Cycling, sex difference and the problems with victim blaming

As British women cyclists bring home more gold from the Track Cycling World Championships, we are reminded that in London, female cyclists are more likely to be killed or seriously injured than are their male counterparts. One blogger recently worked out that in one area, it is only women who are killed . Now I think his map drawing is a little selective, but one thing is true. As the BBC reported back in 2009, in collisions between cyclists and lorries, the victim is far more likely to be female than male, even though fewer women cycle.

From this there follows speculation. What were the women doing? Is it because they wait at red lights and so lorries turn over the top of them? Are they more hesitant and less assertive than their male counterparts? Is their road positioning less good? All of which strikes me as just so much victim blaming. The question should not be ‘why are female cyclists more likely to be hit?’ rather it should be ‘why are lorry drivers more likely to hit female cyclists?’ The emphasis in the latter is altogether different. Why is it that lorry drivers quite frequently turn over the top of female cyclists? Do they not see them? Do they see them and just not care? What is it about driver perception that makes drivers more likely to register the presence of male cyclists than female cyclists?

My own observation with drivers overtaking is that their ‘thought process’, if I can dignify it with that name, goes approximately like this: Cyclist in front, cyclist slow, must overtake cyclist. They will then overtake, oblivious of the traffic conditions ahead, thereby risking shaving off someone’s right knee simply to get to the back of a queue of traffic clearly visible 20 metres in front of them. But with female cyclists the problem seems to be worse and the thought process deteriorates into: Woman on bike in front, women really, really slow, must overtake slow cyclist.

Most of the time when I’m overtaken, the driver severely underestimates my speed, cutting back in too tightly so that I have to slam on the brakes to avoid being clipped by their inside rear wheel. They simply don’t realise how fast a woman on a bike can go. My evidence is anecdotal, based on my experience and observation but not currently backed up by stats. Nonetheless, my experience is that women get pushed around on the road, just as they often get pushed around in life.

To be clear this is not straightforwardly about sexism. I’m not saying that male drivers are such sexist idiots that they think it’s OK to mow down women. I think there’s something rather different and more subtle going on. Drivers in general, male and female, often fail to see cyclists, both male and female. However, I do think that women are generally less respected, actually by both sexes. There is an assumption that women should be more passive and that they should give way. On the roads this means an assumption that female cyclists should move over, should not be ‘in the way’, should be compliant and should move, or brake, or whatever it takes so that motor vehicles can continue unimpeded.

We can see something similar in the rows over ‘yummy mummies’ and their prams. Yummy mummies, those posh, upper-middle class women with buggies the size of a small family car, have the audacity to take up too much room. That, in these rows, seems to be their principle sin. They occupy space. And here we have an interesting example of the intersection between class and gender. The middle classes take up room. Sit in a quiet pub when someone from a public school walks in and you’ll know them immediately. Their presence and their voice will fill the room as they enter. And yummy mummies act like this because their class allows them to. But in having this confidence, this ability to let their presence intrude on the notice of others, they cease to adhere to the conventions of their gender that they be quiet and unobtrusive. Much of modern western society prefers its women to be a size zero and little more than a coat hanger. Yummy mummies break the gender rules by occupying space.

I break the rules myself but in a rather different way. My old Dawes bike is a man’s bike with a large, diamond frame. I ride fast and I ride confidently. When I’m on the road my space is mine. Oh I respect other people, but I demand that they respect me. So when I’m on a cycle path about to overtake someone, out of the corner of their eye they see someone moving quickly, confidently and assertively. And on numerous occasions I’ve heard a mother turn to her child and say ‘move over so the man can come past, oh…’ The ‘oh’ and the rather puzzled look is what happens when gender expectations conflict. They’ve seen someone moving assertively so they assume I’m male. Then they look properly, see a small-featured face, long curly hair and a very slight and very definitely female body and realise that actually, a rather petite woman is acting in a way more often associated with men.

