I go to YORK for the Women and Cycling conference

May 2, 2015 at 7:19 pm | Posted in cycling | 7 Comments
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Women And Cycling 2015 attracted delegates from all over the place. Kersten England (Chief Exec of City of York Council) said the aims were to ‘share experiences of what’s working’ and ‘build a network of people who can make a difference across disciplines.’ We had short talks from six people in the field (which Carlton Reid summarises nicely), then a set of roundtable discussions*.

It did start off a bit gloomily. According to surveys, 75% of women want to do more exercise. What stops them? Well, Survey Woman doesn’t like the word ‘sport’, for a start. She doesn’t like competition, doesn’t have time to exercise, doesn’t feel facilities are designed for her. She fears being seen as sporty and ‘butch’, but she worries about being ‘rubbish’, too. She’s pretty risk-averse. She doesn’t like intimidating-looking bike shops, though you might entice her into places that are open and airy and don’t have much stock in them. She ‘thrives in a no-pressure environment’.

It was hard not to feel that Survey Woman needed a bit of a pep talk. Come on, love! It’s not that bad! I did wonder whether a) we were fighting a losing battle, if women really ARE that pathetic and b) whether all the women at the conference weren’t actually women at all. They didn’t look like a bunch of crazy cycling-nut population outliers; there were women who evidently cared what they looked like, women who wouldn’t necessarily dominate a conversation, women who probably felt a bit worried about stuff sometimes, maybe even women who didn’t know one end of a crank extractor from the other. But they were out there, getting on with it, with passion and intelligence and commitment and humour. I felt a bit like Graham from Twenty Twelve: ‘If you ask the wrong people the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers.’ Survey Woman, having resigned herself to her sofa-bound fate, probably didn’t have much idea what might work for her. These people, however, had a lot of answers, and a lot of new questions, too.

150 delegates at Women and Cycling Conference

150 delegates at Women and Cycling conference, 30 April 2015. Picture by Carlton Reid.

Some of the answers were relatively simple: organise events, lead rides, reorganise your shop or website, train your staff. Other answers needed more than just the hard work of individuals: build high-quality infrastructure that allows people to cycle safely with children, encourage more women into the cycle trade, tackle the culture that puts teenage girls off cycling. But the point is, there were ideas. So many ideas. I particularly loved how the roundtables – simply groups of people sitting round discussing a theme – meshed research with the knowledge of those who worked or volunteered in the area and the experiences of non-experts. In contrast to other conferences I’ve been to, there was no floor-hogging by people going, ‘Well, the research says…’ or ‘My many years of experience indicate…’; all ideas and viewpoints were fed into the discussions.

Earlier, someone had tweeted grumpily along the lines of ‘How to get women into cycling? That’ll be a short conference. Infrastructure.’ While there’s obvious truth to this – in particular the need for high-quality infrastructure to allow children to cycle safely in cities – different stories emerged from different places. One council simply got rid of its car park (apart from the disabled spaces) and installed a bike park instead. Elsewhere, a critical mass was needed in order to argue for infrastructure changes where the purse-strings are held by people who see bicycles as a distraction. Differences in types of trips made by women and men were fascinating; the challenge is not just to design safe infrastructure, but to create spaces in which people can ‘trip-chain’ (e.g. come home from work, pick up the shopping, collect the kids from school, all in the same trip). Unexpected reasons emerged for stopping cycling; teenage girls gave up cycling to school, not just for the stereotypical reasons of helmet hair and looking daft, but also because the walk or bus ride to and from school is an essential part of their social life.

We chatted about the continuing difficulties getting women into the bike industry, as customers, bike shop staff, or working for bike-related companies. Chris Garrison tells her Trek dealers that the best way to make women feel welcome is to have women on the staff; if they can’t get women to apply, she suggests asking customers if they’d like a few hours in the shop, emphasising that tech skills can be taught if needed. Isla Rowntree, founder of children’s bike company Islabikes, said for some positions she has no applications from women at all (despite posts not requiring any technical knowledge). So the bike industry still has an image problem, though Melissa Henry from Sustrans said women are better-represented in jobs that emphasise people skills, like marketing and communications. We talked about the dreaded ‘women’s corner’ in bike shops, and the way tabs on some websites read Road, MTB, Urban, Women. Some participants relished ‘women-only’ events and provision, though Sustrans’ Sheridan Piggott said York Bike Belles had welcomed the few men who enquired about joining in their ‘no-pressure’ rides. Bernie Cullen, who was one of the founders of York Cycleworks all-women co-op in the 1980s**, said women-only spaces are needed for ‘counter-cultural’ activities (e.g. learning how to use tools).

women and cycling conference logo

Click here for the full programme

Delegates commented on how great it was to see an entirely-female panel of speakers, and to be largely among women in the discussions. (There were a few chaps about: I greeted Phil from VeloVixen with ‘Hallo, token man!’) I wasn’t too conscious of the female dominance, but someone who’d been to a lot of transport conferences found it ‘refreshing’. (And I did get on the train afterwards and think, ‘Ooh, look at all the MEN. Weird.’)

I’ve never felt like I wanted to go round an entire conference hall, shaking each individual’s hand and talking to them excitedly about what they were doing and what they had found out and what their ideas were. Not until this one. I left wondering all sorts of things, which I might have been able to find answers to if I’d only I’d had the whole weekend. Next year…

* I asked twitter which sessions I should go to, and got nothing approaching a consensus. In the end I opted for Cycling and teenage girls, The bike business: the role women could play, Cities fit for children and Cycling for everyone. So my observations are based on going to these roundtables, plus conversations I had with random people who weren’t quick enough to get away.

** Me: I used to take my bike to Cycleworks in the 80s! Her: I probably served you!

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7 Comments »

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  1. If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have billed it as a conference about ‘how to get more women cycling’. Really it was about using the whole spectrum of women’s experiences to make cycling (in the UK at least) better. Or perhaps just an excuse for some networking …

    • Yes, I agree. Particularly on the infrastructure front there’s the argument that what’s good for women (and children) is good for everyone. But there are issues with the stubborn gender gap (despite the overall rise in participation in cycling) that could do with addressing. But yes, the networking was brilliant (and very necessary)!

  2. Love your report, but how did you find out about it? I am pretty plugged into women’s cycling and had no idea it was on – I wonder how they advertised it and who to?

    • Thank you 🙂 I saw it go past on twitter – I’m afraid I can’t remember who shared the info. Then Sally Hinchcliffe posted about it in the FB Women’s Cycle Forum.

  3. […] Two blogs about the Women and Cycling Conference in York, by Carlton Reid on BikeBiz and by Andromeda on her blog. […]

  4. Hi,
    I was at the conference as well and thought what that women said about the concept of ‘trip-chaining’ was very intriguing. You don’t happen to remember who mentioned this so I can contact this person to ask some questions?

    Cheers
    Charlotte

    • Hallo! It was Rachel Aldred (Senior Lecturer in Transport at University of Westminster) who talked about ‘trip-chaining’. Her website’s http://rachelaldred.org/ and you can tweet her @RachelAldred 🙂


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