familygreen2.gif (5638 bytes)

wpe6.jpg (9625 bytes)

  A Web-site for Everyday Bicyclists.

Page One Site Map Feed Back Questions???
  Bicycling Life

Page One

About Our Site

News And Views

Issues & Editorials

Bicycling "How-To"s

Solutions for Little Problems,
Adjustments, and Repairs.

Practical Cycling

Using Bikes in Everyday Life
Commuting & Errands

Touring & Recreation

Cycling for Fun & Health

Safety Skills

Street Smarts for Bicyclists
Safety Issues

Effective Advocacy

Advancing Cycling Issues
Getting Involved

Library

Position Papers
Research and
Source Documents

Links

 

 

Where Are The Women?

 

More specifically, Where Are the Women Cyclists?

I've been meaning to pose this question for a long time. In reviewing studies and statistics, surveys and sales info, it has become rather apparent that cycling is very much predominantly a male activity.

Or so I thought.

pe02595_.wmf (33748 bytes)

I took a little survey of my own last week counting male and female cyclists that I encounter on my route. I was surprised to find that the women outnumbered the men by three to one. It was a bright sunny day, the first after a long spell of rain. During the rain I might see one or two cyclists on my route, but that week there were dozens.

So where did I get the idea that cycling was predominantly male? Well, several noted research papers on cyclists, while setting out to gather other facts, had incidentally reported gender statistics. A few of these are listed below and I am sure a quick review of other research will yield similar numbers.

Source

Percent Male

A survey of North American Bicycle Commuters - By Professor Bill Moritz

81%

Adult Bicyclists in the US, a study by Professor Bill Moritz.

80%

Bicycle Safety Practices: Cyclists and Educators, a study by George Mason University

74%

Internet Survey by the ICEBIKE web site in the winter of 98/99

94%

Two of these sources might be dismissed because they had self-selected participants, and were conducted in whole or in part over the Internet. Males, at the time of these surveys constituted about 60 to 75 percent of Internet users. This would seem to imply that an Internet conducted survey would tend to be overwhelmingly male. However, the two suspect surveys (the first and last listed above) tend to be in agreement with the other two, so perhaps the Internet can't be blamed for this phenomena, as it garners blame for every other malady of modern society.

(While on the subject of the Internet, at any given point in time, you can count posts in any of the bicycle oriented newsgroups, such as any of those in the rec.bicycles hierarchy, and you can expect to see in excess of 95% of the postings that are gender specific to be from males. While some women post under male names to avoid harassment, not all do.)

The other two studies (Adult Bicyclists, and Bicycle Safety Practices) had random selection of participants, or were observation based, where all cyclists at a given time span and place were observed.

So, there does seem to be fairly substantial evidence that cycling is predominantly a male activity, especially cycling as a principal means of transportation. This may well be changing, based on my observations in the summer of '99, (and a casual perusal of the amount of space dedicated to women's clothing articles in popular bicycle catalogs. Catalogs allocate space based on sales.)

Why is this so?

Let's examine some of the supposed reasons that women might not be interested in bicycles to the degree men are. Some of these are clearly patronizing male views, others are actually expressed by many women.

Techno-Intimidation

One would think initially that a bicycle would be viewed by women as a basically "friendly" technology, especially by those growing up in an era when girls were just beginning to be encouraged to take up the mechanical sciences, (or at least not actively discouraged).  The generation that included Sally Ride can not have been as prone to gender-based career decisions as their parents. 

Alas, it seems that as long as the machinery is covered with sheet-metal even the most mechanically inept, whether male or female, consider themselves fully qualified to operate it. But the mere suggestion that you have to get your hands dirty and actually touch that oily chain is enough to turn off a lot of folks, more women than men it would seem.

Bicycles tend to be a high maintenance device.  Few people would put up with an automobile that required as much maintenance per hour of use as does your typical bicycle.   Fortunately this maintenance is trivial, and easily mastered.  Most of the women riders I know who ride more than just around the park on sunny weekends do most of the maintenance themselves.  Quite a few more have their "significant other" perform the complex tasks, but handle the oiling, and cleaning, and tire inflation.   Unfortunately, that still leaves the vast majority of women, who will have nothing to do with bicycle maintenance, or maintenance of any other mechanical device.

Fear of Attack

Another occasionally expressed reason for bicycling attracting such a small percentage of females is fear of attack in remote places.  Driving through a dark neighborhood in a car with locked doors gives a sense of security hard to match on a bicycle.

This is not entirely an unfounded fear.  Women do report a certain amount of harassment while riding, usually in the form of remarks shouted from passing cars.   Occasionally some redneck will attempt to reach out the window and slap the fanny of a cyclist as he passes.  One women posted on a bicycling news group that she saw an attempt materializing in her cycling mirror and hit the brakes at the critical instant causing the would-be slapper to break his arm on the window frame of the car.  Even if apocryphal, the story is somewhat satisfying.  Even if improbable, it points out the cyclists are not entirely defenseless against such attacks.  Most cyclists are far more fit than would-be attackers.

