The Lesser-Spotted Woman Cyclist (or, why do we even need to gender that description?)

There are many gender gaps in life (and in my life): it’s not exactly the moment to rant about how a subject with such a female-heavy intake as Modern Languages at Oxford still has the statistical anomaly that men are significantly more likely to get a first (is it the girly handwriting that does for us?), but I am becoming increasingly aware of one in my day to day life at present. The cycling gap. At any given set of lights on my morning commute there may be a dozen or more cyclists waiting. I will often be the only woman. This is not a piece of feminist irrelevance.

Google ‘women cyclists London‘ and you are offered a range of news articles about the deaths of women cyclists, and why they are more likely to be involved in fatal collisions than their male counterparts. The most recent of these incidents happened last week, at Bank, in morning rush hour traffic, and it involved a HGV. A lot of ink has been spilled about this, so much so that a previous, apparently similar, incident, was described as having ‘all the hallmarks of a “typical” London cycling death – a woman cyclist killed by a tipper truck turning left’. No amount of inverted commas can excuse the way that phrase normalises an unnecessary and horrific death, and, whether or not this was the intention, how it allows for the implication that women, really, ought to know better.

Cycling has become another one of those areas where we need to look after women, because they can’t look after themselves. The Evening Standard article from last week quotes the cautious advice that the problem might actually be the lorries rather than the people (which is surely basic logic: who drives an HGV across London in rush hour anyway? Surely that’s just common sense?), but midway down, after rehearsing the usual arguments about a slower average speed, being more likely to hug the curb, less likely to run a red light, more ‘cautious’. The kind of casual generalisations supported, in fact, by the photos chosen to illustrate its article, which is headed by a photo of the latest cycling victim in her wedding dress, and then shows a selection of ‘cyclists at junction’ in which one woman appears, dressed in blouse, skirt and patent black shoes. The men around her (other than that one bloke in the beigey jacket with no helmet) are sporting a variety of sportswear. This, I think, is the image many people, many journalists, many drivers, have of The Woman Cyclist. It’s what we see here (note skirt, hair drifting around, cardigan), and it’s what allows us to suggest that the problem is somehow with being female, unavoidably associated with that second X chromosome, rather than being something we, you know, maybe ought to stop. I read a wonderful article the other day (and you really should too), but I somewhat object to the assertion that a six foot tall and, in his own words, ‘surprisingly hairy’ man is able to establish that women are given more room by passing cars simply by putting on a long wig. Are our assumptions about gender really that straightforward? (I’m not even going to comment on the quote in the BBC article about how women are less likely to cycle because they may be cooking, looking after their children or carrying shopping, or the comment that men have better spatial awareness and are more likely to be familiar with HGVs than women. I ask you this: in what century are we living?)

I think, in short, what I’m trying to say is this: I despise gender generalisations, and I think using them in the cycling fatality context offers the dangerous opportunity to apportion blame rather than admitting that our roads and other road users are a danger to cyclists. Yes, I see women heading to work in flip flops and frilly skirts, hair blowing everywhere, handbag over their shoulder. Yes, I see them hugging the curb, ‘pootling along’, as one article puts it, being slow and indecisive and annoying and potentially dangerous. I also see them whizzing past me, helmeted, like me, on drop handlebars, with clipless pedals and All The Gear. And I see wobbly men in suits, with headphones in, refusing or unable to look over their shoulder to check for oncoming traffic, a briefcase balanced on their handlebars. I frequently overtake men and am overtaken by women, which shows that the theory of going at 8mph or slower being more dangerous than going at 12mph or faster is all well and good, but more or less gender irrelevant (your age, your bike, your fitness level, the length of your journey and how fast you want to go are a lot more relevant in gauging your speed than your gender). There’s a wonderful ring to phrases like ‘Being highly visible in public spaces is something women are going to be less comfortable with than men’, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, doesn’t help with anything, does nothing but basically say that women have no right to be on the road, that if we don’t get ourselves killed it’s only thanks to good luck and the indulgence of male drivers who forgive us our traffic-delaying sins.

Cycling is ‘too young, too male, too middle class’, but the way to improve that situation is not to create a climate where every time I tell someone I cycle they wince and tell me to be careful (trust me, I don’t go out of my way to be reckless). Easy generalisations will not stop cyclists, male and female alike, being killed in traffic incidents involving roads not fit for cyclists (because, quite frankly, the cycle lanes of London are not fit for purpose. Superhighway? It’s a bloody blue cycle lane, and nothing more.), and they will not help to create a culture in which cycling is the norm and every investment in improving infrastructure and saving lives does not have to be justified.

(PS. Google ‘man on bike’. Then Google ‘woman on bike’. Then tell me our society doesn’t make unfounded gender generalisations.)

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One thought on “The Lesser-Spotted Woman Cyclist (or, why do we even need to gender that description?)

