Claire Williams: 'I think the blokes in F1 love having women around the place'

    Story highlights

    • Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams believes men in Formula One "love" having women around
    • Only five women have ever entered an F1 race

    (CNN)If I've spent my career being asked questions about being a woman in sports journalism -- just imagine what it's like for the women who work in Formula One.

    And I'm not talking about the grid girls.
      You can count the number of female drivers who have entered a race in the World Championship on one hand. Quite literally. There are five.
      Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first -- in 1958 and '59 -- then came fellow Italian Lella Lombardi, England's Divina Galica, South African Desire Wilson, and finally Italy's Giovanna Amati in 1992.
      The obvious conclusion is sexism. The reason so few females have ever been on the grid -- and the fact there haven't been any since Amati -- is because the men don't want them there.
      That a women's place on the grid is sporting a token piece of spandex, and a megawatt smile. And that when the lights go out they should be at the back of the garage making tea for the lads.
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      The simple explanation is that those at the top of F1 are doing all they can to build as many barriers as they possibly can to stop women swapping their high heels for helmets and taking their place on the grid.
      But that really is a case of two plus two makes five. Sorry to disappoint.
      In days gone by, sexism could have been leveled as a legitimate reason for female exclusion.
      De Filippis, who claimed a 10th place finish at the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix, was banned from competing in the French Grand Prix because the race director commented "the only helmet that a woman should use is the one at the hairdressers."
      And Williams Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams admitted to me that being a woman in a man's world was an issue with her father Frank in the early days. She told CNN: "He's an older generation F1 person -- he's very much this is a sport for the men, for the boys, and girls can't handle it."
      But Williams proved her dad wrong -- and theirs is a team actively championing women across all areas of the sport.
      These days it's just not true that women are being stopped from making it because of their sex. There's a host of successful and powerful women throughout the F1 paddock.
      From Williams herself, to Sauber's team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, to female race engineers like Gill Jones -- who has the title Head of Red Bull Racing's Trackside Electronics -- and who made people look twice when she stepped up to the podium to collect the team trophy alongside Sebastian Vettel at the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2013.
      "I actually think the blokes in F1 -- to put it bluntly --- love having women around the place," added Williams. "That gender divide doesn't really come up. The boys look after the boys as much as the boys look after the girls and the girls look after the boys. F1 is one of the only sports in the world that allows girls to line up and compete against men.
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      "There are no barriers to a female lining up on the grid on a Sunday afternoon -- and competing against male rivals. Not a lot of sports can say that."
      And it's true that while football is criticized for not backing the women's game to the level it does the men's; and that female athletes and tennis stars get a smaller billing to their male counterparts -- in their separate events - the platform is ready and waiting for women in F1.
      There is absolutely nothing that says women cannot line up alongside the men on the grid.
      So if it's not the rules, and not sexism -- why is it that Lombardi remains the only woman to have won points in an F1 world championship race?
      Susie Wolff is the currently the closest woman to the starting grid in her role as Williams' test driver. She discounts the argument that physically there's any disadvantage to being a woman -- insisting that any differences can be made up with training in the gym and with the help of today's modern cars, which rely on clever tech more than muscle.

      The helmet hasn't been hung up just yet.

      A photo posted by Susie Wolff (@susie_wolff) on

      She laughs at the suggestion that it's just because "women can't drive." "I know guys who are great drivers and terrible drivers," she says.
      And then she gets her game face on when I ask why she hasn't made that step up from test driver to reserve driver or beyond. Wolff is a good driver -- and has been given her chance in practice sessions at the Spanish and British grands prix this year.
      But she hasn't done enough yet to convince any of the teams into giving her a seat. She says: "Just now in Formula One, as a driver, you need to put the right package together. It's not enough just to be quick in the race car.... there are so few opportunities."
      So if not Wolff, who? How do we find the woman who is fast enough to give the men a run for their money -- and their race seat?
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      Wolff is in no doubt that it's a question of numbers. "That's the issue, 100%. It's just getting more little girls starting at grass root level -- for the best to rise to the top.
      "We can't forget that F1 is the absolute pinnacle of motorsport -- it's the most advanced racing cars in the world, the fastest, and with some of the best drivers in the world, so it's not easy for any driver to make it into F1, regardless of whether they're a woman or not."
      As F1 teams continue to battle for survival -- those seats on the grid become increasingly scarce. This season there are 20 race seats, so just 20 drivers at F1's top table.
      And the numbers game is where this becomes an issue not just confined to motorsport -- but one that broadens out to the one of women and sport generally.
      Just how do you convince young girls that sport and competition is fun, and healthy, and a whole lot cooler than celebrity status and computer games? That getting sweaty or muddy on a pitch is a million times more rewarding than watching your boyfriend from the sidelines?
      The tide is slowly turning -- the message seems to be getting through. And the message from F1 is that the opportunity is there to be taken.