Can a road be sexist?

Can a road be sexist?

Following on from the last post, here’s another idea I’d like to float, and it’s one that may sound a bit silly: our roads are actually a bit sexist.

Actually, that needs qualifying. I’m going to try to make the case that roads have a clear gender bias for one particular group of women: cyclists.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Discriminatory, sexist behaviour can be characterised by withholding opportunities, putting up barriers, or unfairly advantaging one or more persons based on their gender. I shouldn’t think this needs any further explanation. We are quite familiar with this idea as it is applied to nearly every aspect of our lives, but we are most familiar with it in the workplace. It is unfair, and in many cases, unlawful, to deny someone open access to an opportunity based on their gender.

So let’s apply this to our roads, and in particular, cycling on them.

Equal access to transport

Everyone can drive. Unless there is an incredibly unsuccessful ploy at foot to keep women from getting driving licenses and police unfairly targeting women for fines and infringements (which statistically, is usually quite the opposite), then I think we can agree that driving presents no barrier to one gender over the other. Correct me if I’m wrong, but women don’t typically ever feel discouraged from getting in a car and going wherever they want.

Everyone can take public transport. Again, it’s as convenient for men as it is women (using 2012 stats, 19% of women used public transport compared to 13% of men), and about as safe (though late-night travels may be less than comfortable when traveling alone and walking to and from the transit stop may present some concern at unsocial hours, at least there is a bus or tram driver present to mitigate most situations while using public transport).

Everyone can walk. With the exception of some dark and isolated paths, women have the same access to safe pedestrian spaces that men do. Again, statistically, in the U.S. women make up half of those who walk. I can’t find any statistics for Australia, apart from the fact that those choosing to walk to work has gone down to less than 4%, but there is no breakdown in terms of gender. I’ll assume it’s about the same as the U.S.

Everyone can bike. Right? Well, yeah, technically, but now we have some vastly different statistics to work with.

Cycling is the only mode of transportation that, by the physical space that is provided for it as well as the legal governance of it, actually deters not just many people in general from using it, but many more women in particular.

As discussed in the last post, women are generally underrepresented in most countries’ mode-share for cycling by a ratio of usually around 1-2 to 1-4, except in countries that truly prioritize safe conditions for cycling. This imbalance is unique among all other modes of transportation, which are not provided for in a way that dissuades a particular group of people from using it.

If a particular roadway had a level of safety that caused anywhere from 50% to 80% of motorists choosing to avoid it, there is absolutely no doubt that the authorities would address it. If for whatever reason a road was so particularly unnerving that it caused most female motorists to avoid using it (say, all the other cars were displaying their dominance over them, or men were approaching them at red lights and making them feel extraordinarily uncomfortable, even unsafe), that would garner some attention.

Yet this is the case for cycling. Cycling is an unfair mode of transportation. I don’t think it would ever occur to most people to frame the discussion of roads in this way (the idea had certainly never occurred to me up until two days ago), but roads are a public service, and should offer fair access to all.

(So, my wife was just mentioning this to me: one way women have been conditioned in our society is to keep out-of-the-way. Make yourself small. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself. On the road, on a bike, and exposed, she constantly felt pushed around and unsafe and felt the pressure to retreat. To get out-of-the-way. This may not effect as many men in the same way, potentially, because men have not been socialized in the same way. This is part of the reason that the last time she got on her bike was about 4 years ago, after having cycled consistently for the previous 20. In fact, I sold her bike a few months ago, because she was officially done with it.)

Really? Sexist?

But what about ability? Why doesn’t ability count as a legitimate reason for eliminating someone from an opportunity? Take a job like a firefighter, for example. That job requires a certain amount of brawn and stamina to execute at a sufficient level, and that favours the physiology of men by default. Surely that is a legitimate reason?

Similarly, anyone can cycle on public roads, but if you lack the ability or stomach for it, then isn’t that just your problem? Nobody is saying that you can’t do it because you are a woman!?

Well, not so fast.

In the case of a firefighter, there are specific tasks that require a certain amount of strength. The tasks are non-negotiable. The inability to perform these tasks can simply be the fact that a female applicant did not have the strength required. In the case of cycling, a woman is just as able to cycle as a man. The ability to perform the task is not in question.

The environment that the task is performed in must then be the issue. The cycling part is no problem, but rather, cycling in an environment that is hostile enough to decide that the task is not worth pursuing.

But wouldn’t that just the same problem in a different context? Couldn’t we now simply say that if a woman is mentally unable to shoulder the burden of cycling on intimidating roads, then that is again simply a matter of ability? They could still do it if they really wanted to, no?

Ok, so rather than using a firefighter as an example, let’s look at another example.

A woman is up for a promotion in a workplace. She is both physically and mentally qualified to perform the job, and is in fact the best candidate. She is given the job, but the male dominated workplace, who would rather have things their way, becomes hostile to the woman in her new position. The job is still hers, but the indirect intimidation and underlying hostility escalates to the point that she decides that the job is not worth pursuing, and quits.

It doesn’t even have to be on purpose. The men could actually be quite indifferent to the woman in her new role, but happen to have a habit of telling incredibly sexist jokes, putting up pictures of naked women on the office walls, and constantly asking her, their peer (never mind superior), to make them a cup of tea, love.

These are the roads as they may appear to a significant number of women who have decided that using a bike for public transport is just not worth it.

That’s sexist. And that’s one way to look at our roads when it comes to offering equal access to a public service.


p.s. I’m a guy, with a guy’s brain, so I can’t ever truly know whether I’m on to something here or if I’m way off base. So, ladies, what are your thoughts?


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