met their demographic targets have a bigger budget difference to make up.

If it’s a small problem with a simple fix, why have F1 team bosses not committed to an action strategy for changing their policies? To answer that, I need us to wade into the swamp of human emotion and history for a quick guided tour.

Claire Williams, Deputy Team Principle of Williams Formula 1 team — (Image: Williams)

BASIC BRAIN STUFF

The human brain is a prediction machine. Think of it as the data stream from the sensors on a race car, from which engineers make predictions and then strategy calls. It takes in information from the world, compares it with our memory bank to decide what’s pleasurable or dangerous, and decides on an action in response. There isn’t a sensor on every part of the car, because that would yield a bigger data set than anyone would realistically be able to process. To save time and maximize our chance of running away from predators, our sensors give us a very small range of light/EMR, sound, smell/taste, and physical sensation, and we fill in the gaps from memory.

A lot like data engineers in F1 teams, the unconscious parts of our minds crunch the numbers in a back room we’re usually unaware of. How we feel about the stimulus depends on we believe about the situation; what we believe about the situation is shaped by our memories, the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories others have told us. When we encounter a threat, we go straight into a reactive, fight-flight-or-freeze response, and save time by bypassing the slower logic functions. At the moment, the concept of free will is under fire from neuroscientists working in this area, because of the question: is free will truly free when it’s determined by so many factors beyond our control?

The collection of stories that we tell ourselves, memories of past experiences, and other things happening in the dark corners of our mental engine bays are called our unconscious bias. An example of bias is optimism. Humans (who aren’t suffering from depression) naturally see the future as better than the present. It’s an evolutionary motivator to get us out of bed to build that brighter future, and does its job well. It’s also the reason that almost every project undertaken throughout history has run over time and over budget. However, the good news about bias is that we can mitigate it when we become aware of it. In the case of the optimism bias, we can compare our project to similar ones, and adjust our cost and time frame expectations accordingly.

BASIC FEELINGS STUFF

Happiness is a green flag in that its function is to tell us to keep doing what we’re doing. We have several hormones — dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin — that make us feel happy, and reward us for doing things that are essential to our survival. Of the four listed above, serotonin and oxytocin are the only ones that can’t be stimulated in solo play, and they are implicated in increasing life satisfaction and improving immune function.

Fear is a red flag in that its function is to tell us to stop racing and box to avoid danger. It’s an affect, rather than an emotion. If you want more information on affect vs emotion, “Archaeology of Mind” by Prof Jaak Panksepp explains it well. The short version is that the feeling of fear has been keeping our ancestors safe since we developed nervous systems. Fear is triggered when our minds detect something potentially threatening. Activating oxytocin production, or what Panksepp called the CARE system, calms the FEAR system. If you’ve ever seen a baby elephant trumpet and mock charge from the safety of his mum’s vicinity, this soothing mechanism is why he thinks you can’t get him if his mum is around. The good news is we can learn to self-soothe.

While we’re on Panksepp’s work, let’s talk about PANIC/GRIEF, because it’s relevant to our response to the pay gap data. This affect, also called separation anxiety, is unique to social animals, and is shut down by opioids (including endorphins) and activating the PLAY system. PANIC/GRIEF is that rubbish feeling you get when you are abandoned, rejected, excluded, or otherwise alone. We also feel this affect when a loved one dies. Its function is to drive what psychologists call “pro-social behaviour,” because, when we lived on the savannahs of Africa, a solitary human was likely to be eaten by predators.

RAGE doesn’t have a corresponding flag, but I’m sure everyone reading this knows what the red mist is. It evolved as a defence mechanism. Have you ever heard the saying “angrier than a mama bear”? That’s this affect at work. We fight to defend our territory, family/tribe, and things we think are important, including values and traditions.

Let’s take a quick tour through Prof Brené Brown’s work, and then we can move onto how this applies to motorsport. Brown defines embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, and shame mostly by the stories we tell ourselves when we feel them. When we’re embarrassed, we tell ourselves some variation of “something bad happened to me, and I didn’t deserve it.” Humiliation prompts a story to the tune of “something bad happened to me, and I deserved it.” Guilt tells us “I did something bad.” Shame is all about “I am something bad.” Our emotional response is mostly down to what we tell ourselves, but we learned our story structures from our parents, tribe, and the media in our childhood.

