The Next Ten Thousand Members

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December 17, 2014 by Viet-Tam Luu Find me on: LinkedIn Google+

Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Viet-Tam Luu, former Director of the San Francisco Region SCCA. While these are Tam's views on his experience, we don't think it's unique to the SCCA nor women nor road racing. Is the motorsport subculture sufficiently inclusive to stay relevant and healthy?  What do you think? Share this with your fellow club members and reflect on what you are doing to engage your next 100, 1,000 or 10,000 members.

Ten_thousand_membersChoose three words that would best describe road racing in North America? Allow me; I won’t mince any words here: old, white, male.

It’s not a condemnation of a specific organization or its membership, and it’s not universally true, but any random sampling of the active members in our sport would bear me out.

At the end of a six-year run serving on the Board with San Francisco Region SCCA, I look back and reflect on our particular successes and failings. As a Director, one of my personal goals has been to attract new members to the club. Our stagnant membership numbers show that with regards to that task, achievements are still far outnumbered by unfulfilled and unaddressed opportunities. Like a racer still chasing that elusive pole position, the challenges ahead of us still loom, ever slightly beyond our reach. How do we move forward as an organization? What should the club of the future look like, and how do we get there?

Like every other organization, our clubs do not operate in a vacuum. The social climate in which we live is changing, and it behooves us to understand and adapt.

"Gamergate" and the Gender Gap

As you read this, a culture war dubbed "Gamergate" is raging on the Internet, with very real and serious real-world consequences. In recent months a number of women journalists, computer game developers, and gamers, advocating for more inclusive and less misogynistic treatment of females in video games, have found themselves under attack by a disturbingly large cadre of predominantly young male gamers. The latter, opposed to change, have resorted to vicious reactions that have escalated to credible real-world threats of violence, rape and murder against the former, their families and their supporters, forcing some women out of their homes and into hiding.

While it’s unlikely that we would ever witness such overt displays of sexism and hatred in my SCCA region, there are nevertheless parallels—and therefore lessons—to be drawn from the ongoing Gamergate saga. An activity that has "traditionally" been the near-exclusive domain of males starts to attract a wider demographic as it becomes more accessible; women participants are bullied, intimidated or outright threatened; establishment authority figures fail to take seriously threats made against women with a dismissive "it’s part of the culture" or "boys will be boys" attitude. Am I talking about computer gaming, or racing?

I’ve heard otherwise reasonable, well-intentioned individuals opine that it should be up to women racers to adapt to our "racers’ culture" such as it is, and not the other way around. They couldn’t be more wrong: failure to adapt to the wider changing environment is the surefire route to extinction; so it was for the dinosaurs and so it will be for our club.

What, then, should we be doing differently? First of all, event officials, stewards and the club leadership need to believe and take seriously any allegation of harassment or intimidation. Chest-thumping machismo might be par for the course at the dirt-track sprint car races but it has no place in an organization like ours that wishes to be more inclusive. During and after a race, adrenaline does get pumping and tempers can flare, but there is definitely "a line" that should not be crossed.

Secondly, bad actors need to be dealt with swiftly and decisively. One driver who treats women badly might be dismissed by some as "just a jerk", but failure to condemn this behavior sends a message of tacit endorsement, especially to newcomers, and creates a hostile environment for prospective women racers.

It all seems obvious enough and yet this story would apply equally if "women" were replaced with "minority" or "young" or "sexual orientation". So why have we not been better at it?

The Insidiousness of Unconscious Bias

Volumes could be, and have been, written on the topic of "unconscious bias". Briefly stated, unconscious biases are the little mental shortcuts we all have accumulated through our years of experience that, without our conscious awareness, influence our perceptions and decisions. The issue has come to the fore of late with regards to diversity and hiring practices in the Bay Area’s technology companies, but it applies equally to our club’s attitudes and decision-making. If the most progressive, forward-thinking organizations freely admit that unconscious bias is a problem, then it’s entirely reasonable to assume that it affects ours as well.

The tricky thing about unconscious bias is that it’s unconscious. Few of us would call ourselves sexist or racist but unconscious biases just about guarantee that the way we think about people of particular genders or ethnicities is colored by assumptions hidden to our thinking process. We might attribute the exact same action by two different individuals to completely different causes, and thus react differently. If that’s the case then it’s difficult if not impossible for those in the roles of race officials, stewards, or leaders to be absolutely objective.

There are ways to mitigate if not overcome the effects of unconscious bias. For example some organizations obscure the name and other gender or ethnicity cues from job candidates’ resumés to prevent biases from affecting candidate screening. While the same method might not apply to our club’s procedures, the point is that procedural changes can help to reduce the effects of unconscious bias.

Secondly, there’s some evidence to show that simply being aware of one’s own possible biases can help reduce their influence, so awareness training might be positive step.

Finally, I believe the best way to reduce bias is to build a more diverse organization. How is a woman (or person of color or gay or any other minority group) racer to feel when faced with a set of stewards who are ostensibly all much older and male? Will she get a fair hearing? Will the male competitor on one side of a protest get a more favorable reception than his female counterpart? One would hope not, but the science of unconscious bias suggests otherwise. Moreover, the mere perception of inequity might discourage women and minority racers from joining in our sport.

Moving Forward

One of my favorite sayings about racing is, "You can’t drive the car you wish you had, only the car you have." Similarly, our organization can’t continue to operate in the world that used to be; it has to live in the world that is. That world is changing.

The inescapable demographic trend in today’s world is that an increasing number of men and women are putting off or eschewing altogether marriage and/or child-rearing. The practical upshot of this and other statistics for our clubs is that the prospective racer—with sufficient income to fuel this admittedly-expensive activity—should be younger and come from a more diverse background that at any time in the past. The onus, then, is upon us, the existing membership and its leaders, to learn lessons from cultural clashes such as GamerGate and build a club that is more appealing, more welcoming and more inclusive than ever before.

The next ten thousand members of San Francisco Region SCCA—if there are to be that many—will not be like the first ten thousand.

I, for one, will welcome them.

About the Guest Author

Tam is a former Director of the San Francisco Region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).  He is an amateur racer and works at Google as a software engineer.

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