Women make up slightly more than half of the general population yet appear to be significantly under-represented in social, recreational commuting and racing cycling circles. Why don’t more women ride? Are we women (and don’t call us girls!) afraid of some or all aspects of cycling? Are we overawed, as a number of men on this forum have suggested, by faster male riders? Does the perceived lack of availability of women-specific cycling gear discourage us from having a go? Or is there no simple, single answer to the question of why there are fewer female cyclists than men?
I’m sure we have all heard it said that cycling is intimidating for women and that’s why more women don’t ride. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a reasonable place to start. To intimidate means to frighten or overawe someone or to induce a sense of inferiority in another person. So if intimidation is the culprit, we need to know if women who ride, or who want to ride, are frightened, overawed, or made to feel inferior, and if so, by whom?
I could argue that people are only intimidated when they allow themselves to feel that way. A woman may be nervous about going to her local bike shop and asking “dumb” questions. She may put off going and build up the event in her mind until she is convinced that the shop staff will think she is “just another bloody woman”. Such a person (it could be a woman or a man) has allowed themself to become intimidated by something that hasn’t even happened yet and may not happen. As a cycling forum member put it: “It might be nerve-wracking, but it should never be intimidating.”
Cycling is booming in Australia and is attracting men and women across all disciplines
Photo: Mark Haughton Photography
But that only addresses one side of the argument. The other side of the intimidation equation is those who intimidate. Sometimes that intimidation is unconscious and unintended, but it is as equally unconscionable as deliberate intimidation.
For example, men who refer to adult females as ‘girls’ are using language to place themselves above women. Men who “look after” women cyclists by telling them how to ride or by telling them that they are “quick for a woman” are asserting their male superiority. Men who take over and fix punctures or put a chain back on the cogs are claiming greater mechanical ability by virtue of their gender. These types of behaviours are not likely to frighten anyone, but they can certainly “induce a sense of inferiority in another person” and that is one definition of intimidation.
In my experience, these men believe that they are being helpful and they don’t consciously intend to intimidate women. Take, for example, the male Australian cycling forum member who argued that “the physiological differences between the sexes would be demoralizing and possibly intimidating to women” because women could never ride as fast as men. He was attacked by other forum members who said that the issue of finding a bunch of the right speed affected men as well as women. Although this forum member apologised and pointed that he really did support women’s cycling and had just expressed himself poorly, I still argue that these types of behaviours do overawe women and can make us feel inferior to those men and, by definition, intimidated.
On the other hand, motorists who shout abuse at cyclists or make deliberate close passes are intentionally intimidating cyclists. Anti-cyclist Facebook pages, internet forums and comments on online news sites are most definitely intentionally intimidating. Bike shop staff who ignore or speak down to women are intimidating. In fact, the general layout of most bike shops that I have visited is off-putting to women because the bikes and clothes on display are mostly for men.
Yet almost all of these examples could equally apply to men. Men can worry about looking stupid when they go into a bike store and don’t know the name of a bike part. Men can feel intimidated at the prospect of riding with a new group for the first time and not knowing if they will be able to keep up or will be dropped.
The peloton for the women’s road race in the 2014 National Road Series in Adelaide
Photo: Mark Gunter Photography
So why are there more male cyclists than females? Are men more willing to deal with uncomfortable or intimidating situations? Are they able to fake it till they make it? Do we as a society encourage boys to ride more than girls? Is it simply a testosterone thing?
Journalists, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, recently released the results of their study into the “Confidence Gap” that exists between the sexes. They could easily be talking about cycling when they say “that there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”
Authors Claire Simpson and Katty Kay of The Confidence Gap
Clearly there are still barriers that prevent more women from taking up cycling and as a cycling community, it is up to all of us to identify and break down those barriers.
Australian pro cyclist, Rachel Neylan, says she hasn’t suffered gender intimidation in cycling but believes it’s easier for men to get into cycling through work and social groups.
“The best way to prevent intimidation in cycling is to gain respect of fellow riders, pedestrians, or motorists, whether you’re male or female. Prioritise safety, adhere to etiquette, obey road rules, and simply say hello!” Rachel said.
Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had were with a stranger on the road, striking a conversation starting with a simple greeting.”
Rachel Neylan was 2nd in the 2012 Women’s UCI World Road Championships in Holland
Rachel Neylan also recommended that new riders develop their confidence in bike handing, cycling road rules, and ride etiquette.
“Educate yourself on your equipment,” Rachel advised, “Knowing the basic mechanics of your bike will help. This can perhaps prevent becoming intimidated in certain situations.”
In the meantime, women cyclists would do well to heed the advice of another journalist, Sarah McDonald, who, in reporting on Shipman and Kay’s study, suggests that women should: “focus on strong will, courage, action and hard work to generate success and failure. And while we are there let us encourage other women and our daughters to try, to fail and to succeed.”
P.S. To the men who want to encourage women cyclists but don’t want to be seen as intimidating by their actions, the solution is simple. Treat and encourage other cyclists, male and female, young and old, the same. If you would say, “Nice riding mate” to a man, say it to a woman, don’t tell her that she is “fast for a girl.” If you would ask a man if he needed a hand replacing a punctured tube, then also ask a woman before taking over. And don’t tell the male partner of a female cyclist that HER bike needs oil – tell her!
Title Photo: Mark Haughton Photography