Not every commute is through unsafe areas, and not all areas that appear unsafe really are.  Poor neighborhoods are not necessarily, in fact, not often, violence-prone areas.  Nevertheless, this fear does register on many women, and can't be easily dismissed.  If you doubt this, simply visit some female bicycling forums such as the "Bluedirt" Forum on Bicycleforum.com, or Biker Girls Forum at Library.Advanced.Org.

Vanity

I know well-educated women in medical careers who will not ride a bicycle because they have been taught that riding without a helmet is dangerous, but riding with one causes "helmet hair".  To me, it is inconceivable that a hair style should dictate a life style.  I think life is a lot more fun when you don't live for your hair.   A simpler hair style saves a lot of time, not to mention money.

Wrinkled clothes are another often used excuse.  Commuting by bike means that the $180 pant suit might have to travel in the panniers to work, and the amount of time needed   to apply makeup and salvage the windblown hair is more than some women want to spend.

The desire to where stylish cloths and present a professional image while on the job is not unreasonable.  Letting that desire rule the rest of your life is.  Soon you are convinced you need a two car garage just to park your $30,000 single passenger Sport Utility Vehicle so that you can arrive at work without a wrinkle.  What price vanity?

I've often heard the excuse "I have to deal with the public, so I can't ride a bike".   This is often followed by a discussion about arriving "all sweaty".  Many men and women voice this concern, perhaps because, for someone who does not ride regularly, even five miles is enough to work up a sweat, especially if you're late for work.

Ill Fitting Equipment

The bicycle industry only recently has discovered the difference in relative proportions of body length above and below the belt in men and women.   Women tend to have longer legs and shorter torsos than men. This means the bike has to be shorter from seat to handle bars, which leads to design problems such as the front tire overlapping the pedals.  This can be dangerous, so bikes are generally not designed with the required short top tube.  As a result many standard bike frames are a poor fit for many women.

No company has done more to publicize (and capitalize on) this fact than Terry Bicycles.  The company was founded by a women and specializes in women's bikes, many models with a smaller front wheel (24 inch) to accommodate the short top-tube.  Other companies have tried other means, to make their designs a better fit for women, with varying success.

Exercise Avoidance

It used to be "un-lady like" to exercise in any way.  Those days are gone.  Women are out running, walking, playing tennis, baseball and soccer in numbers greater than ever before.

The fears of developing muscle, (not so long ago a common excuse expressed by women) has disappeared, and muscle is in fashion.  That most men like the looks of   women who are physically fit is probably not as important as the fact the women like the looks (not to mention the functionality) of their won body with a little muscular development.

Walk by the spinning room in any health club and you will see more women than men working up a sweat on stationary bikes, with a "leader" calling the jumps.   Surely, I thought, this would bring more women out on the road on bikes.  It's too soon to tell, but I suspect that for many of these women, spinning "classes" on fixed bikes may have simply confirmed their suspicion that bicycles are a good way to get nowhere and arrive sweaty.

Too, the realization that a little head wind makes a dramatic difference suddenly dawns on the spinner the first time out on the road.  Cyclists who were cyclists first and spinners second realize this and generally work much harder in class than those just there to burn a few calories.  The rude awakening probably discourages a certain number of people, men and women from any real consideration of bicycling as a form of transportation.

Women Don't "Do Surveys"

Or course there is another possibility. Perhaps women just don't appear in many of the published surveys because they don't want to, or the surveys are conducted by men, or, as alluded earlier, women are under-represented in the media upon which some of these surveys are conducted.  One women, in a response to a question on the Icebike Mailing list about why there were so few women on the Icebike Survey stated her opinion that women just don't do surveys.  (The editors of several women's magazines would be surprised to hear this.)   Indeed women do show up more on the observation-based surveys than any of the questionnaire format surveys, but women amount to only 25% of participants in even the most balanced of surveys.


No Reliable Figures

Bike stores report that they see at least 50% of bike purchases by women.

Bicycle magazines focus the vast majority of their advertising at men.

Somewhere there is a major disconnect.

The roads in some areas are full of commuters, club riders and casual cyclists.   In most published counts, these cyclists are mostly male.  But no survey based on observation has enough depth to cover any significant amount of the available routes and hours.

Perhaps the unscientific head counts that I do on my daily commute ARE indicative of the true numbers, and the published material is all out of date.  Perhaps more head counts are in order.  Do this on your next ride:  Count the number of males and females you encounter on bikes. Count in good weather. Count in bad.  How do the ratios hold up?

Future

I see more women on bikes in my area than ever before.  Five years ago there was exactly one.  She's still out there.  She's brought her friends.  Times are changing..

P.Scott Martin said "Bicycles are the indicator species of healthy communities, like shellfish in a bay". The arrival of women in increasing numbers says something good.  About bicycling, and about women.

 

 

By John Andersen

 

Cycling Sites for Women

BlueDirt

Biker Girls

Wombats

Terry Bicycles

 

Home About This Site Email the Editor Submissions Sponsors
08/16/11
Copyright 1999 Bicycling Life Website.