Hubert Burda Media

It’s a Woman’s World

The first female race engineer to lead the Audi Sport team, LEENA GADE says gender shouldn’t hinder one’s pursuit of passion

At 13, Leena Gade began watching Formula 1 racing on television. At 17, she watched her first live race. Now 37, she has carved a niche for herself in the male-dominated field of motorsports. Not only that, she is the first female race engineer to win the world’s most prestigious sportscar challenge, Le Mans 24 Hours in 2011. At the races, Gade is Audi Sport’s “First Lady” — the lead engineer who oversees the mechanics and engineers, and is the voice over the team radio talking drivers through the course. She has participated in numerous international events, including the Monaco GP, Indy 500, Dakar Rally, Pikes Peak and the Daytona 500, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship.
You studied Aerospace Engineering with Materials Science at the University of Manchester. Were there many ladies in your course? What fuelled your interest in this field?
Initially, we were 100 students in total and I was one of five girls. Studying it at school kept me interested and opened up other possibilities and industries, either linked to aerospace and motorsport, or another area of interest.
To the casual observer, it doesn’t seem to be, but in your experience, is engineering a popular choice amongst ladies?
It depends on where you look for statistics. In some countries, the numbers are 20 percent of undergraduates, while others are much lower. I think the lack of role models is one of the reasons for the low figures. Combine that with a misconception of what engineering actually is and you get a better understanding of this phenomenon. Also, a lack of parental and teaching support for women to go into engineering might play a role. Finally, there is a psychological aspect of a lack of confidence to compete with men in a male-dominated field.
What’s it like being in a man’s world?
It’s certainly not always easy as you have to fit in with the boys. Sometimes, this means losing some of your femininity. But most of the time, among peers, it is a good place to develop working relationships with likeminded individuals. I believe this would be the same in any male-dominated industry. I think more women are coming into motorsports as engineers, be it in development at Audi Sport or into race teams in other series. However, sexism is still common, whether it is made obvious or expressed more subtly. Women need to be prepared that it will happen but they should not accept that it should be normal.
As a woman, did you feel that it was easier or much harder to get into motorsports?
It was easier in that you were rare in the field, so that meant your name and face were remembered more easily. At the same time, it was harder because some men already see your looks first before your capability. So you have to be better than the rest to be thought of first for roles. Over the years, this has changed but I still hear men speaking of female engineers’ looks first before their skills.
You’re the first female race engineer to lead the Audi Sport Team. Tell us about your experience.
Initially, there were ups and downs, which is pretty normal when you are quickly learning the ropes to finding your own management way. You have to cope with the huge pressure that comes with the job and you have to develop a self-confidence that you know what you are doing. Working with some of the best engineers and mechanics in the field has motivated me to do the best job for the team.
You were part of the recent 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race where Audi emerged victors. What was that like?
The race engineer is the lead engineer on the car crew. He is responsible for the final decisions on changes and strategy, linking the driver to support engineers for issues, monitoring and keeping the car health in check to maximise the performance and speed for the duration of the 24-hour race. On hindsight, the experience of the race seemed a lot tougher now than when the race was actually going on. At that time, each hurdle was seen as a challenge — one that had a solution and consequences that had to be resolved. You could feel the huge motivation and drive from everyone on the car crew to do the best job and fight 110 percent for a win. Interestingly, I never thought once we couldn’t win and we never gave up.
You’ve also been named FIA Commission Ambassador for Women in Motorsport in 2014. What do you hope to achieve?
I enjoy helping the FIA Women’s Commission to promote engineering to young females. At the same time, I want to help promote females that are already in the industry to create more role models.
How do you encourage women who are interested in entering to motorsports?
Sharing my path is a start. I would also encourage them to think about all options available and push themselves to prove they can do the same. They should be prepared that being in a race team involves a lot of travel, a lot of time away from home and also compromises. That means it isn’t perfect for anybody — man or woman. But the industry is huge and covers everything from concepts development to supply industry. I recommend them to explore all the options and find what is best for their lifestyle and ambitions.