5 ways to include women in bicycling

I recently was asked to participate in a bike-related event, and enthusiastically said yes. Then I learned more logistical details, which led me to have some second thoughts. I received several emails in response to my questions from several of the (all male) organizers, one of which concluded thusly:

“We want women in this ride. It will become too male heavy just given its niche. We still hold that interest in you.”


I call this the “Mars needs Women” approach to inclusivity. It happens fairly often, usually when a group of men are organizing something and presumably want to do the right thing.

If there’s a graceful way to handle the situation, it’s beyond me. In the past, I’ve responded immediately and directly, and this conversation has, without exception, gone badly. It’s a touchy thing to explain to someone that their attempt to be on your side, something which likely feels to them like they’re going out on a limb, has in fact put you in a corner.

This time I didn’t have the fight in me, and I just let it go. But it still irked me a week later, so I emailed a friend who is on the organizing team and told him what was up. Bless him, he listened — and he responded in kind. It was a dilemma for them, he said. They had invited some participants specifically because of their geographical location or type of bicycle. So why not gender?

In short, he asked, how do you organize an inclusive event without tokenizing anyone?

It’s a fair question. I don’t know the answer, but I have had enough depressing/hilarious experiences with this stuff to have some ideas. Five, to be exact:

1. When I’m the only woman present, nothing makes me not want to be there like having someone draw attention to my gender, even in praise. By all means, single me out because of that article *about* gender that you disagreed with, but not about things I can’t help. Silly analogy: Would you invite someone to be on your committee “because we need more really short people?” No, but maybe you’d notice if they felt shy and work extra hard to make them feel at ease.

2. There may already be more women participating–and leading–than you think. Like women in tech, just because you might not read about us on the news or automatically associate us with bicycling doesn’t mean we aren’t out there succeeding at the same work, winning the same kinds of races. Just look around–you will start to notice us. Don’t forget to look ahead of you, too. Way ahead.

3. If you look around and see only men, that’s probably for a conglomeration of unsavory economic reasons. How can you, personally, start to address some of those? Like, today?

4. I know this sounds counterintuitive to everything I just said, but yes, you should specifically invite women to the table. Bend your brain and think of it this way — you aren’t inviting us because of our gender; but you were probably in danger of overlooking us for it. Or this way: you aren’t inviting us to make your event feel inclusive–you’re inviting us because we belong there. If you can reach out with genuine enthusiasm and create an event with a level playing field where all the detrimental shit isn’t welcome, that goes a long way.

5. In a lot of bike stuff, including advocacy, it seems to be normal and even unnoticed for men to do all the talking. Even–or especially–when issues of gender come up! This is obviously detrimental. Cut it out. Listen for a while instead.

This all applies well beyond gender or event planning, of course. There’s a lot to be indignant and frustrated about, but we’ve got to go beyond venting and fix this stuff because it ultimately serves nobody well (okay, maybe a few people). I’d very much like to hear what others do to handle situations where they’re being singled out for their minority status. And also what you do as an leader of any persuasion to make the things you organize inclusive.

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14 Responses to “5 ways to include women in bicycling”

  1. Cecily June 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    I’d add: listen to women, work alongside us on issues we care about, and be humble enough to step aside and let us lead. Be an ally.

  2. Travis A. Wittwer June 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    Communication and treating people like worthwhile individuals is important. Thank you for bringing word usage to our attention so we can be thoughtful communicators.

    • Elly June 6, 2012 at 7:14 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Travis. This isn’t exactly about semantics, though.

  3. Travis A. Wittwer June 6, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    But it is about semantics. Making sure that one clearly communicates intention. Or, on the flip side, knowing that how one communicates carries great weight and power. Therefore, thoughtfulness is crucial. Your post is about the intention communicated through words, and there is a disconnect between the intention of the speaker and understanding of the listener. This ownership comes on the speaker to be thoughtful of words.

  4. Jill, Head Geargal June 6, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    Thanks for writing this! Reminds me of a lot of things I’ve said on my own site.
    One piece of advice I have for organizers: if you look around and see only men, perhaps you are a) not pleasant to be around for women, or b) not treating women very well, which really does go back to a).

