Women know their engines. They work on them, they design them, they test them on track. For far too long prejudice has associated genius exclusively with the male gender. This is why on the 8th of March, at the Imola autodrome, the first event dedicated to the role of women in the automotive industry and in motorsports was held: Women Motor. An innovative project and a call for reflection.
Getting to know part of the female presence in automotive up close was stimulating, inspiring, and prompted questions about how much more needs to be done to change things. Every topic and speech shed light on the difficulties a woman must face in order to make it into the world of motorsports and be credible in the eyes of others regardless of her role.
The inspiration and support we need
When we hear the names of big car brands, we tend to think of them as unreachable. A dream suspended in the unknown, a luxury that we can only admire for how charming and exclusive it is. But if you take a closer look you’ll see how human it is, because behind a car or an accessory there are people with their stories, their beliefs, their battles. Bearers of values, seeking to open themselves to the world.
Every woman who spoke at the event lent her hand, bringing her reality in front of everybody. An invitation to think critically about how long the path still is. And they’ve done it with pride in their eyes, glowing for the goals achieved. Every speech gave plenty to reflect on, and created emotional moments too: voices trembling, the overwhelming gratitude for being joined on stage by important women. The first panel was filled with emotion for the presence of Nadia Padovani, a true source of inspiration.
The fact that it’s actual leading figures of the automotive industry speaking up about certain topics becomes motivating for all those women who are chasing a dream. It’s not impossible, you just have to want it.
Strength and resilience
In the field of motorsports in particular, women constantly face challenges which are twice, sometimes three times as hard, in order to prove they’re worth just as much as men. Resilience was a recurring word among the lecturers’ speeches.
German writer and pedagogist Jean Paul Richter once said: “In women everything is heart, even the head”. Women fought and are still fighting silently, without being able to raise their voice. In everyday life, being resilient – an innate quality of the human being – means being capable of adapting quickly and accepting change. Women adapt better to repeated stress. This is why we’re not scared of taking hits and moving forward: emotions are the resource that saves us.
Women aren’t born strong and courageous, they become that. And on the 8th of March we got to know more about some of them.
Starting with Nadia Padovani, Fausto Gresini’s widow, who talked about her decision to take the lead of her late husband’s team, with the assistance of collaborators, despite coming from a completely different job before that. She found herself in a difficult world, which hadn’t been hers until that moment. The people she surrounded herself with, who had gained Fausto’s trust, made the difference, guiding her step by step in a new adventure, not without obstacles but ultimately full of satisfactions.
Another woman with a very clear idea in her mind right from the start, and whose wishes couldn’t be taken away, was Monica Zanetti, who always wanted to be a mechanic and first got into Ferrari as a simple worker at 15 years of age. A woman whose career defies stereotypes and is fueled by a passion that is still very much alive today. Monica made it thanks to her strength and her manual skill. Being in a team with three other men, being listened to and treated equally was challenging: «When I was the one figuring out a problem we were working on, I would not be listened to right away», she said.
She found her path – which she follows to this day – in the Scuderia Belle Epoque, founded in collaboration with her partner Gemma Provenzano. «Even after retirement I didn’t want to stop being a mechanic. Many Ferrari drivers had great trust in the people who had worked in Maranello so, driven by the desire to keep going and pass something on to the younger generations, I opened a workshop. No other mechanic would do it, so I did it. It’s crucial to impart knowledge for the future, otherwise you won’t go very far».
A much needed change of mentality
Far too often we’re victims – and sometimes even perpetrators – of unconscious biases, “implicit” preconceptions that make us fear the other, rather than perceive it as something positive. They can manifest in different ways, one of which is the gender bias, the tendency to prefer a gender over another when it comes to executing certain tasks or assigning roles.
On this subject, Zanetti shared an anecdote regarding her first meeting with Enzo Ferrari. «When I saw him with his dark glasses and his F40, he was surprised: he didn’t get my passion for racing». Which is understandable: she’s a woman, and this can be disorienting in a stereotypically male world like motorsports.
These stereotypes are still present and can lead to conflicts. The current situation says that equality is still far from being achieved because, as Siegfrid Stohr reminded, «The president of the FIA is a man who said that women are wrong in thinking they’re as intelligent as men». Compared to the past, women being part of the automotive industry and motor racing is not an unrealistic concept anymore, but there’s still plenty of prejudice and stereotypes to overcome – especially in the case of higher positions, management roles, which aren’t typically associated with women.
Livia Cevolini, CEO of Energica Motor Company – MotoE supplier until 2022 – gave more food for thought. She recalled an emblematic moment: during a meeting, not only was she the only woman sitting at the table, but her collaborators were the ones being asked the questions when it should’ve been her instead. A small anecdote that reminds us of the struggles of women trying to reach the highest ranks of business management.
Giancarlo Minardi stated: «We’re doing a tremendous job, even at FIA level, to bring women more and more to the top and possibly in Formula 1. There’s a radical change happening, and Imola has dedicated a day to all of you».
Women Motor also gave the opportunity to look at the changes in how women inside Ferrari are treated. A search for education to inclusivity emerges from the words of Monica Zanetti and Simona Curci, as well as the increase of initiatives in favor of equality and the right to motherhood. The Maranello mindset aims at innovation and development: not just on cars and products, but especially on people. And meritocracy is paramount. No quotas – another instrument of the patriarchy which creates further disparity – and more incentives to merit. Talent and dedication are the key factors, for everyone.
«It’s not just about female empowerment, but also about sharing» said Elena Penazzi, council member of the Autodrome. «Men and women together, to create a value that must be more and more important in our society». Council member for Equal Opportunities Elisa Spada backed up Penazzi’s statement.
In response to a journalist asking how it felt to be married to a genius, Marie Skłodowska Curie allegedly said «Ask him». You wouldn’t expect anything less from a two-time Nobel prize winner (Physics in 1903, together with husband Pierre Curie and Antoine Henri Becquerel, and Chemistry in 1911), but the question still comes up when the subject matter is female scientists.
The first few lines of Bruno Lauzi’s song Il poeta (‘The poet’) say:
Alla sera al caffé con gli amici / In the evening at the coffee place with friends
Si parlava di donne e motori / There was talk of women and engines
Si diceva: “Son gioie e dolori” / They said: “They are joys and sorrows”
The song is from the 1960s, a time where women were beginning to ask for more freedom and recognition. The process of change, however, was being slowed down by a very traditionalist society. Discrimination and subordination were still strong.
Michèl Mouton, who became the first female to win a WRC stage in 1981, said: «Who can tell if you’re a boy or a girl when you’re sitting behind a steering wheel? I don’t understand why women need to be segregated. If you race in the same category, the only element that can evaluate a girl’s performance on track are her laptimes».
Years pass, societies change and evolve, but prejudice remains. It’s time to fight to erase it. There’s no shortage of hypocrisy in our society and it’s the first obstacle that needs to be overcome for female figures to be recognized as equal as male ones, even in motorsports. Women Motor is only a piece of the puzzle. As announced at the end of the event, this is just the beginning. Of being more combative in the future, of putting ourselves out there. Because women bring added value, and it’s time to take center stage… flat out!
Original article (Italian) – Anna Botton
Translation – Claudio Scalia