Could Bike Shops and Bicycle Marketing Be Contributing to the Paucity of Female Cyclists?

Green Flowered Bike

 

A number of studies have been conducted, and articles written, about the gender imbalance in cycling. Women make up only 24 percent of bicycling trips.

In a post I wrote some time ago, I tried to outline the reasons why cycling might be less appealing to women than men. I did this because cycling will only become a legitimate form of transportation if it is accessible and used by many people — and those people should be representative of the general population.

As I mentioned then, some women are discouraged by the lack of bike lanes and other accommodations which would make cycling safer and more practical. But, many of the reasons for the huge difference in numbers of males and females participating in cycling remain unknown.

Based on personal observations and articles authored by women, I’ve begun to see the problem as more complex than it first appeared. On the surface, we see practical things such as safety and convenience. But there are a whole host of problems women face when trying to fit cycling into their daily lives.

One area which is rarely touched upon is the problem of riding with children. Although women seem to have found some solutions individually, very little has been done, in terms of product development and consumer education, to make riding with children practical.

Women have noted problems riding with very young children. There don’t seem to be many products available for this purpose, especially as concerns very young children. Mothers who are devoted cyclists have created their own systems of dealing with such things, although the safety of their inventions has yet to be tested. For now, safety assessment will have to be left up to the individual woman.

With respect to consumer education, many women are unclear about the rules for riding with young children. Some states have laws prohibiting cyclists from riding with children under 12 months of age. But, there is a lot of confusion among women about what the age restrictions are, and in some cases, women don’t even know that such restrictions exist.

Informally, women ask other women for guidelines. Developmental rules are generally followed, such as whether the baby can sit up steadily, and the importance of a well-fitting helmet is stressed. In the absence of products marketed for this purpose and the lack of information on this subject in parenting books, women must rely on one another to transport their children by bike.

It’s not difficult to see how women with young children would be discouraged from incorporating cycling into their lives when so little effort has been made to address their needs when designing products. In general, cycling and cycling products are aimed at men, which brings us to the next problem for women  —  bike shops.

Entering a bike shop is like walking into a candy-land for males. Sleek, shiny racing bikes line the walls. Tough-looking bikes with mean shocks are strategically positioned near the store entrance. An astonishing array of tools and maintenance products are prominently displayed for browsing. If you’re a man, you don’t know where to look first. If you’re a woman, you can saunter down to the back of the store where a few women-specific bicycles are huddled in a corner near a small rack of women’s cycling clothes.

Among the women’s products, there are very few items of practical use for women who commute. Nothing is displayed for traveling with children in tow, and things women might need, such as good pedals to use with high heels, are nowhere to be found.

Just the atmosphere is enough to turn some women off. Older stores often don a greasy sheen. Products and shelves are covered in dust. The bathroom may suffer from dinginess, dim light and too little toilet paper. And sometimes the dressing room lacks privacy, a good mirror and enough room for a woman to put down her bag and street clothes while trying on clothes.

To make matters worse, many of the sales people emphasize the technical aspect of bicycles to men and focus primarily on aesthetics with women. Not only are women interested in knowing about the technical side of bikes, but they can’t make an informed bicycle purchase decision without knowing whether the bike is designed to suit their purpose and riding style. Unless the store employs female sales people, there is often no one to ask about practical issues which face female cyclists. This is particularly true for new cyclists who may not know how to approach certain issues which are unique to women.

Why bike shops and the marketing of cycling products is geared so heavily towards men is unclear. It may have something to do with the fact that men make up the majority of the market. In America, profit trumps all, and women are an uncertain market for cycling products.

But, if too few companies take the risk of catering to women’s needs, very few women will be drawn into cycling, and the trend of women’s underrepresentation will continue. Bike shop owners and managers should reexamine their stores in terms of how welcoming or unwelcoming they are to female shoppers. Hiring more female sales people and carrying more products of interest to female cyclists would be a good way to increase business and make cycling more appealing to women.

Until more women begin to make cycling a regular part of their lives, we’ll never know why they weren’t participating. We need more women’s voices in cycling, both with respect to equipment needs and infrastructure preferences. More women must step forward to lead the way, or we’ll have difficulty implementing the changes they need to find cycling a suitable form of transportation. And in order for them to do that, we must make a concerted effort to create a more hospitable cycling environment.

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15 Responses to Could Bike Shops and Bicycle Marketing Be Contributing to the Paucity of Female Cyclists?

