Sunday, January 18, 2009

Another Thing About the Tech Summit

If any of you read my friend Beth's comment on my previous post about the Tech Summit, you'll note that she mentioned taking a class with Calvin years ago, and being the only woman in a class of 50 bicycle mechanics. Well, if the Summit is in any way indicative, things haven't gotten any better in that respect... there were 240 registered participants, and exactly 2 women. I was stunned. Sure, I knew this was a male dominated field, but I thought the numbers wouldn't be quite that skewed. Apparently I was wrong.

One thing that's interesting about this to me is that I used to work in the field of theatre technology, also strongly stacked in the male direction. I used to really notice it when I would go to trade shows and conferences... the bulk of folks I met were men, and mostly white men at that. In graduate school, it was much the same... a tiny number of women among a sea of men. And the stories I'd hear... smart women, very capable technicians in their own right, when calling some equipment supplier, would get the "maybe you should ask your boss if that's really what he wants" response. Maddening.

And it must be much the same for female bicycle mechanics. It makes no sense at all... there is nothing inherent in bicycle repair that makes a man better qualified than a woman. Even if you accept the difference in physical strength as a given, that's no reason. And women do ride bikes. So why is it we have so few working in shops. I suppose it's a long lived cultural bias, which is self-feeding. Women traditionally didn't go into those sorts of manual trades, it just "wasn't done"... and change happens slowly, in part because women (sensibly, I suppose) can feel a little (or a lot) intimidated by being so outnumbered in an environment made up almost entirely of men.

I ran into a really good example of that in theatre... at a conference where I was helping review college student's portfolios, one young woman admitted she was nervous about pursuing a career in technical direction for just that reason. I told her not to let it stop her, if that's what she really wanted to do. I didn't sugar coat it or tell her it would be easy, but I did tell her there was no REAL reason she couldn't do it, and not to let fear hold her back. And the theatre industry as a whole has made some attempts to change the culture and make it easier for women to fit in.

So what about the bike industry? How do we get more women involved on the repair side of things? I see a lot of women riding bikes these days, and many of them seem to be "serious" riders (I hate that phrasing, by the way... it makes us sound grim). And I've had quite a few women take my basic maintenance class. So there's potential there. What can be done to encourage more women to try being a "real" bicycle mechanic? I don't know, but I think it's something all of us in the industry should think about. It's never good for any field when people feel excluded on the basis of gender, race, or what have you.

1 comment:

beth h said...

At Citybikes, we do it by bringing in a new class of apprentices every two to three years (as space permits). Of course, we want people who want to work cooperatively as we're a co-op run by consensus. But we also want to encraouge people who don't normally populate the bike industry: women, people of color and people encountering a mid-life career change have all come through our program. Sadly, Citybikes is a rarity among bike shops in the United States.

Most shops are content to let Barnett's and UBI train the modern crop of mechanics, and that works well if (a) you sell lots of bikes with disc brakes and shocks and other newer technologies; and (b) you can actually find grads of those programs willing to move to your fair city to work.

Take a look at who attends training programs at these two schools -- who can afford to attend; who is less likely to have children or elderly parents at home to care for (women still do about 85 per cent of that vital work); and how car-centric the culture they come from is (think many American communities of color for whom getting a car is an almost spiritual rite of passage); and you'll get a good idea of why it's mostly younger white men who are bike mechanics in this country.

I'm not saying it's wrong or ought to be changed in One Swell Fwoop. I'm just saying that it's a reflection of the bigger demographic picture, and examined in that context it does make more sense.

That said, I am thrilled to be working in the bike industry, especially in January of 2009. I and the thousands of others who sell and repair bikes every day are doing an immeasurable service to our communities and to our country by showing Another Way. Perhaps before I retire -- and it's likely I'll find a way to stay in the bike industry until I do -- we'll see at least the beginning of a change in the demographic of the bike industry workforce. Let's hope so.