This week the London Bike Kitchen hosted a Women and Gender Variant (WAG) evening where a panel of experts discussed how women’s cycling is portrayed in the media.
Over the last year alone there has been controversy after controversy – 661’s nipple covering knee guards, Colnago’s suggestive ‘ready for a ride’ tweet and sockgate to mention just a few. It’s a huge topic that brought about a great deal of debate.
We asked panel member Laura Laker to recap the discussion and share her thoughts after the event...
On Wednesday I spoke with an all-female panel on how women’s cycling is portrayed in the media.
The event, at Look Mum, no Hands in Old Street, was the first of a new series of the London Bike Kitchen’s WaG nights, and was their biggest event yet – there was standing room only.
On the panel, chaired by Jools Walker, aka Lady Velo (her blog Vélo-City-Girl here) were Chris Garrison (@punkassCG), a feminist who has worked in marketing for major cycling brands, Adele Mitchell (@adelemitchell), freelance writer (including for TWC) and blogger, and former fashion and beauty editor, and me, Laura Laker (@lakerlikes), a journalist.
This was a conversation that needed to be had – that still needs to be had in greater depth.
For me, and for many of the women we spoke to on the night and via social media afterwards, it was truly inspiring. I think it’s fair to say we are all still buzzing from the experience. The event (#LBKWaG) trended on Twitter for hours. I’m not sure any of us could keep up with the social media response afterwards. Needless to say, this was a conversation that needed to be had – that still needs to be had in greater depth.
Sexist practices in branding and in the media that can act as a barrier to more women getting into cycling
Women in cycling are still a minority, and there are still examples of sexist practices in branding and in the media that can act as a barrier to more women getting into cycling, whether as a means of transport, a leisure activity, or a sport. From events with all-male speakers, to advertising that sexualises women, the side lining of women is not as uncommon as you’d think, or hope for, in 2016.
I’ve personally never found being a woman a hindrance to a career in cycling, I’ve always been welcomed in that world but, having picked up six cycling magazines in preparation for the event I was horrified to find in two of them there were no women whatsoever, so clearly there is still a long way to go.
That goes for professional women’s cycling, which is still perceived by far too many people as “not as exciting" as men’s pro cycling, and the media can do far more to promote and support women’s cycling and show just how great it can be.
Of those 7, only 2 of them had a woman as main 'hero' image (Lizzie Armitstead). Our U23 CX World Champ gets this. pic.twitter.com/1oqsoODHni
— Alex Oates (@Velocentric) February 3, 2016
The good, the bad and the ugly...
There are good examples that should be celebrated: the Sealskinz #IAmEndurance campaign (video below) which shows a woman who was helped out of an abusive relationship by cycling, and the more light hearted Look Mum, no Hands podium pants that TWC particularly loved.
There are also bad ones. From the more overt sexualisation, Sockgate being one example, to misogynistic assumptions that women don’t need high performance kit because they don’t ride as hard. Adele Mitchell’s blog about Maxxis tyres received 61,500 views and 5,300 likes on Facebook after they said women don’t need performance tyres.
As Katherine Fuller writes in her Sockgate blog, it can be a struggle to have women portrayed as people who ride, rather than objects.
She said: “Imagery or copywriting that objectifies women has no place in cycling. Instead I’d like to see advertising/editorial coverage that reflects why we ride. Let’s recognise that women cyclists are not all the same - and then celebrate our diversity by sharing our stories - the stories of ‘ordinary women, doing extraordinary things’."
ED: Can't help but point out we've got just a few of these on TWC...
“I’d like to believe that we can progress to a point where we no longer feel the need to discuss ‘women’s cycling’ as if it is something separate from general cycling."
And that goes for products, too – some women in the audience weren’t aware there are good, non-pink and flowery women’s cycling clothing out there, but the advertising isn’t reaching women in some cases.
Jools Walker, who is also Operations Manager for Vulpine Cycling Apparel, told TWC later: “Discussing how women’s cycling is portrayed in the media is a huge topic, and an important conversation we need to keep going. Perhaps we will get the point where women’s cycling (and cycling as a whole) is 'normalised', but until that happens, we need to continue speaking up for changes, holding events like the #LBKWaG evenings and celebrating the companies / brands out there who are getting the message right."
Walker told the audience that when she got into cycling there were no women who looked like her, and that race, and lack of racial diversity, is often the elephant in the room.
She said: “Different women cycle for different reasons - and by celebrating and highlighting our diversity, we can encourage more women to ride. I came away from the stage met by women who were moved by our words, boosted by our stories of how we came to be cyclists and encouraged to keep on riding."
I’d love to educate journalists about what everyday cycling actually is
When asked what we would change about women’s cycling in the media I said I’d love to educate journalists about what everyday cycling actually is. Opinion pieces depicting cycling as reserved for entitled middle class white men riding with aggressive disdain for everyone are missing the point and alienating women.
The reason we see so many of this demographic is because the infrastructure isn’t there on the roads for more people to feel safe cycling. Of the 2% of journeys made by bike in the UK only 25% of those are made by women, and according to studies, the number one thing stopping women getting on bikes is fear of the roads. Unless we get the media on side to understand the benefits of cycling for everyone, not just a few, and start talking about it in this way, getting politicians to invest in infrastructure is going to be a hard ask.
The great thing for me about the panel was the thoughtful insights, intelligence and experience the women brought to the discussion, both on the panel and among the men and women in the audience.
Encourage and empower others...
We discussed the role women can play to encourage others to cycle, from enabling and encouraging others to take up cycling within their communities, to calling out bad practices in companies and the media, and rewarding good ones with our custom.
When I started 6 years ago I never really saw anyone in cycling media who looked like me
Walker said: “As fellow panellist Chris Garrison said, ‘Role modelling is assigned to you by other people’ - I’m more than happy to be one of these role models for other women out there, especially as when I started 6 years ago I never really saw anyone in cycling media who looked like me. So, if last night we’ve managed to empower and encourage women and men in the audience to be vocal about the positivity in cycling and keep riding, I’ve come away with a real sense of joy and excitement for the future. Let’s keep talking!"
Following the event, Mitchell said: “The audience in the room last night was amazing: empowered, confident and informed. There was a wonderful energy and a shared passion for cycling. I came home to read a huge number of supportive comments on social media. This is such an exciting time for women who cycle and it is a joy to be part of it going forward."
Garrison said: “What I hope people take away from this event is the idea that all of us have the capacity to effect positive change, simply by speaking up. Altering the way women are portrayed in cycling media starts when people challenge those responsible for painting us in disenfranchising ways.
Don’t stay silent. Demand the changes that you want to see.
“Advocacy doesn’t have to be something that involves big companies spending big piles of cash. It can be as simple as sending a Tweet to a brand that continues to create barriers to women who wish to take up cycling, and rewarding those brands that absolutely nail it."
“Small changes can yield big results. If women are demonstrated to be the great role models that we can be, then it will only help grow a sport that is entirely capable of having a positive impact on some pretty hefty global issues. Don’t stay silent. Demand the changes that you want to see."
We couldn't have said it better ourselves...