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  2. Marianna says:

    While I think the child-transport issue (and to a lesser extent, the heels issue) are important things to address, and probably keep some women from cycling, I don’t think they’re exactly leading causes – but what do I know.

    For me, it was the safety issue that kept me off a bike at first. I had friends who worked at bike shops, so shops didn’t intimidate me at first, but a) MANY of my female friends are and were. I had a friend who stopped riding because she was terrified to go to the shop to fix a flat – I had to send her to Hub, which is woman-run. b) since my initial forays for lights and helmets, I have started to feel the bike shop burden…because you go in, often get treated like you’re clueless, and then maybe ave to ask a male worker about saddle/chamois issues or learn that they don’t have any bikes small enough for you, or bikes for women that aren’t beach cruisers. Or they carry one line of women’s shorts, and they don’t reorder sizes when they run out. I could go on.

    • Marianna says:

      also it’s just a tough issue, because there are plenty of women who think that MOAR DUTCH BIKES are the answer, and that’s a valid opinion too. I just wanted a <47cm bike that I could actually lift, and it was hard to find!

    • “since my initial forays for lights and helmets, I have started to feel the bike shop burden…because you go in, often get treated like you’re clueless, and then maybe ave to ask a male worker about saddle/chamois issues or learn that they don’t have any bikes small enough for you, or bikes for women that aren’t beach cruisers.”

      I spend quite a bit of time in bike shops and have observed things like what you describe. Once, I was visiting a bike shop with a friend. I was looking for replacement pins for my chain tool and she didn’t want to wait around with me while an employee searched the parts room to find the ones I needed.

      She was interested in buying a new road bike, so she wandered off to look at frames. A salesman came up to her and asked if she was the mother of a small child who was standing alone in the store. When she said “no,” he walked away without even asking her if she needed assistance with the frames. She was very angry because she felt that he only saw her as someone’s mother and not as a serious cyclist (which she was). What’s worse, when she pointed this out to the store manager, he didn’t see a problem.

  3. Erica says:

    It kind of enrages me a little that childcare has to be one of the reasons why women are less drawn to cycling (and I agree it’s probably one of the big reasons why fewer women cycle). Why aren’t these men worrying about how to portage their children? Why isn’t the men’s side of the bike store equally (or at all) stocked with cargo bikes and trailers and child seats? But that goes into unfair division of child-rearing labor and gender roles and all kinds of big-picture issues that won’t be solved in my lifetime.

    I think a “dude culture” is absolutely the biggest problem, though. Unfortunately, cycling is still seen as only a sport in most of the US, and as such tend to staff their stores with athletic males, or athletes in general, and nothing against folks who love their sport but I find that intimidating. I have noticed that stores that seem to cater more to commuters (such as Baltimore Bicycle Works in my city) are far more comfortable and usually have step-thru or mixtes displayed just as prominently as diamond frames. Not all cities have commuter-centric shops, though, and they aren’t much help for a woman who really does want a racing bike.

    But like you said, money does rule everything, so it’s going to be hard to convince a shop to hire more women or carry a wider variety of lady-cycling gear if we don’t have the numbers to support that. So it’s also up to us to not give up on cycling and, as much as we can, patronize the small shops who do see fit to carry more than one or two Dutch bikes in the back.

    • “I have noticed that stores that seem to cater more to commuters (such as Baltimore Bicycle Works in my city) are far more comfortable and usually have step-thru or mixtes displayed just as prominently as diamond frames. Not all cities have commuter-centric shops, though, and they aren’t much help for a woman who really does want a racing bike.”

      Yes, it seems to be an either/or situation when bike shops make decisions about the focus of the store and what products they will carry for women. In my area, most shops cater to either athletes or recreational cyclists, without much consideration for commuting. The former cater mostly to men, and the latter cater to students (due to the large number of colleges in the Boston area) or urban cyclists.

  4. I’m a guy. I own Bicycle Habitat in NYC. If you know of women who want to work in a bike store please send them my way. 3 of our 7 managers are women. One co manages our Brooklyn store. 35% of our employees are women.
    Our women staff shape our product selection, they have free reign to purchase porduct at the annual dealer show in Las Vegas. They speak frequently with our suppliers and those shaping our suppliers ‘women’ direction. They help tune the male attitudes in the shop.
    So far most of the respondants are focussed on ‘dutch’ bikes for women, we have them but we also have road, mountain and street bikes specifically designed for women. The women’s cycling market is quite large and exciting and we are glad to be a part of it.