  1. There’s nothing wrong with noticing trends and stereotypes among men and women or cyclists as a whole. It is feminists who demand we, as a society, view men and women as monolithic groups each bound by the same drives, traits, ambitions and morals. In reality men and women are not all the same and do not all behave the same way (why does this even need saying?)….. and this means we can notice stereotypical behaviour associated with (some) men or (some) women without this having to apply to ALL men or ALL women.

    There are some trends that are universal though. We are all hard wired to value women’s safety, comfort and security over men’s. This is because women are the biological limiting factor in reproduction. A tribe can lose half its men and birth rates will not drop significantly (the remaining men just have to have more sex). But if the tribe loses half its women birth rates will plummet and they might even face extinction.

    This is why we send men down mines, and off to war etc. Biologically speaking men are more disposable than women, just as sperm are more disposable than eggs. Culturally men get treated as more disposable than women too. We demand men do the majority of dangerous manual labour (and go to war etc!) and this is why 95% of workplace deaths are men. And it is also why this figure is not newsworthy. Frankly nobody cares. If the figure was women it would be ‘outrageous’ and a ‘hot topic’. This is because we value women’s safety and survival more than men’s…. because women are the limiting factor in reproduction! 🙂

    And the very fact that we do NOT look out for men’s safety means men must learn to look out for themselves. And he has testosterone to help him do that. A man’s way of securing his safety is to be aware of his surroundings and to be pro active in securing his own safety. Testosterone helps men be more proactive in this regard. More risk taking, but also more dynamic and responsive at the same time.

    By contrast a woman’s way of securing her safety is to flag up her status as a female for all to see (like having big hair LOL), so that THEY can take the appropriate steps needed to ensure her protection and security.

    Yes, I am oversimplifying obviously, but that is the basic ‘equation’ that underpins our behaviour.

    Men are statistically more at risk of violent assault in public, yet women fear violence the most. This is because society prioritises women’s safety over men’s – and this extra concern makes women FEEL more threatened than men, even though men are actually under more threat, statistically speaking. And a woman’s strategy for safety is to highlight her vulnerability – which includes constantly reminding others how vulnerable she FEELS….. as well as dressing in ways that highlight her frailty, to provoke the protection of men around her.

    This is also why so many women dress and act like oversized children. We are also hard wired to protect children and so when women dress and act like children (constant giggles, bright colours, feigning innocence, exaggerated facial expressions etc) this provokes the maximum amount of protective urges from the people around her – especially men. If you want a man to do something for you it helps to be wearing heels (which highlights your feminine curves, and literally disable you), a flimsy sundress, a have a child-like personality…… and for the cherry on the cake just tilt your head to one side to expose your frail slender neck. And he’s off like a shot to run your errand! (even if you are perfectly capable of doing it for yourself).

    Women have always known the power of literally disabling themselves using restrictive, impractical and precious clothing which makes them more vulnerable, and therefore provokes a protective urge in others. Royalty also use this same technique. In the past Kings and Queens could barely walk or sit due to their ridiculously disabling costumes, and they wore them to provoke the protective urges of the court, and of the masses. If kings and queens (or women) show up in overalls then people expect them to just muck in and take care of themselves…… they get treated more like men!

    So (to get to the point!), yes, highlighting your feminine frailty on a bike (flimsy clothing, long hair, dainty shoes etc) is a great way to provoke the hard wired protective urges of men and women drivers. I always thought putting a baby seat on the back of your bike was also a clever idea if you cycle around a big city. But these tactics only work up to a point….

    There’s only so much you can do to influence the behaviour of motorists in big cities like London. The fact is London streets are full of vans, truck and busses with deadlines to meet and engines that allow them to go fast. Modern roads also allow traffic to go fast. In many situations the safest speed for a cyclist is the speed of the cars around you. The faster you go the slower your speed is relative to them, which means they have more time to become aware of your presence…. plus it means you can ride IN the road with them (like a motorbike would) rather than being constantly overtaken.

    I don’t know the details of the crash, but large vehicles turning left is a classic situation you want to be aware of as a cyclist. Don’t get caught between the curb (or a railing) on the left and a large vehicle on your right. If it signals left, drop back as fast as you can.

    If you are not a pro-active cyclist who actively analyses and predicts dangers like a super computer ALL THE TIME then you should not really be cycling in London, at least not on major through roads used by trucks and busses. Like I said, I don’t know who was at fault, but I do have sympathy for drivers of large vehicles (even red buses who are cyclists’ arch enemies!) because it must be impossible to keep track of all those cyclists around you because they all cycle so differently and are mostly a law unto themselves. It must be very stressful to drive a red bus in London having to constantly pull in to bus stops without squashing a dozen cyclists trying to sneak up the inside.

    Frankly I’m surprised there aren’t 100 cyclist deaths each day in big cities like London.

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