But even here in Portland, particularly in parts of the bike scene with a strong connection with sports and business, assumptions about gender often remain unquestioned.
February: I am asked to volunteer on a committee for a bicycle organization “because we need more women.” The person who invites me says that he had been frantically calling every woman he knows in the bike scene, and explains that at this point, expertise matters less than gender.
April: A local bike shop opens a new women’s section. I attend the grand opening and am one of only a few women present. The section has a separate entrance and features house and home decor and a selection of pastel hybrid bikes.
August: I email an acquaintance to tell him it isn’t okay to call other commenters “pussies.” He responds angrily. “Are you really that prudish? Seems like you’re just picking on me. Do you have some sort of problem with me?” he asks. Jonathan reads this and is surprised. “I don’t think he would have reacted that way if I’d been the one to tell him that.”
What do these incidents have in common? They’re only a few selected highlights from my education in the past year about what it means to be a woman in what is very much a man’s world.
The gender imbalance in bicycling — at least, in the numbers — was brought into the spotlight this year by a Scientific American article that found that men’s cycling trips outnumbered women’s two or three to one. In Portland, according to a leaked report about the 2009 bike counts, 31% of riders were identified as female.
The resulting discourse focuses primarily on why so few women choose to ride, concluding that the primary factors are safety concerns — read, greater fearfulness — and image consciousness. More astute observers have pointed out that the majority of errands and kid-toting, even in households with two working partners, falls to women, leading to limited transportation choices.
as a harbinger of spring in 2008
rubbed some readers the wrong way.
(Photo © J. Maus)
Less discussed is the experience that women have not just as individuals riding, but participating — and in leadership roles — in the broader world of bicycling: as employees or customers in shops, at races, in the industry, in advocacy, and in conversations on the road, on the internet, and over coffee and beer.
True, it’s growing less and less common for someone to find I’ve arrived by bike and be shocked — am I not worried about my safety alone out there at night? But even here in Portland, particularly in parts of the bike scene with a strong connection with sports and business, assumptions about gender often remain unquestioned.
It wasn’t meant to be this way.
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” -Susan B Anthony, 1896
Barb Grover, who until recently worked in marketing and outreach for a local bike shop, said in a comment on (of all places) my Facebook wall:
“That the bike industry is so male-dominated is ironic in a way, considering the role the bicycle played in liberating women. I for one am grateful for the path laid by those rebellous, split-skirt wearing, escort-shunning women of the 1890s but wonder how that momentum was lost in the following century to the extent that bicycling and bike biz become so male-dominated?”
Sexism is often portrayed as a fairly straightforward dynamic of men acting while women remain passive and oblivious. But it’s rarely so simple. Grover added:
“I’ve seen the sexism doled out by women too – I’ve experienced women assuming I didn’t know much about bikes because of my gender- not too recently, or here in P-town, but it happened oft enough when I worked bike retail in the burbs.”
The phenomenon of internalized power imbalances is hardly confined to gender, as I have reason to contemplate daily while riding around town.
Even if you can’t relate to the grimace-inducing experience of having a bike shop employee explain to you, unasked and with exaggerated patience, the difference between a presta and schrader valve, you’ve probably been at some point demeaned, belittled, and brushed aside by virtue of being on two wheels.
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on the parallel between two systems where ingrained entitlement leads people to not simply be unaware of their power but to exercise it at the expense of others.
Consider the experience of riding on the streets — yes, even in Portland. You relax as you’re waved through one intersection with a smile; a hundred feet later someone accelerates past you inches away screaming obscenities out the window. Whenever you take the lane, you’re told to get off the road; meanwhile the media, police, and the courts tell you that you have no right to mobility or personal safety unless you behave like you’re driving a car. Worse, these mixed messages and double standards are as likely to be upheld by allies as others.
Feminism is farther along than this — at least that’s what I’ve always thought.
But this past year as a blog writer and editor covering the bike world I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on the parallel between two systems where ingrained entitlement leads people to not simply be unaware of their power but to exercise it at the expense of others.
I’ve learned that nobody likes to be called out. Especially by a woman.
I emailed a representative of a cycling apparel company to tell him I did not like the sexist and homophobic comments he had made at a public event. “It’s cycling,” he responded, “so if you don’t like the off-color, I think you might have far bigger issues than with the ones you have with me.”
It’s true — one of the rewards of calling out sexism is that people often respond by airing their prejudices and stating things pretty much exactly as they are.
Each time we publish a story that touches on gender (or race, for that matter), a collective scream of confused anguish reverberates. A representative range of responses figure large among the eighty comments on a story on this site back in 2007 about a group that was forming to address gender inequality in the bike world.
Similarly, I know there will be commentary on this post that well illustrate my points here. But I’d like to ask all skeptics to honestly examine yourselves and what you see around you before responding.
For more on issues of being a woman in the bike world, read Heidi Swift’s post (and resulting discussion) from last week: Ladies: Are bike shops *still* failing us?]
Elly Blue has been writing about bicycling and carfree issues for BikePortland.org since 2006. Find her at http://takingthelane.com