Deb of Women BikeDC. Part 2: Woman on a Bike

We’re back with the second half of Deb’s Women BikeDC interview. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.

Today focuses on what it’s like for Deb as a woman who rides, and the reasons why some women might hesitate to take up bicycling. I found her discussion of identity and women’s ability to identify as cyclists particularly intriguing.

What is a word or phrase that summarizes your bicycling experience?

Empowering.

How does it feel to be a woman who rides in an area where women are less than 26% of the riding population?

For the most part I don’t notice this on a daily basis. I work in tech, so I’m pretty well used to being the lone woman. It is most noticeable when being mansplained, or actually when I see another woman on the bike because it is so rare! (I don’t see many other bike commuters in general.)

At bike shops, there can be quite a bit of attitude. “When you have more experience…” and I’m like “I’m past 40,000 miles, how much more experience do you think I need before I know my own preferences for setting up my own bike?!” I don’t get this at my current bike shop – shout out to the extremely commuter-friendly and women-friendly Spokes in Fairlingon! Yay for Ricky, Sam and Garrett!

What are the issues you deal with as a woman bicyclist, or is it something you think about?

As women in public space, we are subject to male commentary. Sometimes about our bodies (“Nice ass!”) or sometimes mansplaining (“Do you know your lights are on? You don’t need your lights on during the day,” by some wobbly little newbie).

Sometimes the comments are a type of condescending approval or encouragement that really irks me. The dude telling me as I go up Walter Reed “You can do it!” No shit. I’ve been riding up this hill daily for 7 years. I seriously doubt he’d give this kind of comment to a man riding up this hill.

As women we are seen as perpetual cycling infants. And this is attitude extremely obvious at some bike shops.

My advice to women and bike shops: shop around different bike shops. Some are staffed by condescending mansplainers. Others, like Spokes in Fairlington, are staffed by really wonderful people. If you aren’t treated with respect at a bike shop, find one where you get the service you deserve.

Deb4

What do you think prevents more women from riding/What are the barriers?

Oh boy. So many barriers! I feel like I’m the wrong person to ask, because I’ve never really fit into the typical mold of women anything. Tomboy growing up, grew up into a tech field where I’m one of the guys (except not)…I feel like I’m out of touch with what prevents women from riding!

Shout out to Elly Blue who has done a lot to educate me on a variety of issues with regards to women in cycling. She’s the one you should be talking to about this! But I’ll do my best…

1. Safety concerns – I don’t want to say this is specific to women, because I hear the same comments from most men as well, about safety. Every single coworker who has ever asked about my bike commute (man or woman) has started with “so you have trails…?” And they are pretty universally horrified when I tell them that there are no trails, just roads and sometimes bike lanes.

But I definitely get the feeling that I am an outlier in general in terms of my willingness to take on roads like Van Dorn (which I didn’t at first, I rode 1.5 miles around it! I only started taking Van Dorn when construction closed my other option for a few weeks.) – and especially an outlier as a woman.

Men have a reputation for being less safety conscious. Is that true? I don’t honestly know, but there are real statistics about the percentage of women cyclists dropping off precipitously outside of areas with solid bike infrastructure.

But…is it only safety concerns? It could be that women living in suburbs have other reasons that biking isn’t an option as compared to women in cities.

2. Time / distance constraints – One of the things that Elly Blue brings up is that women often take on the bulk of the childcare / child transportation duties. This puts a distinct time constraint on your activities. Add in living in suburbs where everything spreads out? The distances you have to travel become a constraint of their own.

When I volunteered at a bike light giveaway one year, as we added lights for some of the men who stopped by, their wives also stopped by in their minivans. This perfectly illustrates what Elly Blue was describing, though in these cases the men were riding due to financial constraints (family could only afford one car).

But at my last location I had a couple coworkers who lived about a mile away, whose kids are grown, and they still drove that mile to work. They would have had to ride a road that had a lot of construction / landscaping trucks driving by. So that goes back to safety. Would they have driven if they’d been a mile down a path like the W&OD? Maybe they would have. But maybe not.

3. Hair/makeup – Is this really a thing? I get the idea that it is. I’ve had at least one woman tell me that she hated wearing helmets because of her hair. And she was talking about riding to the gym!

When riding to work, if you are the kind of person who does their hair (I am not!) then this is going to be a concern, or at least something that has to be dealt with.

Now you are not only taking the time to ride instead of drive (and in the suburbs it is very common for a ride to take much longer than a drive — my 18 mile commute would be only 20 minutes by car, barring construction or accidents), you have to leave time to do your hair and/or makeup, change clothes, etc. It adds up, and maybe you just won’t feel you look at sharp when getting ready in a workplace bathroom as opposed to at home.

Not everyone is going to be comfortable walking into their workplace when they don’t look professional and put together. (So maybe I was too quick to say showers don’t matter in the previous post. Not so much for the showers, but presumably having a gym/locker area you could hit before getting to where your coworkers expect to see you looking professional.) Women are judged more harshly by their appearance in the workplace than men are, from what studies have shown us.

4. Identity – The other three are valid, no question, but sometimes I think that identity is the biggest barrier of all. Women just don’t as readily identify as cyclists.

Men don’t identify women as cyclists either. Real interaction at work– Man: “Oh, you’re the bike commuter! I thought you were a middle aged white man!”

I’ve had women at stop lights tell me I’m inspiring, or that I’m awesome. It has always seemed like a bit of an overreaction to someone who’s just riding her bike, but maybe it’s not. Maybe for them I’ve established a brand new potential identity for them, one that they never considered or thought was available before?

A friend down in the Harrisonburg area is a competitive triathlete. Her daughter believed for a while that men weren’t athletes (even though her dad runs marathons), that it was primarily a woman’s thing.

To me, that highlights the issue of identity. My friend’s daughter would never hesitate to identify as an athlete – runner, triathlete, cyclist, or whatever. And that is because of her mom, and the example she has grown up with. So identity can be a huge influence on what we do or don’t do, what we think we can do, and what we are comfortable doing (what identity we wear).

Thank you again, Deb, for sharing your observations and experiences with us. One day, I hope we meet in real life!

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