In her most recent book, “Braving the Wilderness,” Brown talks about how the world has become separated into what she calls “ideological bunkers.” There’s an “us” and a “them,” and all of “them” are wrong, bad, and coming to take all that we hold dear. This cultural mindset is the worst parts of fear, rage, and shame mixed together. According to Brown, the only way around the violence that this causes is to put down our need to be right, and have civil conversations. We need to risk uncertainty, exposure, and being wrong in order to run enough experiments to find a solution.

We all have a memory from school of being wrong and having it work out badly for us. one overriding memory of being wrong was in grade four, when I got an F for a spelling test. My teacher called me and two others up to stand in front of the class, and spent ages telling everyone how stupid we were. I felt shame (“I am stupid; stupid is bad; I am bad”), and panic/grief (“nobody wants to be friends with the class idiot; I’ll be alone forever”), and rage (there wasn’t an articulate thought, but I was fighting for my dignity when I learned to spell all the big words). Whenever someone points out that I’m wrong, I flashback to being that nine year-old kid publicly being called stupid for making a mistake. All those feelings come rushing back, and it takes effort to not lash out like a cornered crocodile and avoid a repeat of that day.

We — including team bosses who seem to have it together — all have stories like this hidden away in our memories, affecting our judgment. Did you notice, though, that what I reacted to in the story was being told I was wrong, not being wrong itself. Being wrong, according to Katherine Schultz, feels a lot like being right. She likens it to being Wiley Coyote in the moment between running off the cliff, and realising that he’s run off the cliff. But when we’ve been loaded up with cultural baggage around always needing to be right, finding out that we’re wrong feels terrible. It feels to our savannah-adapted brain like we’ll be thrown out of the tribe and eaten by a lion, even though lion aren’t a real threat any more, and in this hyper-connected world we can always find a new tribe.

CULTURAL OPERATING SYSTEM STUFF

Capitalism, the economic operating system we’re currently running, was built by straight, white, wealthy, abled men to benefit straight, white, wealthy, abled men. One of the basic assumptions of the OS is that there is an army of abled, low-skill workers to make everything being sold. For the last several hundred years, these positions have been filled by “the working classes” — men who weren’t born into financial privilege, women, children, and black and brown people. The code bug that necessitates a working class is currently being patched with robotics, but the implications of that is another article for another time.

Notice that there’s no space in traditional capitalism for people with disabilities, even though archaeological evidence points to humans treating disabled members of the tribe as equals prior to the invention of agriculture, money, and war. There are, therefore, three classes in the economy — the executives, the workers, and the people we’ve historically hidden away because they don’t contribute. Centuries of having this hierarchy passed down — mostly unconsciously — from parent to child makes it quite difficult to argue for individual choice being a contributing factor to the pay gap.

SOCIAL INTERACTION STUFF

Humans are social animals. We intrinsically understand that what helps the group helps us, and what harms the group harms us. We are literally hard-wired to be kind to other humans. Serotonin rewards us for being kind, receiving kindness, even just witnessing other people being kind to each other. Conversely, we are traumatised by simply watching other people being hurt, even if we don’t know them. If we need to be systematically unkind to people — for example, making them work long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages — we need to tell ourselves a story about how they’re a little less human than us, and therefore in a zone that Brown calls “moral exclusion.” We basically need to have part of our humanity removed on a societal level in order to be okay with treating others with disrespect.

Studies have shown that, from the time they stop being toddlers, we touch boys (in appropriate, caring ways) less than we touch girls. We shut boys down with insanity like “boys don’t cry,” and “don’t be afraid; be brave.” The result for men is that the current system leaves them isolated, and that isolation is a major contributor to things like the alarming rate of suicide and eating disorders. (We also shut down girls’ emotional responses, but for different things like expressing anger and being assertive. Teen girls have a higher rate of suicide and eating disorders than teen boys. The advantage girls have over boys is that feminism has been helping them for fifty years and leaving boys in the dark.)

