Mind the Gender Gap

Yesterday’s New York Times blog item about why New York women are underrepresented among the city’s bike commuters didn’t sit well with the authors of Streetsblog Network member Let’s Go Ride a Bike. Trisha, one of the blog’s authors and a bike commuter herself in Nashville, sees the piece as part of a trend (epitomized by a recent Treehugger post called "6 Reasons the World Needs More Girls on Bikes"). Too often, she says, people looking at female cyclists take a cosmetic approach to a complex subject: 

494801835_9dba1859cf_m.jpgThis is how mothers roll in Japan: on a "mamachari." Photo by anthonygrimley via Flickr.

I certainly don’t want to discount concerns about safety and fashion, which were issues for me when starting out and two things Dottie and I are trying to help others overcome.

What annoys me is that none of the articles I’ve read on this topic lately go any deeper into why those things present serious obstacles for women but not men, even though men have the same concerns (no one wants to show up for work disheveled and stinky after all). Why bother, when it’s so obvious that men are just much less self-absorbed and a million times braver? It couldn’t be that there are higher expectations for women’s appearances in the workplace, or that the burden of transporting children or household errands like grocery shopping more often falls to them—the first reasons that came to my mind. These are not insurmountable, of course (just ask these cycling superparents, both moms and dads, or the other stylish women bike commuters we know), but they require some thought, negotiation and planning that your average male might not have to overcome in his quest to bicycle

But instead of giving weight to these concerns, or looking into others, these articles stay on the surface. Women are dismissed as frivolous and their absence is mourned not because of the missed opportunity to allow them to discover an activity that can improve their quality of life, but because their presence would improve the scenery. As a girl who likes to look good on her bike, I can’t argue with that statement, but I can argue with it being the number one reason we should get women on bikes — sorry, Treehugger.

Network member Fifty Car Pileup, who has written about the gender gap before, also had a thoughtful response to the Times piece.

What makes me sad about this whole debate is that in the United States, we tend to think of ourselves as being especially enlightened when it comes to women’s issues. Yet women here are still confronted every day with the idea that being sweaty, or even physically active outside of a gym, isn’t feminine. If you’re not worried about it yourself, you’re constantly being reminded by the media that other, "average" women are. Transporting children by bike is almost unheard of.

Meanwhile, Dutch parents have the Bakfiets, of course. And in Japan, women ride their kids on cycles called "mamacharis," or mama chariots. Maybe we’ll get there someday.

Other good things from around the network: imagineNATIVEamerica writes about the debate between New Urbanists and the proponents of sprawl; the Hard Drive reports some Oregon drivers don’t see why they should have to put down their cellphones; and The MinusCar Project expects "green business" initiatives to be more than business as usual.

  • Responding to the “6 Reasons…”: I’m a woman, a bicycle commuter and I’m all for closing the cycling gender gap. But is it too much to ask for women to participate in an activity without being required to look hot (or stylish) for it to be considered mainstream?

  • john

    How do you address the contradiction? “I want to look good-feel good and want to feel safe too”. The marketing and laws enacted that helmets mean safety also means that “looking good” is unrealistic.

    We have painted ourselves into a corner and need to change, not a little but a lot. I asked six women yesterday who like to cycle but only recreationally as they feel a helmet is a necessity and our streets are seen as too dangerous to use as casual commuters. An older neighbor from Germany who appreciates cycling continues to refuse to cycle in the USA. As she says, “Germany is nice but here the roads are hostile so I’ll never ride on the streets”. Another neighbor from Germany who biked with her children to school moved her family back to Germany as she said “people here don’t get it”.

    Complete Streets is a large step in the right direction but much more is needed. Slower speed limits, effective-fair law enforcement, educating drivers-cyclists on STR, and a culture that places people over cars are required.

    My wife who rode with our young son to school this morning just left for a casual bike ride with another woman. She felt she had better use her helmet so as not to offend the other mother.

    Women on bikes means real liberation in our house.

  • I never get sweaty riding my bike, and can’t understand why this is brought up in every article about bikes-as-transportation when it’s only relevant to a bikes-as-sport discourse.

  • How about women (and men) should cycle when they choose to do so? The terms of prevailing discussions about “overcoming obstacles to cycling” seem to emphasize the obstacles more than the cycling. Perhaps I am a typical self-absorbed male-type person, but I really like riding my bike and I think that that pleasure is worth overcoming a couple obstacles along the way.

  • Dave Wiley

    I dismiss any article that includes the phrase “men are” or “women are” when the subject under discussion is not anatomy. It’s shorthand, it’s lazy, and it’s generally wrong. If you want to know why a particular person does not ride a bike, ask them. If you ask enough people then maybe you’ll get some interesting statistics to write about.

    My wife and I ride everywhere. (Yes, everywhere.) We share the shopping equally. (Yes, equally.) We don’t have kids so I can’t comment on that. The only concessions of style we have both made are we have shorter haircuts and we always carry raincoats.

    (Actually my wife is amazing. She found some dresses that can be stuffed into a backpack and come out unwrinkled and superswank.)

  • aliostuni, different people perspire differently. I sweat pretty heavily in most situations. I have had coworkers meet me in the elevator and ask with all sincerity whether it is raining outside, when I am merely perspiring–both on days I have ridden to work, and on days I have taken the subway to work. It’s pretty embarrassing. The only effective way I have found to sweat less is to improve my physical fitness, which for me means biking.

