You are here

Women Lag…But How Far?

Published August 1, 2011

Ray Keener: OK, I’ve gotten in trouble before writing about the Gender Gap in cycling, so I’ve brought in a partner, Diane Lees from The Outspoken Cyclist in Cleveland, Ohio, to share the heat. 


Diane and I both got stirred up by a critical article in Oregon Business magazine that came out this week, basically saying that women get a raw deal in the bike realm. 

So before we address the core issue: How much progress have women made, in cycling and in the industry? I’d like to provide a bit of perspective. 

Cycling is a male-dominated sport and industry. At the lowest levels of participation, who buys bikes at Wal-Mart, for example, the numbers are 50/50. 

And the longer the rides get, and the more the bikes cost, the more the audience skews toward men. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 75/25 for Enthusiast cyclists, 90/10 within our industry. 

Why is this? I’ve speculated at length in the past, for the sake of getting to Diane’s thoughts, here are (briefly) the three reasons I believe are driving the Gender Gap: 

1. Mechanics. Bicycles are mechanical. Men like to hang out in the garage and tinker with gears and get their hands dirty. Women not so much.

Look at running: 53% of the runners were women in this year’s Bolder Boulder (over 50,000 participants). No gear. No grime.

2. Safety. Guys, ask yourself: Have you ever even thought about being attacked or accosted on a solo bike ride? I know I haven’t. Women sure need to.

When it comes to riding in traffic, women are more concerned about their safety there, too, according to a 2010 Bikes Belong/BLC survey.

Just one example: 36% of women said darkness discouraged them from commuting, only 6% of men.

3. Comfort. Bike seats work a lot better for male pelvic anatomy than for female. No matter how well-designed they are.

Basic frame geometry was designed around male bodies. If the Wright SISTERS had made bicycles, the wheels would have been smaller.

So my premise here: Cycling is more likely to appeal to males than females, and the more you’re into bikes, including a career, the more likely you are to be male. 

So before I turn Diane loose, two disclaimers: 
1) Yes, there are stereotypes here. Women like pink bikes better than black, and  some women like black better. Stereotypes exist for a reason: They’re usually true! 

2) It’s hard to be a woman in the bike industry. I’ve witnessed a lot of suffering and mistreatment in my 35+ years. I never mean to minimize that. 

So on that cheery note, take it, Diane! 

Diane Lees:  

Thanks Ray… here we go: 

When I read the article in the Oregon Business magazine, my fingers couldn’t type as fast as my brain was racing.    
First of all, is the statement that, “even in cycle-friendly Portland, [says Martocello], the male-dominated bike shop environment is quite a bit intimidating to women.” Let’s get real here in 2011 – women are only intimated if they let themselves be.  I’ve been in this business a long time, and today’s “modern woman” is far from being afraid of men.   
If someone is running a shop that is not inviting or friendly to women, shame on him/her.  It’s just not that difficult to convey to women that you are gender neutral.  My motto has been the same for three decades:  “Women want what men want; to be treated with respect and to be offered the same quality goods as services as men”.   It’s really that simple.   
WSD is a marketing hype and I would suggest most women figure that out pretty quickly.  It’s person specific.  The fact that marketing is trying to separate the genders has always been a mystery to me.  Women say they want equality – let’s give ‘em equality! 

Next, the “male-dominated bike shop environment”… this is an interesting and often difficult point to explain.   I would first postulate, that many, if not most, women don’t WANT to work in a bike shop – as owners or otherwise.  What’s the incentive to work here?    

Part of the issue is the technical aspect of the shop.  While more women are working as engineers, stock brokers, IT experts, and whatever other heretofore male dominated industry careers that have been traditionally filled by men, the bicycle business is hardly a “career” to most.  It isn’t as if “bicycle technician” is offered in the classroom or even suggested as a career path anywhere (at least I am not aware of any such “offering”.)  So, a woman who really wants to work in a bike shop has to step up and figure out how to “learn her trade.”  
I know there are technical programs – UBI and Barnett’s for example – but, frankly, the very best of the best have come to my shop with an inherent understanding of mechanical things and a “burning” desire to be around bicycles.  It’s what it takes to be the best. 
Let’s move on to the sexual harassment comment.  REALLY?  “You’re fired” is the only appropriate response – whether it’s male to female or female to male.  If someone is truly doing something that is both immoral and illegal, it’s not just your employees who aren’t safe – it’s your customers too.  

