As Mercedes revealed that only 3% of its Formula 1 workforce identified as having a minority ethnic background, the team has sought change. But it must also help fix the societal imbalance that hinders BAME involvement in F1 and other STEM careers
As Mercedes unveiled its new, End Racism-emblazoned black livery in which it will contest the 2020 Formula 1 season, the accompanying press release underlined that this was more than a token gesture.
In that release, Mercedes admitted 12% of its employees were women and just 3% belonged to a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background.
Businesses are reticent to underline their employee demographics, unless they’ve achieved some semblance of numerical equality, but instead the press release reads that “this lack of diversity shows that we need to find new approaches to attract talent from many areas of society we do not currently reach. We know that our team will be stronger if we can attract talents from the broadest possible pool and we are committed to achieving this through positive action”.
This is not the usual glib, superficial, and empty message that company statements usually trade in. As Mercedes has proved by its time in F1 as a constructor, it does not hide behind placatory remarks – it identifies a problem and puts its resources into fixing it. As such, the team will begin a Diversity and Inclusion programme to reflect and act on the imbalance of demographics within the team.
As a UK-based team Mercedes sits in a country where, according to official statistics, 15% of its citizens are from BAME backgrounds – that’s a 12% discrepancy between it and the country’s diversity of employees. That could be cynically addressed by installing a BAME-only hiring process, but that would arguably be just as discriminatory as the currently white-monopolised industry in which F1 currently works. Besides, the crux of the issue lies even deeper than that.
Why, in its 70-year history, has there only ever been one black F1 driver? There are numerous societal, historical and economic reasons behind it, but all three result in the most salient point: there are very few black drivers racing in the junior series. Until Hamilton’s debut in 2007, there was no black role model to follow in F1. And even today, the unequal distribution of wealth means that it’s very hard for black and minority ethnic families to fund a child’s racing career. Hamilton managed it because his father Anthony worked three jobs to fund his karting career, before Ron Dennis (a wealthy white man) eventually bankrolled his way up to F1.
What about engineering, then, where the barriers to Formula 1 are academic rather than financial? Again, there are numerous issues in which society is skewed towards funding predominantly white areas, and so predominantly black schools in the UK are significantly underfunded.
That said, initial figures are deceptively good – according to the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE), an average of 25% of engineering graduates across UK universities are from BAME backgrounds. But under the slightest bit of scrutiny that immediately falls away; from the same AFBE statistics, 7.8% of UK engineers in current employment are from BAME backgrounds. Somewhere, between the transition from graduation to work, 76% of that group with degrees opt for other fields.
The caveat is that some of that cohort will have included overseas students who return to their countries of residence. But that must also be true of people who identify as white, who study in the UK and return to their own countries to begin careers there – so there’s a huge disconnect.
How must it feel to aspire to succeed in a field in which nobody looks like you or had the same life experiences as you? F1, a championship saturated in wealth and privilege, must appear an unattainable goal for someone of a minority ethnic background
Motorsport, which employs thousands of engineers, is still not as diverse. Mercedes’ own employment rate of minority figures in F1 is still down on the 7.8% employed in engineering in the UK – which is far lower than the 15% representation within the UK population.
Great, you think, having managed to trudge through the percentages thrown at you in the prose above. But you can spin facts to say anything you want. I want real-life experience.
It just so happens that this writer has that. Having done my undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Hertfordshire, I then did my Motorsport Engineering postgraduate degree at Oxford Brookes. Neither have the colossally stringent grade requirements that a Russell Group university might have, and so you’d consider them to be more open to people of multiple different backgrounds.
And, for a lot of cases, that’s true. In collective engineering lectures, including everything from mechanical, aerospace, automotive and electronic, a fair percentage of the group was from a minority background. The University of Hertfordshire has offices in China, and so a large contingent of the mechanical course were from Asia. But condensed into the aerospace and motorsport engineering cohort, the fraction of minority students was tiny. And the case was the same at Brookes; this isn’t any kind of shade on either university at all, but serves to reflect what appears to be the current situation.
Given that those are the groups most likely to enter F1 in an engineering capacity, that means the pool of available BAME candidates when considering graduate jobs is also tiny. Thus, F1’s current white-dominated personnel among the teams seems set to stay when its talent pool is of the same demographic.
Breaking down that lack of representation even further, the organisation Black British Professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (BBSTEM) states on its homepage that 6.2% of UK-domiciled students in STEM courses are black. When Mercedes and Hamilton outlay their plans to address the lack of representation of people from all backgrounds, these facts and figures underline the sheer scale of the task ahead.
