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Women lag in bike riding and business

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Articles - August 2011
Wednesday, July 20, 2011

By Linda Baker


Tori Bortman of Gracie’s Wrench teaches Sherri Michl the mechanics of a bike. // Photo by Teresa Meier

Every year, the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas sponsors a seminar about the female bike consumer. “It’s always the same material — how women have the buying power in the U.S.,” says Joan Martocello, a manager at Bike Gallery, a Portland bike store chain. “Then you go into bike shops and still see the girlie posters.” Even in cycle-friendly Portland, says Martocello, the male-dominated bike shop environment “is quite a bit intimidating for women.”

Over the past 10 years, the number of people who use bikes as transportation has increased dramatically in Portland and around the country, as well as Oregon college towns such as Eugene and Corvallis. Yet most of those new riders are men. Nationwide, only 24% of all riders are women; in Portland, it’s about 35%. There are no figures on the number of women riders in other Oregon cities.

The gender gap is even more pronounced in the bike retail and repair industry. There are about 60 bike shops in the Portland area, and only between six and 12 are owned or co-owned by women, estimates Elly Blue, co-founder of the Portland Society, a nonprofit that supports women in bike-friendly businesses. Just 19 of Bike Gallery’s 105 employees are women, and Martocello is the lone female store manager out of six. “Going to a bike shop is male territory,” says Martina Fahrner, co-owner of Clever Cycles, a shop that caters to family riders. “But owning a bike shop is even more male territory.”

Why so few women? The reasons run the gamut: an industry emphasis on high-performance sport bikes, lack of apprenticeship programs targeting female bike mechanics, and “sexual harassment that is not talked about,” says Tori Bortman, owner of Gracie’s Wrench, which offers bike repair and riding classes. “There is a culture in the bike industry that needs to shift before we see more women working in bike shops or owning their own business,” she says.

It’s a problem that goes beyond equity, as sparse numbers of female employees and employers translates into fewer products and services that might encourage more women to bike. For example, Fahrner says it can be difficult to find rain gear tailored for women or helmets that fit over long hair “without riding up.” The lack of female bike shop employees can also be a deterrent for women customers who are more comfortable interacting with female staff, she says.

Women have a better chance of encountering other women in select white-collar sectors of the bike industry such as transportation planning, a field that is about 50% female, says Mia Birk, principal of Alta Planning+Design, a Portland-based firm. Birk, who says she was “struck by the maleness” of last year’s Interbike, notes there is an “interesting disconnect” in the industry between people who are planning bike-friendly communities and the retailers and manufacturers actually selling the bikes. One exception, she notes, is Trek Bikes, a Wisconsin-based company with a strong women’s product division, headed by Heather Henderson.

Locally, the cooperatively owned Citybikes has a mission to maintain 50% female ownership, says part-owner Ashley Mitchell. And as Portland bicycle advocates ramp up initiatives to increase women ridership — part of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s new 10-year strategic plan — efforts to close the gender gap on the retail side may also emerge.

“If we can get more women-owned shops that are creating a look, feel and service that’s family- and women-friendly,” says Birk, “then that would be a huge asset to the utilitarian bike movement.”



