Nicole Grace, formerly one of our Women’s Outreach Chairs, recently offered a weekend women’s tour to Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Santa Cruz. Unfortunately the ride did not take place because of lack of interest. Perhaps it was scheduling conflicts with the particular weekend for which it was slated or perhaps touring, which is out of cultural favor, is too tough a sell these days. But it got me thinking about the current low female membership in the club and the diminishing presence of women in the club. Different Spokes currently has 22 female members out of total of 132: that’s only 17%. Perhaps that’s too paltry a number from which to generate interest in a two-day weekend bike tour. Yet it certainly isn’t the lowest membership we’ve had; my recollection is that in the 1980s it dropped to about ten percent at one point before rebounding. On the other hand the club has had near parity at times, close to 40 or 45%. The number has been low and declining for that last several years and seems to be dwindling with no end in sight. Are we headed towards male exclusivity?
So, what has happened? It’s easy to dismiss the whole issue of gender and say it’s just a natural cycle of waxing and waning, or that “it is what it is” and that women are free to join and associate–what’s holding them back? But it’s disturbing that the club, for whatever reason, just doesn’t seem to be attractive to many women cyclists right now. This hasn’t always been the case; when the club has had strong female leadership the number of women members inevitably went up.
Nicole and Nancy Levin looked into recent ride participation and discovered that the vast majority of new women who showed up on a ride never came back or joined. They discovered that the lack of other women on rides or at least the low numbers on rides was discouraging to potential members. Also, the pace, length, or degree of difficulty of the rides was more than they expected. Alas, we seem to be in a self-perpetuating downward spiral: fewer women members leads to fewer women-led rides or female ride participation, which in turn means fewer new female members and thus fewer women to lead the club or lead rides.
In a way the situation of women in the club is not unlike that of a gay man going to a ride offered by almost any of the straight clubs in the Bay Area. You show up and the guys are all straight. You’d feel a bit out of place, right? And flirting or dating? Forget it. Maybe it would be fine if all you wanted to do was ride your bike with others and nothing else. But we come to rides to socialize, find friends, and let’s face it, even to find dates!
Is there a way to break the cycle? More outreach to women cyclists is a possibility. But what would we have to offer any prospective member except again being overwhelmed by the number of men on rides and low female participation? After all, women join the club for the same reason that men do: not just to ride but to socialize and perhaps find a date! We could offer more women-only rides or rides co-led by women. That would put a lot of pressure on the existing female members to step up and be more involved in the club. Do we even have enough interest by existing female members to pull that off?
At the moment we’re doing nothing, and the outcome of that non-strategy may be that Different Spokes becomes an even more exclusive male domain. Is that what we want? Perhaps if we do nothing the situation will self-rectify. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I think it behooves members of Different Spokes to think about the kind of club we want to have, how inclusive we want to be, and evolve the club towards something we can all be happy about and proud of.