If we’ve made a system in which we can’t be wrong without being called terrible people, we must compete for the crumbs that fall down the food chain, and anyone who disagrees with us is a hostile enemy, is it any wonder, then, that people who can fix the problem are on the defensive? I’m as much at fault as anyone else, having spent two years making angry (and, if I’m honest, pretty misandronistic) rants about the system on the internet. Re-reading Marshall Rosenberg and Brené Brown for the book I’m working on gave me a harsh and unwelcome reality check about how I’d been treating people who disagreed with me.

STRATEGIES

Most of the work I’m going to suggest here is for you to do. Yes, you. Not your boss, or their boss, or their boss’s boss. You. Do you remember that scene in “Finding Nemo” when all the fish swam down and broke the fishing net? If enough of us play with these concepts and compare notes, we might find a strategy that works.

  1. CREATE A CORPORATE CULTURE OF HONESTY

Ask people with similar training/education and work histories what they earn. Compare hourly wage, and bonus pay, and benefit packages, and leave allowances (including paid parental leave). Compare notes with people in different teams, and people who do your job in other sectors. Make an effort to seek out and ask people whose demographic data is different to yours.

When someone tells you about a workplace incident that they found distressing, take them seriously. Ask them what kind of help they would like from you. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug because it’s inconvenient for the brand’s image, or it might damage someone’s career. By doing that, we’re making it worse for someone who’s already at a disadvantage, and reinforcing the untouchable status of someone who’s been a jerk.

2. BE AWARE OF YOUR FEELINGS

Feelings, like track flags, are best responded to immediately. Think about it: if you ignored a yellow flag, you could end up with shredded tyres, or a time penalty for overtaking under yellow flag conditions. Brené Brown’s strategy is this: don’t talk, text, or type; withdraw to somewhere private; identify the feeling; reach out to someone trusted who can talk her off the ceiling. Her book “Rising Strong” has a more detailed strategy for dealing with an emotion tsunami.

3. WORK ON YOUR OWN VICTIM/PERPETRATOR STUFF

All of us have been victims of sexism. We’ve all been disadvantaged by a system set up to advantage a tiny portion of the population, even if we’re a member of that tiny population because establishing the system removed part of our humanity. All of us have perpetrated sexism. Whether or not we’ve committed a major crime, we’ve all made discriminatory comments, let things slide when we knew they were wrong, and acted in our own interest at the expense of someone with less privilege than ourselves. Being honest with ourselves about what others did that hurt us and what we did that hurt others is the first step to moving past it.

4. ELIMINATE BIAS

There is a website set up by Harvard University where you can test yourself on a wide range of biases. (I, apparently, moderately prefer fat people, women, Christian people, LGBT+ people, and white people. They didn’t have an option for “equal opportunity misanthrope.”) Becoming aware of where you’re biased helps make decisions about people you’re biased against.

As far as possible, use a blind audition process when recruiting. Delete gender, age, ethnicity, and other demographic data from applicant CVs before passing them onto the hiring team. 9% of engineering graduates in the UK are women, but 4% of engineers in F1 are women. If there was no bias, there would be no difference between those two figures. In the workplace, delegate tasks based on expertise, or design your work groups to be semiautonomous and run on dynamic subordination. Studies have shown that female engineers are more likely to end up doing administrative tasks than their male counterparts. Watch out for it happening on your team.

5. CHOOSE LOVE OVER FEAR

As previously mentioned, the best ways to diffuse fear and defensive rage are with love, care, and compassion. It’s not easy to choose love in the heat of the moment. It’s easier to let the fear-fueled crazy express pull out the station and mow down everyone nearby. But, if we get into the habit of evaluating the choices available to us with the question, “Is this the most compassionate thing I can do?” when it comes time to adjust salaries, being fair to marginalized groups will be easier.

Writer Bio:

Bridget Schuil is a thinker, writer, and activist. While actively participating in motorsport discussions, Bridget also focuses on biology. For more of her work check out http://www.motorsportsisterhood.org/