by Johanna Bleecker
As an avid rock climber, I always felt comfortable enough in climbing gyms. I would go with both guy and girl friends and on my own, was happy to make friends with other climbers, and never felt overtly discriminated against. Occasionally I would have to put up with others, usually male, giving patronizing tips I hadn’t asked for and didn’t want or trying to engage me in conversations that made me feel uncomfortable.
Then my bouldering gym started a women’s only time, adding a couple extra reserved hours onto their schedule.
Intrigued, my female friend and I went and found something in that space that we hadn’t realized we were missing. Women at all levels of climbing were cheering each other on, there were baked treats, and even the music was female-fronted. The biggest wall, usually overrun by the stronger male climbers, was being climbed by women who said they’d never felt comfortable trying it when the largely male clientele were showing off their skills one after another.
The women’s-only time was a comfortable, judgment-free zone for women to experiment and feel more comfortable in their skills, which would help them later when returning during regular hours.
I’ve made it my current mission to recapture that enthusiastic, supportive atmosphere in the different, also male-dominated world of bike repair.
After learning to work on my own bike in the friendly spaces of bike repair coops, I got further involved by volunteering at a coop in Vancouver after moving there last year. I assisted with a series of women’s only bike repair workshops which were welcomed by the community and created a warm camaraderie among the attendees, many of whom returned to attend multiple workshops in the series.
Upon moving to Hamilton, I took up my community bike repair volunteering at New Hope Community Bikes.
New Hope is a great charity which functions as a full-service volunteer-driven bike repair shop (at very affordable rates) and refurbishes and sells used bikes with a guarantee of quality and a reasonable price. Community members are encouraged to come in and work on their own bikes using our stands, tools, parts, and with assistance and instructions from volunteers as needed—the most affordable repair option around.
Bike repair education is one of New Hope’s priorities—knowing how to fix and maintain your own bike empowers riders, encourages more riding and a stronger attachment to your bicycle, and cuts down on the costs of bike ownership.
I think New Hope is a great organization, but I noticed quickly that I was the only female volunteer, and it was rare that a woman would come in to work on their own bike. As the Bristol Bike Project (BBP) points out, “The knowledge of mechanics has been historically gendered and segregated – that is, men (and boys) are encouraged to pursue technical and mechanical activities while women (and girls) are discouraged.”
A note: the use of ‘women’ is meant to indicate the gender minority who might feel uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces, which includes trans women, genderqueer, and other gender variant definitions as well as cis women.
Given that bike repair spaces are often dominated with males with some prior bike repair knowledge, and that women are often treated differently than men (sometimes subtly, sometimes more blatantly), creating a more welcoming bike shop experience would go a long way towards encouraging female self-repair and general ridership. The Edmonton Bicycle Commuters (EBC) website notes many potential differences in treatment:
- Assumptions that women need more help than men, to the detriment of both
- failure to explain the nature of technical problems to women (making the assumption that women won’t understand or are not interested)
- comments about a person’s appearance
- double-checking the work of a female mechanic with a male mechanic
- asking to speak with a mechanic (making the assumption that a female volunteer must not be a mechanic)
- referring to female mechanics in a diminutive or condescending manner (e.g. the phrase “lovely lady”, while appropriate in some contexts, is usually belittling in the context of the bike shop)
- interrupting non-male mechanics while they are explaining technical matters
- making sexual advances on patrons or volunteers
- taking tools out of the hands of non-male patrons”
I have experienced several of the above in my bike shop experiences, such as being referred to as “the female” and being explicitly told that women are more “suited” for the retail/inventory side of working at a bike shop than the mechanics side.
Though in an ideal world, detrimental gender roles and associated discrimination wouldn’t exist, they still run strong in our society, especially in traditionally male-dominated spaces like bike repair and rock climbing!
These spaces tend to self-segregate, as women aren’t interested in investing in spaces that don’t make them feel fully comfortable, even if the offender isn’t consciously aware of their bad behavior. Creating safe, welcoming “spaces where the agenda, tone, atmosphere and debate isn’t always defined by men,” where women can learn from other women, is an important way to combat the sexism that unfortunately permeates our society.
With the help of a wonderful woman who was involved with New Hope in the past and agreed to help plan and teach the workshops, and the full support of the New Hope manager and board, we had our first women’s only (trans/genderqueer inclusive) bike repair workshop in December. We filled our registration and our attendees were enthusiastic, great learners who gave us very positive reviews. And like my formative rock climbing experience, there were baked goods!
Our next repair workshop will be on Wednesday, January 14 from 6-9 PM—you can register by emailing email@example.com or calling/texting 905-545-1991. We will cover safety checks, fixing a flat, diagnosing and fixing common problems, adjusting gears and brakes, drivetrain maintenance, and whatever else you’d like to learn about. The workshop currently costs $25 but if interest stays high we will hopefully be able to subsidize some spots. If you can’t make this workshop but are interested in attending a future one, send an email saying so and we’ll notify you when they’ve been scheduled. Let’s get wrenching!
Johanna Bleecker is proud to call herself a freshly minted Hamiltonian after stints in San Francisco, Montreal, and Vancouver. She’s still seeking her dream job as a health geographer but is happy filling her time with wrenching bikes, climbing rocks, and knocking off socks with her vegan baking adventures.