  5. Travis A. Wittwer June 6, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    (reply to comment prior)
    Thank you for that informative link. This is all part of my learning this week. I appreciate it. I won’t pretend to know all, but I will say that I like to learn.

  6. Lindsey June 15, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    Hi Elly! I really love this piece! Thank you for raising awareness. I find it equally frustrating when events also have co-ed teams and to be ‘fair’ they include a minimum number of female riders. I often feel this largely assumes that women will be the weaker riders which is simply unjust. I was wondering how you feel about women’s only cycling clubs. Do you feel like “yes women need them”, or are they a step back from making cycling more inclusive in general. Would love to know your thoughts!

    • Elly June 16, 2012 at 10:38 am #

      Hi Lindsey,
      Thanks for your comment… In theory maybe I should be opposed to all-women’s groups, but in practice I think they’re necessary and great. I’m part of an all women’s professional organization, and the thing I love about it is for an hour every month gender just doesn’t feel like an issue. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is, that it’s a huge weight off. The goal is not to need that any more, but til that time comes I’m all in.

  7. Caroline June 24, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    We’ve come pretty far, actually. Just 75 years ago we weren’t necessarily competing, or even invited to sport events at all.


    But a study published in 2004 (and highlighted again on NPR yesterday) showed a drastic cultural swing within a troop of baboons that occurred within a period of months. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/13/science/no-time-for-bullies-baboons-retool-their-culture.html If baboons can do it, humans can certainly try to do it better.

    Frankly, I think that when men put up an invitation for a sporting event, it should be considered an open invitation unless otherwise specified. They just want bodies to show up. I doubt they intend to tokenize anyone uncomfortably. When only one or two women shows up to anything, that just sort of happens and I doubt that will ever stop. So, they may not be the very best hostesses *yet,* but I doubt they have intentions of exclusion or even of being bad hostesses. They just didn’t really have anyone to learn from. Ultimately, it is part women’s responsibility to just continue showing up and participating in numbers.

    I had a very good experience at a bike race last year run by the questionable types at PDW (haha, just joking guys). The only entrants were men, but when I asked to race, they said “Sure!” They asked if I would also recruit other women to race. Cool. No barriers, right? Wrong. I told them that wasn’t necessarily fair because no matter how many women I recruited, the chance of any of them winning anything (which is really a main purpose for racing other than to find out who you’re faster than and entertain a crowd) was slim. Fact of the matter is most women just cannot go as fast as men on a bike. So I asked for a women-only race to be held sometime during the evening. They graciously hosted a women-only race (which was insanely popular with the crowd) and even surprised us by awarding separate prizes.

    So yes, tokenizing might be taken in stride when only a couple of anything show up. But when several or more women show up and are eager to participate, especially in bike events, the host(ess)’s response might be to hold a separate race with equally attractive prizes or award prizes by gendered category within a race, or AT LEAST give corresponding acknowledgement of the female participants’ efforts. I think it’s OK to single out a female racer by announcing, “Jane finished that lap with a time faster than all the Cat 2 men!” It’s inspiring and encouraging for Jane, and for other women (and little girls) who might consider sporting. Too often it’s just not even worth it to show up and race, because our times get lumped in and buried under the men’s times, or there is very little media coverage during or afterward, making it seem like it didn’t happen at all. It’s never any fun to show up for something hoping to have a good time and feel like you just might as well not have been there.

    • Elly June 24, 2012 at 10:43 am #

      “If baboons can do it, humans can certainly try to do it better.”

      Hear, hear! Thanks for your perspective and example of one way to do it better.

      An update on the race in the original article–I haven’t seen the full results yet, but a friend told me that she came in third in her category…but was awarded a first place trophy instead because she’s a woman. The assumption that separating the winners by gender would be necessary is both an obviously well-intentioned effort…and an extra bummer in that the assumption was incorrect. It wasn’t the kind of race that gave men an innate advantage.

  8. Kierstin Kloeckner June 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Interesting ideas. I actually put on an all female alleycat in Madison, WI. It was Babes in Bikeland in Minneapolis that got me going on this path. I agree with what you have to say, however, racing for years as the only female junior (back in the 80′s) made me realize I needed to do something to get more women comfortable in these events. My hope is that someday without having to hold gender specific events, the ratio will be much closer. Until then, happy riding!


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