Bridging the bicycling gender gap

The gender gap in cycling is alive and well, both in transportation and sports (I may have mentioned this a time or two in the past). Fortunately, there are always plenty of inspiring people ready to disregard the obstacles, tear up the stats, and bridge that gap. Two such stories broke this morning.

The first comes from Heidi Swift, a Portland racer, writer, designer, and media wizard, who seems to have personally shifted the heavens to create a small dent in the most famous all-male bike race in the world — the Tour de France. She and five other amateur female riders will be riding the 3,000+ kilometer course a day ahead of the pack. And because Swift is running the show, the feat should get some real coverage — not a shabby feat to pull off in a sport where media are distinctly uninterested in women participants.

The second news flash came from Seattle, where organizers of the recent annual Alleycat Acres bike ride — a 70 mile ride that raises money for an urban farming nonprofit — reported that 64% of the ride’s participants identified as women. That’s well outside what’s to be expected — after all, only 30% of regular bike commuters in Washington State identify as women — and led Tom of Seattle Bike Blog to wonder why. Perhaps it was, he decided, because the ride was long enough to be challenging but organized to be welcoming.

The long ride was almost more about proving that “difficult” can be done, whether it’s a personal distance biking feat or reimagining our region’s food landscape. And everyone on the ride was in it together.

So what can the city learn from this ride’s success at encouraging women to ride? Aside from creating more safe and welcoming physical infrastructure, how can we create a welcoming atmosphere and culture?

Reading that made me want to cheer. Sure, the gender gap in cycling is huge and, statistically, it’s getting worse. But there are ways to mitigate it — sometimes through the intention of the people who organize streets and events, sometimes by force of will of the people who carve out opportunities to use them. It’s good to have a reminder, also, that we can change the culture simply by going for it, without having to wait for political tides to shift and bureaucracies to get their act together.

As it happens, I’ve been working on a new presentation about the gender gap in bicycling — it’s intended for stops on our upcoming tour where I’ve already given my talk on Bikenomics. If you’re going to be at the Seattle Bike Expo this weekend, you’ll be able to see a short version of it as part of panel of contributors to the book On Bicycling — that’s at 12:10pm on Saturday, March 10th. (I’ll also be doing my Bikenomics talk on Sunday at 2:10).


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6 Responses to “Bridging the bicycling gender gap”

  1. Caroline March 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    I’m keenly interested in how the TDF route is going to be for the ladies one day before the men come through. It’s not going to be clear of cars, I bet. In fact, I imagine there will be heavier traffic than normal. And I’m particularly excited to hear accounts of what the French and Tour fans think of the ladies coming through. I’m sure other groups have done this, I just hope Heidi’s group does it louder. I’ve always scratched my head why there isn’t a grand tour for women, or a women’s class.

    • Heidi Swift March 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

      Caroline – one of the reassuring bits about partnering with Reve for this project is that they did this (with a team of Dutch men) in 2010, so they have a good read on how traffic (yes, it’s a factor!) and crowds will come into play as well as how to manage tricky transfers, etc. That said, I don’t know anything about anything so I’m keenly interested to see how this unfolds, too!

  2. Andrew March 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    There was a womens TdF, it’s had a patchy history though, with sponsor / trademark / length issues.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tour_de_France_F%C3%A9minin

    The Giro Donne seems to do somewhat better, and is now the last womens Grand Tour event after the Tour de l’Aude Cycliste Féminin was cancelled.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giro_d'Italia_Femminile

  3. Jessie Kwak March 7, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    I saw Heidi’s announcement yesterday, and I’m excited to see how that all goes. This might just be the first year that I follow the Tour as closely as my husband does. Go, Heidi!

    As far as getting more women out on their bikes, I totally agree that offering a safe and welcoming place helps. A lot of the reasons I hear from female friends for not getting out on their bikes more revolve around uneasiness with riding in traffic, or fears that they won’t be able to keep up. And that’s just from women who already enjoy cycling.

    If you throw a women’s-only event or alleycat in Seattle, you can get an amazing turnout of women who wouldn’t even consider showing up for the exact same event if it weren’t gender-specific. I think a big part of that has to do with a perceived lessening of competition–you don’t have to worry about having the right gear or being in top-notch shape. For a lot of women I’ve talked to, going out to events like this is more about having fun rather than being competitive.

    I’ve noticed this on a small scale in the alleycats my husband throws. If he markets them as being tough races meant to crush you, he gets zero women, but a race he marketed as being a Fun Thing to do on a Friday Night attracted almost 50% women. We’ve spent a lot of time puzzling out how to make these events more appealing to women: location, amenities, atmosphere….

    Thanks for posting this—it’s really got me thinking this morning.

  4. Tanwen Haf March 8, 2012 at 6:10 am #

    The biggest obstacle is often the condescending attitude of male cyclists. Not all, but enough to put women off. You walk into a bike shop and ask about group rides or equipment, and they assume you’re slow and don’t know anything about mechanics. Many a time I’ve heard of women sending a bloke to ask about local rides as they just won’t tell or make you feel welcome. I also have first hand experience of this. As for women’s races, there are loads, but they’re just not televised to the same extent as men’s races. They often lack sponsorship, but this will only improve with MORE coverage, not less! I’ve been riled by many commenting that women’s races are not as exciting, which is just twaddle.

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