OPINION: Formula 1 has a diversity problem. Here’s how to fix it

by Hayaatun Sillem | Royal Academy of Engineering
Tuesday, 13 July 2021 14:13 GMT

Racing driver Lewis Hamilton is pictured with Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering Hayaatun Sillem (R) and the academy's president, Jim McDonald (L)

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To improve diversity in motorsport, empower young Black people to thrive in engineering careers, says a study commissioned by Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton

By Hayaatun Sillem, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering

The last 24 hours have seen widespread condemnation of the racist abuse of the England footballers who missed penalties in the final of the Euros on Sunday night. Many have expressed deep shock at this vile behaviour directed at three young men who have inspired and delighted fans over the past few weeks with their skill and dedication.

But for others, the abuse was sadly all too predictable. Over the past year, I have been learning more about the experience of Black people in another hugely popular sport, as co-chair of The Hamilton Commission set up by seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton to tackle the under-representation of Black people in UK motorsport.

Motorsport is a relatively small sector, but it has enormous visibility and reach, inspiring and influencing hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

It is also a great UK success story – we are home to seven out of 10 Formula 1 teams – and that success is underpinned by our world class engineering workforce.

So when Lewis, an Honorary Fellow of the Academy, invited us to partner with him to tackle the issue of Black representation in that workforce, we jumped at the chance.

As the first woman and person of colour to be CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, advancing progress on diversity and inclusion is both a personal passion and a professional priority.

OPINION: Why we need more women in engineering

Improving representation is not just the right thing to do, the data show that it’s the smart thing to do. There is now robust evidence that progress on diversity and inclusion helps make firms become more competitive, more profitable and more innovative.

Yet our research suggests that Black people make up less than 1% of the Formula 1 workforce, so why has this compelling case not yet translated into greater diversity in this sector?

Through a comprehensive programme of literature reviews, data analysis, stakeholder interviews and surveys, the Commission has built a picture of the factors contributing to the lack of Black representation in engineering roles in UK motorsport. And we’ve found challenges almost everywhere we’ve looked.

One of the first barriers we identified was the lack of knowledge and understanding among young people of what engineering careers offer and how to access them.

Older Black students, especially boys, feel that it is likely to be hard for them to get into engineering. Many of the young Black people we interviewed shared a perception that a career in motorsport isn’t for them, reflecting the low number of visible Black role models – despite Lewis’ huge personal appeal.

Those from professional families are more likely to believe they can become engineers if they want to, compared with those from less affluent backgrounds.

Lewis Hamilton in action during practice at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Italy, April 17, 2021 REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini

We also found a range of factors within the schools system, from the low numbers of Black teachers, to the impacts of behaviour management policies.

GCSE exam attainment data for 2019 shows that Black Caribbean students are less likely than their peers to secure high grades in science and mathematics, although Black African students outperform their peers.

Deprivation reduces attainment across all ethnic groups but, again, lower proportions of Black Caribbean students in these groups achieve high grades and the pandemic is expected to make these problems more acute.

Post-16 education presents a similarly challenging picture. College-based technical education provides an important route into motorsport, yet only around 2,300 Black people studied any form of engineering qualification in 2019/20 and fewer than 10 studied a motorsport qualification.

Professional engineers typically complete a university engineering degree, with Formula 1 teams able to pick from the highest achieving graduates due to the attractiveness of these roles. But only 135 Black students achieved the necessary A* and A grades typically required for entry to the UK’s leading engineering universities in 2019.

Looking beyond education, the Academy has previously demonstrated that Black students are twice as likely to be unemployed six months after graduation than their White counterparts.

The Black engineers we spoke to who had secured employment in motorsport shared both excitement at being part of this sector and frustration at the lack of progression for Black engineers and absence of Black people in leadership roles. So-called microaggressions and racist ‘banter’ were considered to be a part of the culture that had to be tolerated.

Armed with this sobering evidence, the Commission has shaped an action-focussed set of recommendations to bring about change.

These cluster under three themes: ‘support and empowerment’ to enable young Black people to excel in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and thrive in engineering careers; ‘accountability and measurement’ so that those in leadership positions commit to delivering demonstrable change in representation and culture; and ‘inspiration and engagement’ to convince Black children that engineering and motorsport offer exciting, accessible and relevant opportunities for them.

There is much to do but if there’s one group that can make big things happen fast, it’s the leading lights in motorsport, and I know from this past year of working with Lewis just how deep his commitment to change goes. We’ve marshalled the evidence and we’re ready for action.

We want to hear from you: what critical stories and perspectives are missing from our coverage of systemic racism around the world?

Your responses to our short survey will help shape our reporting.

You can submit your response anonymously. If you provide an email address, we may follow up with you for more information. Any information you share with us will remain strictly confidential and will be used only in accordance with our Privacy Statement.