We are living in the age of the MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra), with male cyclists in Sydney getting on their bike more than once a week, rising from 6.2% in 2002-04 to 13.2% in 2016. However, the opposite sex does not appear to be following suit, particularly on the roads of Britain.
In fact, roughly 50% fewer women than men cycle twice a week or more, which is the second-greatest gender gap among the way that Brits commute, according to walking and cycling charity Sustrans.
Similarly, analysis by the Office for National Statistics discovered that men comprise 74% of people in the UK that cycle to work, triple the figure of women.
However, many European countries don’t see the cycling world’s gender gap. In Germany and Denmark, for example, women cycle just as often as men and in the Netherlands, female cyclists are more prevalent than men, with the ratio of participants in cycling being 55:45.
Will we ever reach a point where we can match our Dutch counterparts? At the moment, that seems highly unlikely.
So what is it that’s keeping women out of the cycle lanes, and how can the imbalance be rectified?
Patronising attitudes towards female cyclists
A fear of hostility from other road users is an undeniable force preventing women from cycling. Leigh Campbell, the leader of all-women cycling rides in Nottingham, has experienced being sworn at when riding alone, and she has been shouted at as male drivers overtake her.
She says, “All I want to do is ride my bike and I don’t think I should have to put up with abuse from other – mainly male – road users, just because I’m a woman.”
Helen Pidd, a journalist who has written a book centring on women in cycling, said that women are often at the receiving end of remarks such as “thunder thighs”.
Sometimes, even if women don’t experience outright verbal abuse, patronising attitudes can also be off putting, even if the comment was made with the best of intentions. Leigh remembers being told by a man, “Keep pedalling, nearly there.” She takes issue with the fact that she doubts the same comment would have been made towards another male.
So do the problems arise from the confusion between confidence and competence?
Concerns about safety and a lack of confidence
One of the most significant factors that women struggle with is a fear of being involved in an accident. Perhaps certain startling statistics compound the issue: in 2009, ten out of thirteen cyclists killed in London were women.
Amy Packham, a journalist for HuffPost UK, asked dozens of women why they were wary to cycle the streets, and the resounding, resolute answer was fear. However, the fear didn’t just stem from safety concerns, there is also the element of fear of judgement: “Men don’t have the same anxiety about wearing the right kit, having a good bike or being at the back. They just get out and do it.”
Another defining factor that could explain women’s aversion to cycling is the worry of sexual harassment, such as receiving lewd comments while cycling or worse, prompting feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. Helen Pidd recalls cycling in Derbyshire once and a motorcyclist slapped her bottom; it’s likely that worries of instances like these do not cross a male cyclist’s mind.
Absent female voices in the transport planning industry
Xavier Brice from Sustrans believes that city planners should be held partially accountable for this gendered issue: “51% of the UK population is female, yet most of our cities are failing to design roads and streets for women to cycle.”
Xavier also refers to the fact that women are under-represented among the transport planners and engineers who design our streets. There are lacking choices for women who wish to cycle with their children in tow too.
Women’s cycling gear – where’s the choice?
Bott and Co’s Operations Manager Ann McLoughlin, a keen cyclist, despairs at the vast choice of clothing available to male cyclists compared to females, noting the several pages dedicated to menswear, compared to a fleeting look at women’s, which is often pink.
Such blatant support towards one gender in the sport of cycling hardly encourages women to take it up.
How do we diversify the cycling world?
So, how do we improve things for women? Could we create separate cycling lanes for men and women in order to dispel worries about judgement? Or is it women’s own responsibility to join a designated female-only cycling club, increasing confidence and getting more involved through their own choices? Should men be mindful of creating more welcome spaces for female cyclists? Bott and Co are keen to enter the debate.
How much accountability should councils, city planners and the government assume in the problem of the cycling gender gap? There are lots of possibilities that could narrow the divide and we welcome any discussion around the subject. We would like to see a close in the gender gap in UK cycling and for women’s inhibitions to be conquered – surely the sport isn’t just a man’s world