STEM subjects have been dominated for centuries by white males, and although one expects that the All Lives Matter contingent would argue that the UK is dominated by a white population, the industry is skewed against minority figures to the point where it’s miles away from replicating the current UK demographic. And when you extrapolate further and consider F1 is a global championship, the numbers are even more sobering.
As mentioned previously, there were no black role models in F1 until Hamilton joined the field – and in its off-track endeavours, there are still few people of colour who aspiring engineers could potentially look up to.
Most people in my engineering course were like me: white and male. Most F1 engineers whom we aspired to follow were like us, and therefore we felt like we fit in. How must it feel to aspire to succeed in a field in which nobody looks like you or had the same life experiences as you? F1, a championship saturated in wealth and privilege, must appear an unattainable goal for someone of a minority ethnic background.
This extends to the media too, which forms another huge contingent of F1’s personnel. When my esteemed colleague Luke Smith posted a photo of the Barcelona media centre last year upon his neatly curated Twitter account, the comments drew attention to the white, male dominance nestled within the frame. And, once more, if a demographic is not represented, would future prospects look towards a career in a field where everyone else looks unfamiliar, or would they consider a field in which people look like them? For Mercedes and Hamilton, their energy will be focused on the biggest piece in the jigsaw: how do you improve that representation?
There is no catch-all solution – which is probably why we’re in 2020 and there are few signs of that unequal distribution of people from changing. Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Autosport received far too many emails from readers suggesting that black people simply aren’t interested in motorsport. Given F1’s most high-profile driver is black, the argument holds little water – but even if that was true, why would that be the case?
The very image of a sport or championship – and the people involved in it – naturally creates some degree of societal pressure. Women face, from birth, the notion of gender roles and the idea that sport, racing and STEM fields aren’t ‘for them’ – hence, the underrepresentation of women in motorsport as it currently stands.
To boost the numbers of women in engineering, there are numerous scholarships and bursaries which offer financial incentives to break into a traditionally male-dominated field. So it’s logical to offer the same for minority and underrepresented students, which Hamilton has set out to do with his own foundation.
Sadly, a similar attempt brokered by the British grime artist Stormzy drew fire from some groups, who decried his attempts to offer two fully-paid-up Oxford University scholarships for black students as “anti-white”. Stormzy later accused the university of declining his scholarship, something it denied, but he later referenced the situation in his track Crown, declaring it as “not anti-white, it’s pro-black”.
Academic institutions have to bear some burden in doing more to ensure that people of certain demographics do not feel precluded from studying certain subjects. And although “pro-black” actions will upset a braying crowd, those institutions must not cave to the loudest of voices lest it become complicit in upholding the status quo.
Hopefully, by increasing the size of the talent pool available to F1 teams, the paddock can then begin to represent different groups of people more meaningfully. But although a grassroots approach can eventually begin to filter up, the lack of role models is still pertinent.
The world, as it stands, is a grandfather clock in which the pendulum is tied to one side. The hands don’t move, and so the illusion is that the time never changes. By letting the pendulum swing freely once more, the hands are unhindered and can finally progress forward
But there is that aforementioned 76% of BAME engineers who fall by the wayside between graduation from a UK university and employment. In that pool, there could be the next Adrian Newey or Ross Brawn that will forever remain undiscovered, but the lack of opportunities and potential unconscious bias in hiring processes could conspire against them. Here, teams may need to bite any discomfort of being actively “pro-black”. For example, the NFL employs the Rooney Rule where outfits must actively interview ethnic-minority candidates for coaching roles, and boosting minority involvement by adding a similar policy may be another way of achieving some semblance of equality.
In an ideal world F1 would be a meritocracy, but we don’t live in an ideal world – and sometimes we must push a little too much in the opposite direction to achieve that.
And, of course, one for the future. When I was a kid, two Airbus engineers visited my primary school and led a full day of engineering-themed activities and competitions. That day, full of problem-solving, designing and building solutions, made me want to go and study engineering. F1 surely has enough capital and leverage to fund similar workshops for kids in schools, perhaps skewing visits slightly towards schools with more minority students to capture the imaginations of the future generations. It’s only a small start, but it’s better than no start at all.
The world, as it stands, is a grandfather clock in which the pendulum is tied to one side. The hands don’t move, and so the illusion is that the time never changes. By letting the pendulum swing freely once more, the hands are unhindered and can finally progress forward. You can leave the rope tying the pendulum and hope that it eventually erodes away – or you can be proactive, untie the rope and let the pendulum find its balance.
Mercedes and F1 is making its first steps into untying that rope – and it’s something that we should all be part of together.