I first opened a bike shop at the age of 22, having worked in the industry in various roles from the age of 16. Naturally, at 22, I knew exactly what I was doing and how I was going to make millions from selling bikes; in reality, I didn’t have a clue.
While I knew one end of a bike from the other, that is where my knowledge ended. Fast-forward ten years and after a rollercoaster ride, I still have the bike shop. I don’t have the millions, but I finally feel like I’m in a position where I can say that I know what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong; I still make plenty of mistakes. I’m making it up just like everyone else, but now I think I can safely say that I’ve got some experience on my side.
When James first contacted me about writing for BikeBiz, he was interested in hearing my opinion on what we, as a trade, should be doing to encourage more women to get involved. He asked whether I believe women are actively discouraged from being a part of the industry, or if the lack of female presence is more of an unfortunate hangover from the days when cycling was a solely male domain. But if I’m honest, for me, I don’t feel that there is an issue.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to dismiss the work that’s going on all over the world for equality, in terms of gender or otherwise. I have worked in the industry since my teenage years, and as a naïve 16-year-old, it didn’t even occur to me that gender could be a barrier. Had it been, I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had to date. If we choose to believe that gender is such an issue, it becomes easy to use it as an excuse as to why something didn’t go our way. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry certainly never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do, even though it would’ve been easier at times to blame my gender for the times when I didn’t get the outcome I expected. Realistically, I probably just wasn’t the right person for the job, or perhaps it wasn’t the right opportunity for me. Does there need to be another reason or excuse?
I understand that I benefit from the hard work that other individuals and groups have put in over the years to ensure women have equal rights to men. However, I don’t think that gender is a particularly pressing issue within the bike industry. I’m sure that there are some companies within the industry that do discourage women on some level, but their practices and values are outdated, and I doubt that they will survive in the long-term. The real obstacles for women in the industry are the stereotypes that we come up against. Society expects the men to be the mechanics, with technical knowledge of the bike, while women work in the coffee shop and do the admin. From a retail perspective, which is where the majority of my experience lies, 90 per cent of interactions during the day are from customers (i.e. outside the industry), and it’s in these interactions where gender most appears to be an issue:
"Can I speak to the manager? Is he around?"
"Can I speak to somebody about my bike? It’s a technical question."
"A girl in the workshop – do you know what you’re doing?"
Sometimes it’s hard to contain the eye rolls, and more often than not I just find somebody else because it’s not worth the fight. Countless comments have been made, but I’ve never let them get to me or bring me down. If those individuals aren’t open-minded enough to cope with the wild concept of a woman in the workshop or selling a bike, then I’ll happily pass them over to somebody else. I’d rather deal with people who respect my advice and knowledge than waste my time talking to those who don’t.
So yes, unfortunately, there is some sexism, but that exists everywhere – it’s not an issue specific to the bike trade. The industry supported me when I started my business at 22, and if being a woman had really been a problem then I guess I wouldn’t be where I am today. Ultimately, I believe that the industry has significantly larger issues with which to contend, and these issues may affect whether there will be an industry for men and women alike to work in at all.