Challenging the archaic mindset of our patriarchal sporting society – an interview with F1Toni

Four thousand fans attended the Silverstone Grand Prix this past weekend, the highest attendance level ever with a high proportion being young women. One million+ UK TV viewers over the week watched the all-female racing championship W Series, now the “most-watched motorsport event since 2014 outside of F1”. This is record breaking support for young women and from young women and yet the world of motorsport still clings to the outdated mentality of our patriarchal society.

Source: Lydia Harper (@lids_harper)

Hopping on a Zoom call at 8am (PT), Toni Cowan-Brown, 37, took time before the start of her workday to sit down and talk about the importance of challenging the archaic mindset. Despite living in California, she didn’t let the eight-hour time difference to London stop her from the chance to shed light on the topic. A fact which only adds to evidence that her passion for thought-provoking debate is what makes her personality and perspective so encapsulating.

“I love talking and listening to smart people. It’s a weird thing that comes from a very selfish perspective. It forces me to think about things and you learn more about yourself every time,” she says.

Working at the intersection of politics, technology and now motorsport, Cowan-Brown has built numerous platforms and businesses which challenge traditional ideas society has grown comfortable with.

Women in male dominated industries

“The biggest paradox of any woman in an industry that is very male dominated, is the paradox of we don’t see you and we expect nothing of you because we don’t believe you can do anything. And at the same time, if you do it our expectations are going to be so f*cking high that you are incapable of reaching them,” she says.

Cowan-Brown has spent the majority of her career working in male dominated industries navigating the passive aggressive sexism. Now she believes that women her age and younger are in what she calls “their no more f*cks to give era”.

“They’re like, I’m done. I’m not taken seriously when I’m polite and kind and stay in my corner. I’m not taken seriously when I speak up. I’m not respected whatever I do. So let me just be me and be the best version of myself and see how it lands,” she says.

Emphasising the difference between how men and women communicate and learn she believes leaning into it can foster a whole different mindset. Her podcast Unapologetic Women, which covers topics from politics and tech to social change and feminist issues, began as an extension of this idea.

“Most podcasts about politics were all so serious, very edited, very scripted, very driven by a male perspective. And when two women come together and talk about politics, it looks and sounds fundamentally different. It’s a dialogue. It’s a conversation. It’s not one person higher up trying to teach someone else. Women don’t mind not having the last word,” she says.

The power of the fangirl

The struggle of women working in male dominated industries is paralleled within the experience of motorsport fans. Traditionally catered towards old white men, young female fans are constantly labelled as lust driven or questioned on their knowledge of the sport. But with the rise of the social media revolution content creators such as Cowan-Brown are building online spaces for them to feel safe and explore the sport without judgement.

Cowan-Brown created her TikTok account, F1Toni, in 2020 as a way to communicate information about the sport through short clips. Now amassing more than 73k followers the reception to her content shows how important these online spaces are.

“A lot of young women were coming to me and saying thank you so much for answering my question without the typical, ‘if you don’t know this, you’re not a true fan’,” Cowan-Brown says.

Championing the female fanbase her most recent project has been the inaugural merch drop of her Sunday Fangirls brand. Created as an extension of her TikTok community the concept of Sunday Fangirls aims to reclaim the fangirl persona. Likening it to the music industry, Cowan-Brown believes recognising the revolutionary power of the fangirl, who champions the thing they love so fervently, is the future for motorsport.

“I can’t wait for the first driver to fully embrace their female fandom. They’ve tiptoed around it but not a single one has said, ‘Are you kidding, our fangirls are brilliant’. Who is going to be the Harry Styles of Formula One? Because when Harry Styles stands up for his female fanbase, it is beautiful to watch and I can only image what it means to a young girl to be like I am seen and I am respected,” she says.

When talking about the future of the brand, even she believes the term itself sits in an archaic gendered mindset. Hoping to build it into a sense of community rather than something attached to gender she explains that each time she talks about it she becomes more and more certain of what it could become.

“I don’t want it to focus on gender. I want to create Sunday Fangirls as a concept of what it means to be one. The Sunday Fangirl is someone who is an inquisitive, kind and welcoming fan. That might be my pinnacle when it’s not about gender but about the concept. It’s about our relevancy as a demographic of people in sport and that’s exciting,” she says.

The online revolution of F1

Working within the online space, she recognises the power which the younger generation has on the world of motorsport. Where many accredit the Netflix series Drive to Survive for the revival of Formula One, Cowan-Brown believes that credit should also be given to the online generation for their part in the sport’s growth.

“Drive to Survive created a super series that you could binge watch in a week. But then it was generally female and young fans who took that content, discussed it, analysed it, and started creating more content to bring more people into the mix. I always say that the female fanbase and the content creators ran with Drive to Survive and as a result they ensured that F1 became a pop culture moment in the longevity and gave relevance back to it,” she says.

She explains that the online phenomenon is not unique to Formula One or even sports in general, the power of social media has been seen across everything. But just as female sports fans are often discredited as crazed and lust-driven, the online generation are labelled as lazy, anti-social or lacking drive.

“Gen-Z or even the next generation, don’t get enough credit. They want these kinds of debates and dialogues, but they want it in a space that they feel comfortable in,” she explains.

Aston Martin, a team which has collaborated with content creators at numerous events, is capitalising on this online fanbase and paving a way for its future in motorsport. Having worked with them at the Miami Grand Prix in May, Cowan-Brown emphasises the fact that those making the decision to embrace the social media generation aren’t the typical cis white men. She believes this is an example of how diversifying an industry can lead to a natural change and diversify its mindset too.

Diversity industry = Diversity mindset

Although many employers emphasise their impartiality when hiring new employees saying they “just hire the best people”, Cowan-Brown believes conscious action still needs to be taken.

She explains that men are happy to do stuff because they have had “100 years’ worth of people telling them you’re worthy,” but women need persuading that they deserve to be up there because they haven’t.

“Sometimes the best has been told they’re not the best and you need to actually go out of your way and make an effort to bring them into the mix, so that in 50 years we don’t need to think like that. Everyone is welcome. Everyone has a seat at the table. But we’ve got some work to do to get there,” she explains.

This is the future she sees for motorsport. That actively diversifying the industry will naturally progress and challenge these archaic mindsets surrounding women, young fangirls and the online generation.

“When you have that diversity,” she says, “all of a sudden everything else just falls into place.”