Regularly these days you’ll see a headline centred around equality and diversity in motorsport, and for good reason.
Times are changing and it’s about time that everyone is given the same treatment no matter their gender, age or background.
There’s been plenty of initiatives that have been implemented to try and tackle the lack of women involved in the industry, but often these are tailored at the very upper echelons of motorsport – focused only on top-level championships such as Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship.
But those championships only make up a small portion of the overall industry. What about what’s happening at a local level, in grassroots?
That’s something that dawned on Laura Cooledge a few years ago, and she’s now trying to level the playing field from the bottom up.
What started out as research for her university dissertation very quickly became something much bigger. Laura realized that at club level, women were constantly at a disadvantage to their male peers. But beyond that, they were often also subjected to sexism and at times sexual harassment.
“When I was at university I was studying physical education sport and health, I’ve always been really interested in sport development,” Cooledge explained to DirtFish.
“So for me, when I was thinking about what to do for my dissertation, it kind of made sense to look into women in motorsport specifically and to try and understand more about the barriers as to why they are currently so under-represented.
“At that point in time, I think only 5% of the Motorsport UK licence holders were female. So I really wanted to find out why that was.
“I did a study. It started off with women locally in my area and I ended up speaking to over 150 women across the whole of the UK. And the dissertation ended up being a lot bigger than I first expected.
“I ended up getting some quite shocking findings. I found that 47% of people felt uncomfortable, one in four women felt excluded from competing, or generally feeling not involved in motorsport because of their gender.
“Unfortunately I found out about a lot of sexual harassment, women having to face negative comments and this all started to build up a picture which pretty much explained why there aren’t many women involved currently.
“Some women shared some really striking quotes, telling me that no-one took them seriously.”
Having obtained this information, Cooledge’s mindset changed. It was no longer about learning these details but more about working out what can be done to stop this from happening and then implementing it.
What started from my findings is now called the Better Together initiative
With the help of Anglia Motorsport Club, Cooledge has done exactly that. In 2020 she created a working group to establish exactly what the main problems were in attracting more women to the world of motorsport.
“Actually, what was really important was that before we even try and encourage more women in motorsport, we really wanted to address the safety of the environment,” Cooledge explained.
“So the fact that we need to make the environment more inclusive firstly, more safe. Because it’s only at that point, once we know that it’s a safe and accessible environment, that we can actually encourage more women to come and participate.
“So what started from my findings is now called the Better Together initiative.
“This is the initiative I started which aims to knock down barriers to participation and make club motorsport more inclusive and accessible for all. I’d seen a massive gap in motorsport.
“A lot of the initiatives were at the elites. They mainly focused on racing.
“Whereas for most of us, our experiences are in club motorsport at grassroots. So we knew we needed to do something.”
After establishing the main issues that were causing inequality, Cooledge went to motorsport clubs within Anglia Motorsport Club’s umbrella and delivered presentations to raise awareness. It was important to address the issues head on with competitors and organizers so that they understand what behavior is and isn’t acceptable at events.
Cooledge received a strong and positive reception to these presentations, and following these she launched a social media campaign title #Wearebettertogether.
While she’d been making progress within her local clubs, Cooledge wanted to take the awareness even further, casting the net as wide as possible.
“We were met with so much support from people within East Anglia but also further afield,” she said.
“So motorsport clubs across the country and within other countries are sharing it.
“We also have high profile competitors sharing it, so Chris Ingram shared our message. Lots of people were really sharing the campaign.”
But talking about the issues simply weren’t enough and Cooledge wasn’t done there. Now that the word was out, she focused on more interventions to ensure that changes would be made at a grassroots level.
“We launched our own code of conduct. Again, at that time – I know Motorsport UK has since launched Race with Respect – but there really wasn’t anything and through my findings we could see the people weren’t being treated correctly in the environment, and unfortunately we do need to launch a code of conduct,” she explained.
“We launched that early in 2022 and that’s something that all of our clubs have adopted.
“We’ve got a logo and what that means is when an event has that on their regs and other things, it shows that event is going to be inclusive and accessible for all.
“Our working group has been providing a lot of feedback to organizers and event officials across the country as to how they can make their events more inclusive, because what we were finding was that women were going to events and there wasn’t even a toilet provided. And that’s obviously quite difficult when you’re out in the middle of nowhere all day competing, as motorsport events are.
“So we’ve really been trying to educate both competitors and organizers as to how events should be organised to make them inclusive and accessible to all.”
It didn’t stop there though. Cooledge also established that safeguarding and award structures were also an issue.
“Safeguarding at that time only considered children, and actually safeguarding should be around everybody at an event whoever you are, you can be somewhere and you can be safe and you can be treated with respect.
“We’ve also looked at award structures. You’ll have seen various clubs and events do ‘best female’ things like that, and after a lot of consultation the consensus was that women don’t like those awards.
“We had instances where women told me they should have won first in class or first overall, but because they are a female, they were handed the best female award and whoever came second overall or second in class then got that top award, and that was really unfair.
“So what we’ve done in our area is we’ve reviewed and reorganized the reward structures so that things are fair. Because having a best lady award almost insinuates that the winner isn’t going to be a female.
“So we’re trying to eradicate that so women feel they have every right to be there as much as the men.”
Cooledge has been making a real difference at club level to ensure changes are made. There’s no reason why men and women can’t battle it out for glory equally, without any prejudice on either side.
But while progress has and is still being made, there are still some refusing to broaden their minds.
“What has been interesting is that people have contacted me saying they do want to use it, but their motorsport club won’t let them as they don’t want to do things like this,” Cooledge explained.
“So there’s still barriers within the organizers and people behind motorsport clubs who still don’t want to bring their club into the 21st century and don’t want to embrace equality and diversity which is a bit of shame.”
It’s always going to be the case that a select few won’t get onboard, but thankfully many clubs have and a real difference is starting to be made.
And now that the Be Together initiative is starting to succeed in its mission to make club level motorsport more inclusive, Cooledge is exploring ways to expand the remit to ensure everyone can feel included.
“When it was first launched, the focus was on women and we’ve really made big strides on that in our area. We’ve found that when women are coming in they are being welcomed and we’re not really seeing any issues in our area anymore.
“So what we are doing now is we’re widening our reach to focus on other aspects of equality and diversity. So not necessarily just women based now. We want to use our initiative and make sure everyone can come and participate.”
As a way to ensure this progress is made, Cooledge is now hosting in-person events, engaging with new communities to make people aware of what motorsport opportunities might await them right on their own doorstep.
A lot of the work Cooledge is doing through Be Together isn’t rocket science, but the simple fact is nobody was doing this before. Nobody was calling out what was wrong in the industry at club and grassroots level, and now they are.
And it’s not just about shouting about the problems either. Be Together has gone on to create solutions, and the results within Anglia Motorsport Club are there to see.
Equality and diversity issues are becoming few and far between. People are being treated equally and fairly no matter who they are.
It’s a great first step to making club motorsport a better environment to be a part of, and now it’s time for the many other motorsport clubs to sit up, take note and more importantly, take action.