Laura Laker investigates why women aren’t becoming mechanics, and what the industry can do to rebalance things

Women are underrepresented in a variety of roles in the cycle industry, perhaps none more so than in bike mechanics. Cytech, an industry training and accreditation scheme for cycle technicians, estimates just two per cent of its trained mechanics worldwide are women. Cycle Training UK says 49 per cent of all mechanics course attendees were women, but at more advanced levels, the numbers of women drops drastically. Of 32 City and Guilds Level 2 Cycle Mechanics Qualifications it has delivered since 2017, just five were to women.

Social issues – starting from a young age
Isla Rowntree, founder of Islabikes, wanted to study design for her O-levels. “I was told that girls didn’t do design, and I would be disadvantaged because the boys had already studied subjects like technical drawing, which prepared them for the design course, while I had been doing cooking and sewing with the girls,” she says. “I refused to take ‘no’ for an answer, but the ensuing debate meant that I started the course later than other students. In spite of all this, I got an ‘A’ and design went on to become a significant part of my career.”

Whether it’s the toys girls and boys are given, what we teach boys and girls to do, or subconscious cues children receive about gender-appropriate behaviour, some assumptions about men and woman are capable of persist into adulthood – regardless of whether they are actually true. Fortunately, we as an industry can help reverse that trend, and there are companies and individuals, like Isla Rowntree and Islabikes, leading the way. 

Jenni Gwiazdowski, who founded London Bike Kitchen (LBK), a DIY bike workshop, suggests starting with training, and the “traditional pathway” into the industry.

She says: “Many people start in a bike shop as a ‘Saturday boy’ – though I don’t like that phrase – where you will absorb a lot of knowledge.” This pathway tends to attract men, who then go into professional courses understanding the basics, while women find themselves at a disadvantage.

“That’s why I encourage people to come to LBK instead,” adds Gwiazdowski. By tinkering on their own bike, via courses or in the open workshop, Gwiazdowski says, people learn common problems that don’t come up with brand new bikes used on professional courses. 

“Most of my knowledge has come from encountering bikes and issues on a daily basis,” she says. “It becomes a puzzle-solving situation.”

Some bike shops can be intimidating environments, so London Bike Kitchen and Broken Spoke Co-op in Oxford, which was co-founded by Ellie Smith, offer regular women and gender variant courses and open workshops to try to counter that. An accomplished mechanic herself, Smith says more workshops need to make an effort to encourage a variety of customers, describing a recent bike shop experience as “like walking into a teenage boy’s den, but with men in their 30s.

“There was metal music playing and I instantly felt uncomfortable. I thought: ‘You haven’t made any conscious effort to have any diversity; it’s all about making a comfortable environment for people who are like you’. 

“If it’s alienating for me, as somebody who totally knows what they are talking about, it’s going to be pretty alienating for someone who doesn’t.”

Bex Cnoc Building

Training issues
Smith and Gwiazdowski regularly encounter women who believe they won’t be any good at bike mechanics. 

“Women will always need to tell me they aren’t very good, don’t have experience,” says Smith. “It’s setting out your stall so you don’t fail and look stupid. Men don’t say that to me; they tend to come in, pick up a tool and use it wrong, and I have to give them the feedback, ‘can I show you how to use that properly so you don’t break it?’”

“It’s on you to prove yourself as a woman,” she says, “and you’re afraid to ask, in case you look stupid. It really affects your ability to learn.”

Unfortunately, both women report themselves or friends experiencing incidents in male-dominated workshop environments ranging from ‘micro-aggressions’ to overt sexism, to one incident of ‘rape jokes’. 

Smith says, “It’s so important to create special opportunities that are for women and non-binary people. A lot of men don’t understand why you need to do that and will actively resist it, but in my experience, it gives women the sense there are other women doing this, and it’s okay to be new at it.

“Last year we had a big festival of women and bikes, in Oxford, to help showcase women in the industry and inspire others.” 

Gwiazdowski, who wrote the book, How to Build a Bike, adds: “I do think women make really good mechanics. I think because they second-guess themselves, they are a bit more careful with their work.”

What companies/organisations are doing that works, and why
Smith found while men tend to choose intermediate level courses, women opt for beginner’s courses, and often this doesn’t correlate with ability. At Broken Spoke she ditched those descriptions, instead billing courses in terms of the depth of learning on offer. The result: for workshops and courses women are approximately half of participants and 30 per cent of workshop volunteers (all mechanical roles) are now women. 

Meanwhile, four of LBK’s mechanics are women, with one black female wheel building teacher, and three men. Its fortnightly WAG nights are well attended, though it took time for the numbers to build. Gwiazdowski kept running them because she believes them important.

Smith says: “Sometimes I would get feedback like ‘I don’t feel like we need Beryl’s night because the general workshop feels so welcoming’, but I would never do away with it. Some women will come with a lot of confidence, but that’s not always the case. I wanted to keep those safe space options.”

Islabikes boasts 42 per cent of its bike mechanics are women, for which the company thanks a ‘massive effort’ to avoid gender stereotyping. 

Recognising women are less likely to hold the qualifications, its mechanic job adverts ask for transferable skills instead, and offer training on the job. 

“We don’t necessarily look for a proven track record in cycle mechanics,” says a company spokesman, Steve Chapman. “It’s more about getting people with the right attitude and transferable skills.”

This means women looking for a career change have a way into the industry, and Islabikes gets the employees that fit. 

The company also has a flexible working policy that suits mothers returning to work after having children, and is soon to introduce parity in parental leave for both parents, an unusual move for any company. 

“We all have different time constraints and knowing your employer is going to invest in and work with you means a lot.”

“It’s fairly simple, it’s about thinking how our adverts come across and not narrowing your pool too much, there’s no reason all companies shouldn’t do that,” says Steve.

What the wider industry can do
What Broken Spoke, LBK and Islabikes had in common, at least until Smith left the former for LBK recently, is there’s a woman in charge. Isla Rowntree is Islabikes’ female founder, and the person in charge of recruitment, Suzanne, is also a woman. 

“We need women at the top, setting the tone,” says Smith. “Women should be leaders and given real responsibilities.”

This should apply at all levels of the company, she says, and done in an authentic way, with women-only courses led by women, ideally. Smith and Gwiazdowski argue for “positive discrimination” to rebalance the ratio, such as mechanical training scholarships for women.

“It’s on the bike industry to look at their own organisations, at the gender balance, and what roles women are doing,” says Smith.

“I have never met a female sales rep for a distributor in all my years in the industry. Delivery drivers often giving things to my [male] volunteers. We all make assumptions but I think the industry can change; the cycle has been revolutionary giving people more freedom, more rights, it is this really cool thing that has big potential for change.”

Gwiazdowski adds: “It’s not something we can just give up on. We don’t have gender equality in cycling, and that’s why people saying ‘I don’t think there’s a problem’ is rubbish.

“It’s an ongoing issue, it’s not going to be fixed quickly and people need to be made aware of it.”

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