Mindful of the Gender Gap

By : Lowrah · March 21, 2012

"2012 is shaping up to be a big year for women on bikes."

Jonathan Maus, of bikeportland.org, took the words right out of my mouth. I feel exactly the same way about the solid trend focusing on the bicycle "gender gap" in American cities. It is no secret that there has been an increase in national interest in cycling and cycling infrastructure for at least the past 10 years, and in the last two years I have noticed people are paying more attention to WTFs on bicycles.

For years I have wondered about why places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen can have more women than men biking, whereas in the US the number is more like 23% of bike trips to work are made by women. Minneapolis should be proud to boast that 37% of all bike trips are attributed to women cyclists.* In 2009, I read an article in Scientific American Magazine that called women an "indicator species" regarding the health and vitality of a city's bicycling infrastructure. In otherwords, the closer the proportion of bike trips taken by women is to the actual proportion of women living in the city, the better the bike infrastructure. Causation is always the tricky part, and it is impossible to say whether safe, well-connected bike infrastructure brings the women to their bikes, or if it is the other way around. I suspect it is a bit of both.

Why does gender in bicycling matter? I believe that if there is such an unbalanced proportion of men and women participating in an activity that should be equally accessible, there is a problem. Maybe the problem is institutionalized gender discrimination, maybe it is caused by wage discrimination, or it is a reflection of the expectation and reality that women are responsible for the majority of childcare, maybe it is the perception of competition and aggression and "sport" of bicycling. The hardest part about trying to find a solution to the cycling gap is defining the problem. How do we start to break down barriers if we don't specifically know what they are? A big part of this complexity is the fact that we WTFs are not a homogeneous population, by any means.

Like Maus, I like the diverse voices speaking up to represent WTFs on bicycles.  Perhaps you've heard, "If you can't see it, you can't be it"? I think that more WTFs blogging about their unique situations and experiences in positive ways are going to encourage someone that is on the fence to come over to the bikey side. The more women/ brown/ queer/ trans/ mothers/ car-free/ voices we hear telling us we can do it, the better!

I believe the best way to get more WTFs on bikes and address closing the gender gap are in small, community-motivated initiatives.  The model for this kind of "grassroots" action is to see a need, get to know the community you are targeting, hopefully get someone from the community to take charge, and create something specific and unique to fill that need. When a neighborhood group or women's club asks for a primer in bike maintenance, I like to ask them if there is anything specific they want to learn, what kind of bikes they have, what kind of riding they like to do, and what their cycling goals are for the future. This means that I can give them exactly the information that they want and can use, and I know that they will show up and be enthusiastic because they WANT the information. This is in direct contrast to some events that I've set up "for WTF," where attendance was poor. I obviously misjudged the needs of the community.

One thing that really excites me about Grease Rag is that it is not an event that anyone defines or owns. Grease Rag is a model for something that anyone can do, anywhere. You know your community. Get some friends together, find out whether you want to learn more about mechanics, or go on rides together, or you'd like to teach others what you know. And then make it happen. It might sound intimidating but it really is that easy. The best part? If you need help or if you get overwhelmed or if you want to know what someone else has done to organize a group or event... you have friends through the Grease Rag. We are a fairly diverse group, with a variety of experiences and orientations. It is this diversity which makes us strong as a community, but hard to define as part of the "gender problem." If you've gone on a ride or to a Grease Rag and it wasn't your thing, try another location. Or make your own, because I guarantee you're not the only one that hasn't found just the right fit yet. By making your own thing, you're not making our mission weaker or diluting what we are doing, you're creating more opportunities for people like yourself. How wonderful!

This is certainly going to be a big year for WTFs on bicycles. Thank you to everyone that contributes, by riding your bike, encouraging others to ride, or offering support in other ways.

*23% of all cyclists in the US are women (Census data about commutes), 37% of cyclists in Minneapolis are women (Census Bureau's American Community Survey). For comparison, 55% of all bicycle trips in the Netherlands are by women, and 49% in Germany.

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