0 #1 gaabi 2011-07-27 20:59:14
I'm a mom, I'd like to ride more and ride more places and I'd like my kids to ride more but I don't feel safe riding on Portland streets or other streets in the area. There aren't enough bike lanes and when they do exist, they're not separated from auto traffic, they're too thin, drivers don't watch out for bicyclists and some of them, frankly, are out to get bicyclists. I've heard people complain almost psychotically about bicyclists for no real reason (such as not liking cyclists clothing) and seen drivers actually "buzz" a groups of cyclists riding on the side of the road - including an adult male buzzing a children's race! Bicyclists who don't ride safely - run stop signs or red lights, don't signal, ride in and out of traffic or in front of cars and who are just plain rude to drivers - make this anti-bike antagonism worse. We need more and safer bike trails, separate from traffic, some road bike safety laws and to be less tolerant of aggressive drivers - individually and as a society. If you see someone doing something rude, stupid or dangerous - let them have it or call the police, don't tolerate it. More bicycling IS in our future and we need to figure out making it work.
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Diane Lees
0 #2 From a female bike shop ownerDiane Lees 2011-07-28 06:38:25
I have owned and operated a bicycle shop for over 37 years, and while I agree with much of what has been said, there are, in my opinion, more profound issues that keep women from being in the bike industry. And, it isn't just about women. It's about the quality of the employee in the bike shop in the first place. Many shops only hire part-time or seasonal help - you get what you get there - young people, mostly male, who go on to other jobs because the bicycle industry isn't a "career" in the minds of most. Why are these people not encouraged to stay on and become bigger players? You need a more intimate look at the industry and it's profit structure. It's a long story; but, suffice it to say that you can't reach big money goals the way things are currently in the bike business. Then, there is the training, or lack thereof, for new hires. The "business" of bicycles isn't something that is taught, really, anywhere. (I know that will be interpreted a bit differently from what I mean, but again - not enough time or space here) I haven't met more than a handful of women who want to work in a bike shop - in almost 4 decades! And, those who do prefer to be on the sales floor; but, the important part of the bike shop is in the trenches in the workshop - the bicycle is the essence of the business and knowledge of its workings and foibles is essential. Women need to talk the talk from a place of knowing. It's not just about selling apparel. Lastly, as far as "women friendly" shops? I think that is changing and quickly. Some of the issues come from women themselves. In today's world, women can go in to any store any where and stand tall next to men IF they do their homework - meaning, do some research about what you want. If you expect the person in the shop to tell you everything, you'll get their "opinion" and that may often fail you in the long run. There is no question that women are more than capable of understanding how things work - changing tubes and pumping tires; shifting; braking; what kinds of frames materials are out there, and all the essentials to being safe on a bike. My motto is, women want what men want; to be offered the same quality equipment and to be treated with respect. And, that goes both ways. Giving respect earns respect. (Stepping down off my soapbox now).
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0 #3 Women excel in the bike industrybArbaroo 2011-07-28 07:40:20
I know it's semantics but the headline here is misleading. It's the quanity of women that lags not the women themselves. After 20 years as a female in the bike industry I'd say that most of the women I've worked with excelled in the bike business; they worked harder,smarter, or both, and all while working against the challenges of a male dominated industry that absolutely still exists even in bike-friendly Portland...they certainly didn't lag.
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Ray Keener
0 #4 Works both waysRay Keener 2011-07-28 13:56:29
And the female-dominate d fabric store industry is quite a bit intimidating for men. I don't know what to do or where to go or how to buy things. The women employees roll their eyes and tap their toes in impatience with my ignorance of what they sell and how they sell it. I don't mean to minimize the issues raised, I just think a bit of perspective might be a good thing. I've been in the bike industry for 35 years and seen a lot of poor treatment of women. Just like in auto shops or any male-dominated endeavour. The article fails to point out the HUGE PROGRESS that's been made in the last 10, 15, 20 years. In products for women and events for women and industry opportunities for women. They should have talked to some women who have seen things get better, not just youngsters with little or no perspective.
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Ray Keener
0 #5 And one more thing...Ray Keener 2011-07-28 14:10:55
"Just 19 of Bike Gallery’s 105 employees are women, and Martocello is the lone female store manager out of six."

Too bad the writer of this story didn't do some research. One phone call and she would have found out that Bike Gallery's women employee numbers are THREE TO FOUR TIMES HIGHER than the national average. Jay Graves is one of the fairest, most supportive of women shop owners on this planet. This is basically just some weak reporting based on too few conversations. A conclusion in search of a story!
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0 #6 bike gallery in portlandEm 2011-07-28 14:23:38
The article states that they have 105 employees. Too bad none of them know how to say hello. That is one of the worst shops I've ever been in as far as customer service and being ignored. For what it is worth, I'm a female who has made a career in the bicycle industry.
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Ray Keener
0 #7 None of them?Ray Keener 2011-07-28 14:31:59
That's a pretty sweeping generalization, Em. So you've walked by all 105, then?
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Maura Lansford
0 #8 SOAR Communications (aka Interbike's PR Gal)Maura Lansford 2011-07-28 17:11:43
Change is not always as quick as we would like but Interbike is more than just lip service when it comes to encouraging the industry to seriously consider and implement programs that encourage women. This year we are partnering with the (awesome) Outdoor Industry Women's Coalition to bring better events and more awareness to the potential of this market. If you are interested in more information about the Women's Lounge and its many events, the info is online at interbike.com

As a female cyclist in the industry, I know that it can be intimidating and not always female-friendly . But even in just my 6 year career the industry truly is making strides.
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Ray Keener
0 #9 Thanks, MauraRay Keener 2011-07-28 17:30:31
Interbike is, and always has been, a leader in supporting industry women. I think it's more accurate to say that we as an industry, like all specialty industries, are intimidating to beginners and not always novice-friendly . And we are making more strides with women, because the women's-specifi c products are way better and more available. To me the biggest change I see from 10 years ago in shops? 2001: You don't need a women's-specifi c bike. 2011: Sure, we have women's-specifi c bikes, wanna try one?
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0 #10 Enough Softpedalinganon 2011-07-29 17:31:30
If Interbike truly was a leader in supporting women, no vendor would be allowed to use T&A and there would be decency requirements to exhibit. Can you imagine a brand using Little Black Sambo to promote a product? Yet we find it OK to use women as sex objects to sell bikes.

