I think the imbalance is there because riding a bike has always been classed as a male thing to do.
Shop manager at Ipswich-based IBD Elmy Cycles Joanne Newstead discusses getting into the industry, the gender imbalance, and what it's like to be a woman who works in a bike shop.
What brought you to the industry?
I’ve always been around bikes. My husband and both my children have always raced cyclocross. I’ve spent an awful lot of time in the pits, and have ridden for about 20 years, but I never, ever thought about working in a shop until I came here.
I was Steve’s daughter’s PE support technician at a high school. From September to November, they would have a block of spin classes, and I would run them back-to-back. For a cyclist, that was a dream job. I just sat in a spin studio and got paid to ride a bike. Then, five years ago, I had a crash in a cyclocross race, and Steve approached me to ask if I would consider managing his shop.
When I started, I just sat and read every catalogue. I wanted to know where everything came from. I felt that was important if I wanted to be taken seriously. Now, I’m the shop manager, so I do just about everything. I don’t go in the workshop all that often. I just got my Cytech 1, but I stay out of the workshop if I can.
Do you feel that there really is a gender imbalance in the cycle trade?
I think there is. It seems like it’s less [prominent] than it used to be, but I don’t really know why. I think [the imbalance is there] because riding a bike has always been classed as a male thing to do.
We had a recent batch of interviews, and we only got one girl in a group of seven blokes. It’s quite sad. You have to ask why they don’t apply in greater numbers. I think we have more women applying for workshop positions here, because they already know there’s a woman. The industry as a whole has a lot of catching up to do.
“It’s like your honeymoon love. The more you use it, the more you get used to it.”
Do you ever find working in a male-dominated industry to be a challenge?
Regularly, but I think Steve is very good. If somebody comes in, he’ll say: “I don’t know, I just fix the bikes. You’re better off listening to her.” It’s a bit of a double act, but I do get [treated differently by customers]. Even this week, I’ve had it. It’s fairly normal. I spent all day fitting crash helmets, and when I put this child on a bike, he said that the steering wasn’t working. The dad said: “Don’t worry boy, that’s a lady. She probably can’t even ride a bike.” The guy who I was working with at the time just looked at me and went: “Oh that’s a bit much mate, you can’t say stuff like that.” And the steering did work!
Two minutes later I got an entire family who’d never been on a bike, and I thought: “He’s not worth worrying about.” I don’t let it bother me as much as when I first started. I wasn’t sure if I was up to the job. But, I know now that I don’t have to be liked by my customers [to be good at my job]. It helps, but if they don’t like me because I’m a woman, then there are guys here that will serve them.
The dad said: “Don’t worry boy, that’s a lady. She probably can’t even ride a bike.”
Do you think women have to have thick skin to work in a bike shop?
You do have to be much more assertive than the men. I’m always thinking Monday to Friday about how I dress. On Saturdays, I tend to do more bike sales, and I always wear a dress. I wouldn’t even consider dressing that way [from Monday to Friday], because of the nature of the job, what with the lifting of bikes. If somebody’s booking a bike in for a problem, I don’t feel they’d all take me seriously. That's quite unfair, though.
What should shops avoid to generate female interest in the sector?
I can cope with customers saying: “If you don’t mind, love, I’ll wait for one of the blokes.” But, I did a fitting for a woman recently who had awful problems with her saddle. She was told in another bike shop that: “It’s like your honeymoon love. The more you use it, the more you get used to it.” That’s appalling. It makes me angry just thinking about it now.
Women need to be reassured that they’re not going to be made to feel inferior in bike shops.
Another lady recently told me that she’d ordered three different sizes of garments so she could try them on at home. Then she wouldn’t have to feel embarrassed. But why did she feel embarrassed at all? Women need to be reassured that they’re not going to be made to feel inferior in bike shops.
And what do you think could be done to attract more women to the industry?
If you come across a company that’s willing to support women, you should use it promote them. If you can build that rapport, and you can use it to bring the women into the shops, then you should.
We need to encourage [shops] to be happy to take women in job shares.
I think in the bike industry, it’s difficult. They tend to be small businesses. We need to encourage them to be happy to take women in job shares. It doesn’t have to be an inconvenience to hire a woman part-time, and have her off for six weeks over the summer. I couldn’t have done a job like this when my children were small. You have to find someone to look after them. That’s a sticky point for a lot of women who have children – for most of us, that maternal string is just too tight. Kids usually come first, and if you leave them behind, that’s really tough.