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.