We shouldn't need women-focused bike shops

We shouldn’t need women-focused bike shops


Today I was planning on leaving you with something a bit lighter for the weekend, as I usually try to do, but it seems as though I have more thoughts about this than I thought, as I was originally just going to introduce the video and leave it at that. So, with some trepidation, I dip a toe into gender issues and cycling, with the help of Andrea Smith, who delivers this delightful talk about women and the cycling industry. She seems pretty cool, and so does her shop.

She makes some good points, and I like what she is all about. The bike industry is pretty male dominated, but I wonder if it is any more male dominated than many other areas of society? It’s a problem, but one that I’m not entirely comfortable with how the solution is often portrayed. The answer is often that we need more women-focused bike shops.

Let me be clear about this at the beginning – I think women-focused bike shops are a great idea, and serve an unfortunate gap in the market, but I disagree that it’s the required solution. The only solution.

I’m probably going to get a bit pedantic, a bit picky with the wording of some of the arguments, but I think it matters in the big picture. You’ll see what I mean (hopefully).

Let’s start with this statement:

“In many cases, the first point of contact for a new or returning rider is the experience she has when she first enters her local bike shop… Women report feeling patronized, dismissed, and even harassed at times by shop employees.”

Absolutely true, but is this really a bike shop issue? I mean, it may happen in bike shops, but is it not a societal issue just as patronizing, dismissing, or even harassing women, or children, or the elderly, or the poor, or those of different skin colour, is wrong in any context? Are we to assume that a women will be comfortable and happy in a bike shop simply because she is surrounded by women?

“Challenge assumptions about women and cycling”

What assumptions? If you take women, generally, and cycling, generally, then there are no issues. Women are just as capable of riding bikes in any context as men. To say otherwise would be ridiculous. The issues are completely unrelated to gender, and more related to people who feel more or less comfortable riding a bike in a given context (more tied to safety/infrastructure/laws), or, more generally, the same assumptions that society has about gender inequality in a broader context. What does cycling have to do with it?

“It’s almost more about helping women challenge their own assumptions about what’s possible for them on a bike or what they might be able to do and enjoy doing on a bike…”

Exactly. Again, this is a great service to provide for people and a nice confidence booster, but, other than a physiological difference between the genders, what, specifically, are women not able to do on a bike? If women have made assumptions that they are for some reason not able to ride a bike, and that has anything to do with simply being female, then that assumption most definitely needs to be challenged. And it’s probably best challenged by a women in most cases.

The fact that there are almost no women bike shop staff is a problem and more should be encouraged, but from what I have experienced, the percentage of women applying for positions compared to men is quite alarmingly lopsided (although I’m happy for anyone to correct me on that one). That there are only a small percentage of female applicants is likely a reflection on the poor state of the male-oriented culture in the bike industry, though there could be other reasons. I’m sure most women aren’t all that keen on working in an environment that might be described as “a bit of a boys club”.

Even if I think that the experience women have, specifically related to riding a bike, are almost entirely that same as men, there is a limited but rather significant area where dealing with other women is a definite advantage, and that is in things relating to the female physiology. Again, this isn’t strictly a bike shop problem, but women will often feel more comfortable discussing personal matters with another women, such as advice on properly fitting bib-shorts or discussing saddle fit and issues of physical discomfort in that region. Again, is this really a cycling or gender issue? Good, experienced male staff can be extremely effective in addressing issues relating to women and cycling, but for these specific issues, female staff are best. Personal experience in these matters matters, even if no two bodies are alike. More than that, and without getting into all of the issues surrounding this, many women may simply find talking to another women about cycling generally less intimidating and more empathetic than a man. Do I, as a male but also as a human being, feel a little insulted at that? Sure, but who am I to argue.

With that important exception aside, what I’d like to challenge is the notion that women generally need to be catered for specifically, in a different way than men. Why? That would be true where staff treat men with respect and women as stupid, but that’s a different situation. If staff want to put women on racing bikes when they want to ride casually around town in a dress is bad, but again, that has nothing to do with the gender, and more to do with the fact that the staff have not listened to what the customer is after, and are not interested in offering the best service possible. Why isn’t it the same when people assume that women need an upright and stylish bike with a basket to ride around on? Seems to assume quite a lot, there too. Good staff should know the challenges that women have with cycling because they understand the issues that people have with cycling. Again, gender has nothing to do with being new to riding, scared of riding, uneasy with traffic, intimidated by Lycra, or any other issue that people are prone to having in regards to cycling (aside from specific physiological issues, don’t forget).

I don’t agree with the idea that women need special treatment. That’s belittling in and of itself. A good shop that staffs good people knows how to treat customers with respect, just as you would expect anyone to treat another person, and they know how to empathize with the challenges that people have, not just women or men, who are new to cycling.

The problem with bad shops is that they are bad shops. Women-only or women-focused bike shops are a perfectly fine idea, and absolutely have a place in the industry. Maybe it’s an over-reaction to the feeling that traditional shops are just boys clubs, but then maybe that overreaction is necessary until “normal” shops start to be more inclusive and more women are encouraged to enter the industry to balance that out a bit. However, that women-focused bike shops are needed because a regular shop, by definition, cannot possibly deal with a gender who apparently needs special treatment sounds like a rather belittling and unfair idea to shops and the staff that work in them, but more so to women in general.

As a final point, what does the fact that many women-focused bike shops only deal with fashionable cruiser bikes and stylish accessories say? Are women who want to mountain bike or ride road bikes competitively somehow different and are not in need of gender specific shops? It’s not a consistent message.

I think Andrea Smiths shop looks fabulous, and there should be more of them, but not because women need women-only bike shops. It’s because it’s inclusive. Women need good bike shops that treat women with as much value and respect as anyone else, with more female staff members to help with the women-specific issues and first-hand experience. So maybe women-focused bike shops shouldn’t be required in an ideal situation. Maybe they’re just a necessary overreaction to the current state of the industry. However, most (many?) shops need to be more inclusive, or at least more sensitive to a potential customer base that has a certain perception of what a normal bike shop is, just as people of different age groups or income levels, nationality or class, whether male or female, should be treated with equal amounts of respect.

Let me know what you think.


Header image: source