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.”