    • From what you say, it sounds as if bike shops in NYC are leading the way in making cycling more accessible to women. In many cities, the shops are predominantly run by men who choose all of the products, with what appears to be little input from women.

      Until I started doing research on gender statistics in commuting, I was unaware of the imbalance between the number of male and female commuters (75% of commuters are men) because I see a lot of female cyclists in my area. Maybe if your female managers and employees networked with other women in the bike industry, they could encourage more women to work in bicycle retailing, and the way you’re running your store would become the norm.

  5. matt says:

    >Why bike shops and the marketing of cycling products is geared so heavily towards men is unclear. It may have something to do with the fact that men make up the majority of the market. In America, profit trumps all, and women are an uncertain market for cycling products.

    lol if this turns into an anticapitalism rant I’m gonna hurl

    • cycler says:

      I personally think that the “market” for cycling should be all people, and last time I checked women were half that market. The people who are actually cycling may be majority male, but in order for cycling to be taken seriously as a transportation choice and not just a recreational activity, it will need to develop such that it addresses the market of all people who need transportation.

      Retailers who ignore the female half of the market are throwing away a real market opportunity. Women may be an “uncertain market” for sport cycling, but shops like Clever cycles and Adeline Adeline have had incredible success in marketing specifically to women and families.

  6. Pingback: The 30 mph LAPD fail, Sunday’s CicLAvia and L.A. bike politics from the 1890’s « BikingInLA

  7. William Furr says:

    My wife likes going in to Bikes Not Bombs’ shop in JP. About half the staff are female, and they’re all very approachable and friendly.

  8. Night Rider says:

    I’m a female rider in NYC. Although I agree that this city is probably farther ahead of the crowd in terms of women’s cycling, I have to side with some of the other posts also, especially this:

    It kind of enrages me a little that childcare has to be one of the reasons why women are less drawn to cycling (and I agree it’s probably one of the big reasons why fewer women cycle). Why aren’t these men worrying about how to portage their children? Why isn’t the men’s side of the bike store equally (or at all) stocked with cargo bikes and trailers and child seats? But that goes into unfair division of child-rearing labor and gender roles and all kinds of big-picture issues … I think a “dude culture” is absolutely the biggest problem, though.

    I’m not a mother (nor will I be one) and I don’t care for cruisers and Dutch vintage-looking things. Last year I went bike shopping for my first new ride (I had a vintage Nishiki Mixte before that was wonderful, but rusty and had old-age issues). I wanted something light, fast but not a road bike (I don’t like the position), and inexpensive (under $700).

    Going into bike shops, even here in NYC, wasn’t my favorite experience. I asked biker friends and researched online beforehand, because I knew the dudes in shops couldn’t be counted on to point me in the right direction. Sorry guys, but it’s true: even after I did the research and walked in knowing enough about specs and bike types, I still got comments like “You should bring a male friend with you because other shops will try to up-sell stuff to you” and “You want a bike you can ride in a skirt!” …Seriously.

    However, if you’re a lady and you want to buy a bike… research online first! Walk into the shop knowing what you’re talking about at least to a degree. Be able to talk confidently and assertively with the dude selling you stuff, and it’ll be a better experience.

    • However, if you’re a lady and you want to buy a bike… research online first! Walk into the shop knowing what you’re talking about at least to a degree. Be able to talk confidently and assertively with the dude selling you stuff, and it’ll be a better experience.

      This is good advice. Women (and men) should do research online before setting foot in a bike shop. Not only is it useful for finding the right bike, but it’s also a good way to evaluate how knowledgeable and honest the salespeople are. If a female shopper feels that she is being taken advantage of, due to perceptions about her ignorance, she should walk out and find a shop where she is treated more respectfully.

      (BTW, I fixed the blockquote in the comment above to make it more coherent.)

  9. Night Rider says:

    Whoops, forgot to finish my block-quote. Meant to quote this:

    It kind of enrages me a little that childcare has to be one of the reasons why women are less drawn to cycling (and I agree it’s probably one of the big reasons why fewer women cycle). Why aren’t these men worrying about how to portage their children? Why isn’t the men’s side of the bike store equally (or at all) stocked with cargo bikes and trailers and child seats? But that goes into unfair division of child-rearing labor and gender roles and all kinds of big-picture issues … I think a “dude culture” is absolutely the biggest problem, though.

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