I often wonder what would happen if we exchanged the descriptor "women" with African-America n or Hispanic? Would we point out all the "progress" made when we know the "N word" and "S word" are still in use? Would we point out what a white person must feel like when they are in a predominantly ethnic store or business? But it's ok for the bike industry to make "progress," when women remain a pointed minority on the business side and on the customer side are subjected to sexist advertising and treatment?

So perhaps the bike world is saying it's OK to make fun of Hispanics, or Asians, and we can all walk in to bike shops and crack jokes about them. It would be OK to never hire anyone of color. Strict rules, no color. It would be OK right? 'Cause it seems to be OK to do that to women.

The industry is making strides but we need to make more. It's almost embarrassing to see other industries, typically historically male-dominated, be so open and progressive about women.

It will really, truly be HUGE progress when women don't have to endure locker room jokes, when women see women being actively and openly recruited, when women are sought after for leadership roles, when industry events shun frat boy tactics, and when every person in the industry realizes it's not just about making more women's product but it's about being a professional, self-aware industry.
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0 #11 Not intimidatingsnooks 2011-07-29 23:50:47
Bike shops aren't intimidating. They're just insulting - few small bikes (thanks a lot manufacturers), talk down to you, tell lies (cos you're too stupid to know apparently) and you're usually invisible.

Bike shops aren't nice to women; they're nice to custom titanium.
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0 #12 Women Don't Lag! A few More Generalizationsmtbchick 2011-08-04 09:17:37
1. Specialized Bicycles. Offering even the most expensive bikes in women's geometry. Amazing crack crew of women: Rachael, Amy, Kim... in the women's department.
2. Female Mechanics: I argue are better than male. Women ask when they do not know. Women are too afraid to do it wrong and will seek answers, not simply hammer harder. It's "man with a hammer syndrome" not "woman with a hammer syndrome".
3. Interbike: simply a reflection of the LBS/IBD. Most shops are filled with teenage boys and young men (and quite a few old men). It's a locker room.
4. Women (and I might argue many men) prefer clean spaces for shopping. Have you ever been to a shopping mall? Nordstrom? Customer service, cleanliness, sales people aren't farting and telling inappropriate jokes. I guarantee a clean, well organized bike shop will attract more female clients. They're just harder to find.
5. Respect. Agreed. People like to be respected. If a bike shop's sales staff are farting and telling inappropriate jokes, that is lack of respect. For anyone male or female.
6. Women are making strides, not necessarily the industry. But wait until the high school mountain bike girls grow up!
7. Agreed as well that women simply don't want to work in a dead end job with minimum wage pay coupled with a sexually harassing environment.
8. Not all women want the same thing. Thus we have BCBG, Ann Taylor, Chico, Bebe, Elizabeth Arden, Nordstrom, Patagonia, The Gap, Benetton, Jones New York, Talbots, Forever 21, etc.
9. Many women enjoy the technical aspect of cycling, and would like to know if it is explained properly!
10. I have noticed that women may or may not prefer having a female sales person, it again comes down to respect. Many male sales people are very good with all types of customers.
11. Bikes shops are intimidating, and I am sorry I do not agree that the consumer should carry the burden of education. I know plenty of men who are intimidated by the snobbery, the locker room environment and the disdain for neophytes.

If I have to educate myself I will buy online, not from your retail bricks and mortar store. That is why the bike shop exists.
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0 #13 UnintimidatedGuest 2014-08-01 15:58:15
I've received service on my bike at the downtown Bike Gallery
in the past, and found them to be friendly and efficient. And
while I have only found male (or nearly all male) employees
at the bike shops I've been to, and always applaud women
having more of a presence in any field that is male-dominated
(and also the reverse- I work in early childhood education and
respect and admire a guy who wants to dedicate his life to working
with kids and know stepping into a female-dominate d profession has
its challenges). However, I usually find the service friendly
and the staff knowledgeable and don't feel "intimidated" walking
into a bike shop. At least I won't spend anywhere near the amount
on repairs that I did in my days of car ownership!
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