This afternoon the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group hosted a discussion on women in cycling, inviting key figures to speak about the barriers holding women back and what could be done to remove them.
An All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) is made up of Members who pursue a specific topic or interest. Their meetings have no official status, but members hope to be able to influence decisions elsewhere and in this case meet to discuss ways they can raise more awareness of cycling and increase levels of participation.
The group invited nine influential women – and one man – in the cycling industry and those involved in grassroots programmes and town planning to contribute. Speakers came from a wide range of backgrounds, all of them taking their own approaches – but they were united in one common goal: to get more women’s bums on saddles.
Labour MP Ruth Cadbury chaired the meeting, opening with the comment: “Cycling should not just be the reserve of the well remunerated, able bodied men on fast expensive bikes. We must be much more diverse in terms of gender, class, age if we really want to embed cycling as a normal method of getting about as it is in many European cities and countries."
The group is currently led by a series of guidelines published in their 2013 ‘Get Britain Cycling’ report. Explaining the reason behind asking women from around the cycling landscape to speak, Cadbury commented: “The main omission of ‘Get Britain Cycling’ was on who was cycling – particularly women. It was a very gender neutral document. And we’re concerned that there was nothing about women – so we’ve had it on our agenda that we would organise some work around women’s cycling - so this is the first manifestation of that commitment."
With ten key speakers, there was a lot to be discussed – and the meeting spanned over the course of two hours – but there were several key points that stood out to our TWC reporter…
Cycling isn’t naturally more attractive to men
It’s important to remember that though there is a huge inequality in the UK, that’s not the case elsewhere. Both Dr Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster, and Katja Leyendecker, Chair of Newcastle Cycling Campaign, pointed out that in nations were cycling is normalised, equal to greater numbers of women ride compared to men.
Aldred commented: “[In the UK] there are big inequalities by age and gender. For comparison, in the Netherlands… women’s cycling rates are generally higher than men’s cycling rates… It’s very, very different and that’s important because I think we often assume these inequalities are natural and in some way inevitable."
With women often making shorter trips, managing the school run, and usually taking responsibility for food shopping – both pointed out that it generally makes sense for women to cycle more. And yet in the UK, they do not.
Looking at research from around 50 studies, Aldred concludes that women express stronger preferences to cycling away from traffic – commenting: “Everyone wants better cycling infrastructure, but women express particularly strong preferences. If we can get the cycling environment right, we’ll get a greater diversity in cycling."
Cycling is empowering and changes lives – particularly in minority groups
Many of the women who came to speak talked not only about the difference cycling can make to the environment, to congestion and to day-to-day life, but to women’s confidence levels. The resounding feeling was one of empowerment and it’s clear that this can be felt particularly by women in minority groups.
Phillipa Robb is the Lead Cycling Trainer at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where she says a significant portion of their cycling budget has been given over to training women and minority groups.
The programme has been running two years, and has grown from strength to strength. Currently there are three key ride groups – one of which is made up of predominantly ‘Muslim and Ethiopian’ women. Phillipa said: “None of them knew how to ride earlier this year, and last Friday we rode from North Kensington to Big Ben and back. They really are achieving much more than they ever dreamt that they would."
Hannah Chivers is the Community Club Project Manager at Cycling UK. The project was set up to help more people from minority backgrounds access cycling, and in the last six months 52 per cent of the people they have worked with have been women.
She also noted that cycling could be hugely empowering to women in minority groups, but made it clear that groups had to work with communities on an individual basis. In other words, a one size fits all approach will not work. She said: “The barriers to getting one community group of women from an ethnic minority to cycle won’t be the same [as those] from other communities. To remove barriers, we need to work with the community to understand what they are – and build a programme around their needs as a community."
Women engage in cycling differently
Newsflash: women and men are different. The degree to which we differ varies dramatically. But as a rule, women prefer a more relaxed and less competitive atmosphere.
Sheridan Piggott works with the York Bike Belles, a community project that launched in 2014 and has involved over 7,000 women in their activities. Bike Belles events include steady led rides where lycra is not a requirement, cheese and wine bike mechanic nights, cycle coaching and they also organise bike loans.
Sheridan commented: “All our activities take place in relaxed environments, with plenty of time to get to know one another. Women love sharing – from my experience women who love cycling will stop at nothing until everyone they know gets involved as well."
Samantha McClary is the Head of Content and Deputy Editor at Estates Gazette – she spoke about ‘Padelle’ – a women in property cycling group that holds a 300 mile, three day ride. Explaining the property link she said “in property, cycling is the new golf – it’s the way people network – but we were frustrated that women weren’t getting involved."
Commenting on the way women’s rides are different, she said: “The Padelle women’s rides instantly feel more inclusive than mixed sex rides, the peloton takes its form much quicker, and people work together much quicker. Women love long distances, and adventure – if you provide support and take out that testosterone, and seriousness – you can achieve great things."
Making room for women in cycle sport improves cycling or all of us
We often see women coming into cycling as us infiltrating a currently male dominated world. Sometimes we even feel we have to ‘prove’ our worth, perhaps by copying the ‘norms’ of the male cycling community.
Adventure Syndicate Director Emily Chappell came with a very different proposition. That women do approach cycling differently: that we think our way out of tough situations on the bike, rather than turning to the age old ideas of churning muscle and ‘suffering’. That we appreciate beautiful clothing, that might not fit the traditional lycra image. That we support each other, even in competition - and that celebrating those qualities could change cycling for the better – for all cyclists.
Drawing on the rise in the popularity of adventure and endurance racing – disciplines which favour women and sometimes see them winning outright, she said: “It’s not about sport making room for women – that women will come in and start to get better at sport the way it is, and maybe one day compete with men. It’s that sport is going to change to accommodate women’s different skills and stamina and the way women do things."
She added: “By broadening the cycling world, carving out our niche and making space for it, we’re also making space for men and everyone. Women offer new ways of riding, new ways of getting through a challenge, new ways of presenting ourselves. And men can benefit from those. The more women we bring into cycling, the more room there is for all of us."
Of course, over the course of two hours, a lot was said – much of it incredibly insightful and useful Also speaking were Hilen Hiley, Senior Coaching and Educational Officer at British Cycling, Nigel Roberts, MD at Trek Bikes, and Claudia Corrigan – the Principal Cycling Programme Officer at Transport for London.
TWC greatly enjoyed listening to people from all walks of life discuss women in cycling - and we look forward to more of the same.