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.