If a woman feels inadequate in purchasing her own bike, I have to blame some, if not most of that on her.  If she wants to feel equal, she should be willing to do the groundwork that it takes to learn about what she is purchasing.  She will research the things she wants for her home; she will test drive her own new car; but, if she won’t put the time and effort into the bicycle she wants to buy (and subsequently depend upon for the great experience that she COULD have) I say, shame on her.   

So, we’re back to the question –  “why so few women”?  Maybe the answer is – it’s not as few as one might think.  It is true that women are not as comfortable riding on the road – alone or with their kids; and, they may not be comfortable working IN a bike shop.  However, women pretty much dominate the bicycle advocacy segment – it is where their interests lie and they are good at it.  So, they are helping to change  and improve infrastructure and finding ways to contribute to the bicycle industry in their own ways.   

Okay, I’m done. For now.

Ray Keener: Thanks, Diane, that’s powerful stuff. While there’s no doubt that we live in a male-dominated culture in many ways, the gap is closing. And sometimes, the shoe is on the other foot! 

I recently made a nervous pilgrimage to the local fabric store. Now THERE’S a FEMALE-dominated environment! As a guy who doesn’t really understand that world (my mom taught my sisters how to sew but not me), I am totally intimidated walking into the store.  

How do I buy fabric? OK, I like this one. How wide is it? What do I do to buy it? And there are no signs. And when I ask my “stupid questions,” I get eye-roll and toe-tap. 

It’s like this in all specialty retail, methinks. Really experienced, knowledgeable people who know what’s what, trying to help, and intimidating, those who don’t.  

This is not an original thought with me: Maybe it’s more of a knowledge issue than a gender issue. Maybe both women AND men who don’t know a disc brake from a Frisbee are intimidated coming into shops? 

Diane’s right, consumers have a responsibility to bone up a little and know enough to be responsible for their own purchases. It’s not like the information is hard to find anymore. 

And we, as an industry, have a responsibility to consumers to meet them at their level. The whole “educational selling”  thing drives me a bit crazy. I think it’s just plain wrong to try to “educate” a rank beginner about bike technology. 

They don’t need to know that to buy the right bike and have a good time. Talk to them about what’s important to THEM: Comfort, safety, cool new places to ride in your area, getting their kids and spouses started, events, accessories to make riding more fun! What color they like best. Not what frames are made of.  

They don’t care about carbon fiber. And they don’t really want to spend the time to find out, either. As eloquent as your explanation might be! 

Diane Lees:  

I agree with Ray that we need to “qualify”  our customers.  It doesn’t mean “talk down to them”; rather, it means meeting them on their level and then helping to elevate them by being informative and helpful.  No one likes a condescending sales or service person.  And, there’s an inherent sense of someone who needs to do that – making someone else either wrong or stupid – as having some inadequacy him/herself.  It’s the eye-rolling that Ray talks about – what’s up with that?   
So, have we “come a long way baby”?  Yes, I think we have.  Women are savvy and they’re smart.  The fact that we haven’t “demanded” more is somewhat indicative of a patience of a sort.  We’re used to having to wait for what we want.  And, I think that is a very female way of being.  Perhaps at the teenage and young adult stages there is still that need to “rush out and get the next thing”.  But, that fades as tastes mature and what becomes more important is having what you both want and need. 

Progress is being made.  Manufacturers like Terry, who make products for women and, by the way, a few products for men – have somewhat reversed the stereotypical idea that we’ll add pink and it’ll do for women.  But, they don’t do it in a flashy, look-at-me sort of way.  The products are practical and well engineered.

I would also say that virtually everyone is very aware of the women’s market – more so than ever.  The pendulum, which swung way to the X-side is now swinging back and will settle out with more equality in product that isn’t so obviously “girlie” looking.  Again, a maturity is setting in and rightly so.

As a whole, the industry IS a male dominated one.  It is a fact that is undeniable.  What is helping to make it more “gender neutral” though is this burst of activity outside of the usual racing scene that has dominated the bicycle business for so many years.  And, slowly, manufacturers are truly seeing a way to reach the women who they hope will buy their products.  They are beginning to appeal to “what women want” because they are paying attention.  

I’ve always said that I don’t “sell” bicycles – what I do is to provide the space and opportunity for a customer to come in and “buy” a bicycle.  It’s a mental and even physical shift in attitude and space.  From the interior store space – layout, signage, lighting, cleanliness, and spaciousness – to the friendly and genuinely interested sales and service professional, I want to offer a customer an experience she will be happy to take with her. 

Stepping down off the soapbox now. 

Join the Conversation