    The way to avoid the embarrassment at work is to plan ahead. I have scoped out all the spots near my office that have bathrooms where they don’t hassle non-patrons who want to use them. I bring a comb, small mirror, a clean small towel and my work clothes with me, and I change after my trip but before I enter the office. It’s extra work, but it definitely can be done, and it’s still quicker than using mass transit for me. There are some fashions and hairstyles that cannot be repaired so easily, but you have to make your choices. When headed to a situation where I have to look my best on arrival, I ride slowly on the way there, and look forward to the opportunity to ride more quickly on the way back. I’m not sure whether as a man who has to wear a standard business suit in most situations, I have an easier or harder time managing my appearance as a bicycle commuter than a woman, who (even in a formal office setting) has a broader choice of clothes that are considered acceptable business attire than I do.

    It’s absolutely true that there are different and higher standards for women’s appearance at work, and it stinks that women have to worry about those perceptions as a downside to cycling. On the other hand, if those perceptions matter to you, regular commuting by bicycle can improve fitness, yielding upside benefits on the personal appearance front.

    I can’t speak to the gender gap in bicycling danger. Some motorists may believe that they can intimidate a woman cyclist more easily than a man, but in most situations there isn’t time for motorists to make such a nuanced assessment–the cyclist either quickly and decisively signals and takes the piece of road s/he wants, presenting the motorists with a fait accompli, or hesitates–and, typically, is lost. I have never heard any bicyclist, man or woman, tell me that they believe motorists behave more aggressively or dangerously around women.

    Many of the women commenting on the Times’ “Gender Gap” piece swore that they will never bicycle until they have more than painted lanes separating them from motor vehicle traffic. I bet a lot of those same women stand in the road waiting for an opportunity to slip through the motor vehicle traffic against the light, without giving it a second thought. If you “take the lane” while bicycling (ride in the center of a traffic lane), you do not end up mixing with motor vehicle traffic all that much more than a typical pedestrian does. Less experienced bicyclists thin this causes routine, intense conflicts with motorists. I find that if you maintain 10 MPH of faster, 99% of the time motorists will simply go around you. Admittedly that still means you will be harassed by a motorist on most trips, but that has long been the case for bicyclists, and the important thing is that you will be visible and therefore safe from all but intentionally or recklessly caused harm (which is just as likely to injure or kill you as a pedestrian).

    I think the dangers of bicycling with kids in the city are overestimated. It’s hard to come out and say that because I know that if my son or daughter is seriously injured or killed on the road, those words will haunt me the rest of my life. At the same time, there are risks everywhere and the #1 cause of children’s death is motor vehicle collisions that don’t involve bicycling. And I firmly believe that urban cycling with children does a great deal to promote the safety of all bicyclists.

  • The topic totally missed in that article was that of the type of bike itself.

    Sporty bikes demand sporty riding and an aggressive, more aero posture. The American bike market still emphasizes sporty and aggressive bikes that do well to attract men but only a select number of women.

    However if you look at the bikes women (and men!) are picture riding on sites like Copenhagen Cycle Chic and Lets Go Ride a Bike you see women and men riding practical bikes that can be ridden in regular cloths, even formal office attire. I do it everyday myself but my commute is somewhat short and more typical of a European commuting distance.

    I also agree that Americans just don’t get it when it comes to driving style. I too was just in Germany visiting family and spent a couple days riding. I felt that a helmet was totally unnecessary for the casual riding I was doing. The built bicycle facilities and routing that takes cyclists off major roads (but is just as direct) really help but equally important was the attitudes of drivers. And trust me, as a German/American I can tell you that Germans LOVE their cars too and drive plenty fast.

    Also, I studied under John Pucher and he wrote in an email that he was disappointed with the way he was quoted for that article. He had much more interesting and poignant observations to discuss that just didn’t get included.

  • “He had much more interesting and poignant observations to discuss that just didn’t get included.”

    Well, it’s City Room. They blog like Americans drive.

    “Admittedly that still means you will be harassed by a motorist on most trips, but that has long been the case for bicyclists…”

    Only in Mean Streets USA, and it’s just the thing we have to change to become a truly bicycle-friendly city. In a year of daily cycling in New York I’ve come to accept the famous “taking the lane” strategy, but only as a necessary evil. It’s not something I’ll ever mention to a friend I’m pitching cycling to because emotionally stable adults do not get off on “taking lanes” but prefer to have pleasant and easy rides. I follow bicycle routes when possible and if someone decides to park in one then someone else is going to have to wait for me to pass the obstruction at a safe distance and my normal speed. In this scenario I’m rarely bothered, but if I am I will simply direct my index (yes, index) finger to the vehicle that has brought about the disruption. That’s enough assertiveness for my morning and evening ride, thanks.

    Regarding perspiration, BicyclesOnly, if you sweat the same on the subway then I still don’t see why it’s such hot topic for bicycles. But if I took traffic lanes unnecessarily and had to maintain 10 mph (or at least look like I gave a damn how fast I’m going) to appease motorists that think they own them, I’m sure I would sweat a lot more and it would be a problem for me as well. It all comes back to the same thing. If we establish safe paths where people can ride at a comfortable pace without feeling they have to fight for their territory, the topics of athletic uniform and perspiration simply … evaporate. (Sry, too easy.)

  • jeanne

    I never get sweaty riding my bike, and can’t understand why this is brought up in every article about bikes-as-transportation when it’s only relevant to a bikes-as-sport discourse.

    That depends very much on the climate you live in. I live in DC and commute by bike every day, and I don’t know a cyclist, male or female, who doesn’t prespire at all on their bikes during the summer months here.

    It is a very real concern for any cyclist who wants to spend more time in the saddle to do practical things like go to work or ride to a party…it’s not just a concern for the lycranauts.


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