In defence of grid girls

BY Madeleine Grant   /  2 February 2018

Formula One grid girls have gone the way of the dodo. The news broke yesterday, mirroring the Professional Darts Corporation’s recent decision to scrap the time-honoured tradition of women escorting male players onto the stage.

Many feminists and left-wing commentators seem all too pleased at the news that thousands of (largely working class) women are to lose their jobs.

As journalist Sally Howard told This Morning earlier in the week, such job losses are necessary, since these are “decorative roles that make money for men”.

Moreover, she added, “every social change has people who suffer from it.”

Am I the only person who finds these remarks patronising, disturbing and plainly wrong?

While these jobs may have alienated the sisterhood, they also, undeniably, enrich women as well.

One great irony of the ongoing debate is the fact that, while the BBC and other employers are enduring a forensic examination over gender pay, feminist campaigners are backing moves to upset one of the few areas of economic life in which women have a clear advantage – the ability to trade on good looks – or “erotic capital”, to borrow Catherine Hakim’s phrase.

Jobs in pole dancing, high fashion, hostessing and the promotional modelling work, performed by the Formula 1 grid girls, all enable women to trade on their beauty.

Often, the opportunities for beautiful women far outstrip those granted men. Fashion modelling, for instance, carries a female premium of anywhere from 25% and 75%. Stripping is another industry where women consistently outearn their male counterparts.

You might argue that two wrongs don’t make a right, and in an ideal world, women and society should expect better than this.

But the existence of pole dancers doesn’t preclude women from becoming CEOs and corporate lawyers. In the real world, clamping down on these kinds of opportunities will merely prevent young and attractive women from using their comparative advantages to maximise their income; something we all do, in one way or another, whatever our line of work.

Already, a worrying amount of public policy is guided by an urge to determine others’ life choices, supposedly “for their own good”. Such puritanical instincts have shaped policies like ‘sin taxes’ on tobacco and sugary drinks and new legislation on minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland and Wales – all of which overwhelmingly penalise those on lower incomes.

The idea that women’s work should serve some broader ideal of female empowerment is a worrying addition to this moralistic landscape. As the radio presenter James O’Brien tweeted yesterday:

“Unless there are lots of parents who would genuinely prefer their child to dream of wearing a skimpy outfit and being sprayed in the face with champagne for money rather than dreaming of being a racing driver, this ‘grid girl’ business seems rather straightforward.”

Ah yes, the Helen Lovejoy argument: won’t somebody please think of the children? By this logic, almost any job with the possibility of unpleasant side effects should be banned.

The idea that subjective moral judgements should dictate the shape of the labour market is problematic enough, but in this case it’s especially gruesome because the burden of setting a good example to future generations seems to fall entirely on the shoulders of women.

Full disclosure: I’ve done modelling and promo work in the past and found it more enjoyable, and better paid than most jobs young people do to supplement their income, like flipping burgers or waiting tables. Judging by their passionate responses, the walk on and grid girls feel the same way.

But whatever their feelings about the job, it’s worth remembering that very few people enjoy high job satisfaction. It’s extremely common for employees to sacrifice their comfort or pride for money; whether this be cleaning toilets, working as a waste collector or even dressing up as a sandwich to direct punters towards the nearest Subway outlet.

Uncomfortable or demeaning jobs perhaps – but nevertheless free choices, undertaken by rational economic actors. Do children dream of being accountants? Certainly none that I’ve ever met. This tells us nothing about the validity of the work in question.

Arguably, the strongest defence for the removal of grid girls and their ilk is that it is simply a case of supply and demand; industries listening and responding to what their customers want. Few supporters of the move have actually made this point, though, instead focusing on moralistic “greater good” arguments or pie-in-the-sky idealism.

Of course F1 and Darts executives, as in any industry, have a right to employ whomever they choose. But, amid the Harvey Weinstein revelations and recent Presidents Club furore, this decision has hardly been made in a vacuum.

How sad that in the name of popular outrage, the sexual revolution risks undermining women’s sexual power by devaluing it.

Madeline Grant is the Digital Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs