Women cycle less than men — why?

Commuting as a cyclist is hard — you deal with traffic, the elements, and sometimes poor infrastructure. For women, you may also have to deal with sexism.

'They have a different awareness of risk'

Girl's hands on bicycle handles.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge in Kamloops, B.C., recently dismissed a lawsuit against a 10-year-old girl and her grandparents. (Shutterstock)

Commuting as a cyclist is hard — you deal with traffic, the elements, and sometimes poor infrastructure.

For women, you may also have to deal with sexism.

For Nicole Noel, who commutes to work on her bicycle, said the sexism she experienced started as soon as she tried to buy a bike. 

"The type of bike I wanted is a bike that was easy to ride, even with a dress," said Noel. "I wanted a basket."

But Noel said male bike shop staff looked at her like she was "crazy," and tried to sell her a mountain bike instead. 

"Not to mention they didn't answer my questions directly, but directed their answers to my husband," said Noel.

Nicole Noel frequently commutes to work on her bicycle, but she had to change her way of thinking to make it possible. (Marine Lefevre/Radio-Canada)

In Canada, women only make up one-third of cyclists, just 34 per cent. In Windsor, Statistics Canada said about 1,390 people regularly commute on a bicycle. Only 27 per cent of those riders are women.

Experts say this is for a number of factors, including the distribution of domestic tasks and dangerous infrastructure.

Stephane Van de Maele, a masters student in public and international affairs at the University of Montreal, said infrastructure is one of the main factors that discourage women from cycle-commuting. 

"Women tend to use roads where there are fewer drivers," said Van de Maele, adding that men tend to use a more direct route even if the path is more dangerous.

Carolyn Whitzman, a professor and researcher of gender and urban planning, said women and men don't evaluate risk in the same way. 

"We teach women that they must protect themselves and that people depend on them," said Whitzman. "They have a different awareness of risk."

Carolyn Whitzman, professor and researcher of gender and urban planning, says women and men evaluate risk differently. (Submitted by Carolyn Whitzman)

For Noel, it's gender roles that discourage women cyclists.

"Women are often responsible for bringing their children to school," said Noel. "When bike lanes are not safe, women and children are forced to use the car."

Van de Maele agreed.

"Leaving work and then going to the grocery store and then picking up the kids at daycare before heading home ... it's simpler to drive than to bike," said Van de Maele.

Noel also said that professional attire for women are not compatible for cycling, which may stop women from using their bicycle to get to work.

Dalhousie University, University Ave (Robert Short/CBC)

"Several of my [female] colleagues said to me they would do more cycling if they did not feel compelled to meet certain criteria regarding their appearance at work," said Noel. "We associate cycling with a sport, we think we'll be hot or that we'll have to pedal fast. I had to rethink some of these ideas to make my bike commute more suitable."

Whitzman said even after a century of the invention of the bicycle, the expectations of women and men regarding dress and appearance still differ — and that we have to rethink cities based on the diversity of people who live and move around. 

"Everything is measured for a male, healthy user," said Whitman. "We have to look at our infrastructure in terms of many other perspectives because we are not all the same."

This story was translated from a Radio-Canada story called 'Pourquoi les femmes font-elles moins de vèlo que les hommes?' by Rose St-Pierre.


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