Of the various complaints that I hear about cyclists, some of the most common are that they are ‘in the way’, that they are a problem to pass or that they slow the traffic down. They are occupying space that drivers want. And since women are supposed to occupy less space, their sin is worse. To those drivers who are anti-cycling, cyclists are other. They are lower, lesser, further down the pecking order and if there’s one thing lower than a cyclist, it’s a female cyclist. Cyclists on the whole are expected to get out of the way, female cyclists even more so. We do not expect women to intrude.

To return to the question, why are lorry drivers less likely to see women, it’s because they care less. Women are less visible to them. Drivers look but don’t see. They don’t often care to register the presence of a cyclist and they care even less to register the presence of a woman on a bike. But this lack of ability to see female cyclists tells us about the way all cyclists are viewed. Ultimately, there are drivers out there who really do think it’s OK to go straight over the top of you. In the case of Mary Bowers, for ten seconds she was in front of the driver who later ran her over, whilst they both waited at traffic lights. But he was having a phone conversation and he just didn’t see her. This is not about her behaviour as a cyclist – it’s about his perception as a driver. When we look, we see what is important to us. Cyclists are often not viewed as important enough, and women even less so.

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “Cycling, sex difference and the problems with victim blaming

  1. Thank you for taking the thoughts in my head and them writing them down in an eloquent way. This is really a fantastic piece.

    What you are talking about is sexism though. Sexism describes a subtype of the systemic and institutionalized manifestation of oppression. Specifically, sexism is the widespread problem where women (and things viewed as “feminine”) are valued less so than men (and things viewed as “masculine”). Sexism is perpetrated by men, because it requires this prejudice PLUS the social power in order to actually act on it in ways that the overall society will accept. However, sexism so widespread and part of our socialization that both women and men “buy into it” so to speak. Women have often internalized the dominant messages that facilitate sexism. (this isn’t just thoughts in my head — this is the decades old, sociological / anthropological definition of oppression and all the -isms).

    A lot of people talk about these things as describing people’s personality and motivations, and just in general who they are. That person “is ” a sexist. That person “is” a racist. But that prevents us from looking at this wider problem, the more subtle forms of these problems, that you discuss here. Most men genuinely do not want to “be” sexists. White people don’t want to “be” racists. The problem, though, is that EVERYONE is socialized from a sexist, racist society.

    So men, for example, can (and do) ACT or behave in ways promote / facilitate / perpetrate / fall in line with sexism. If we focus on people’s ACTIONS and behaviors, then perhaps everyone (men and women) will be more likely to respond to what we’re saying, and we can start changing things. At least, I’d like to think so.

    Because you’re so right. First of all, women aren’t really supposed to be cycling–we are represented much and it’s viewed as a man’s sport. Second, women aren’t supposed to be aggressive. So, put a woman cyclists out on the road, acting aggressively? We’re violating a lot of norms in just that one action!

    Incredibly powerful post. thank you.

    • Thanks for the comment, and thanks for the reblog!
      I agree that sexism becomes built in and taken for granted. But I also wanted to make the point that some women can be sexist in their actions – that it really isn’t as simple as men vs. women. Mainly I was trying to pre-empt any anti-feminist comments that say ‘oh but women are horrible to women too’ as if that suddenly means sexism cannot exist.
      Do you know this website http://www.everydaysexism.com/ ? It’s an amazing project though sometimes reading all the accounts can be depressing. The uplifting thing though is the amount of support people get there.

      • So my comment got deleted twice before I could ever send it. Now I’m annoyed! Argh, wordpress! Anyway…third time’s the charm!

        No problem on the reblog, this is a great article and I think it’s great to stir up discussion!

        Yes. Women, as individuals, can do things that are harmful to men and women. I know I cringe whenever I hear someone—man or woman—call another woman a b*tch (or worse). However, when women do those things, it’s not sexism. It’s prejudice or discrimination, depending on the action.

        Now, I know it might sound like I’m playing a semantics game…but this distinction is actually critically important if we, as a global society, truly want to end oppression. It’s critical because in our language we have to acknowledge that institutionalized privilege exists. That certain groups, simply by nature of belonging to that group, have unearned advantages over other groups. These privileges are not necessarily desired on the part of the members, but they remain just the same.

        You have to look at which GROUP has the institutional power. Here are some links that can describe much more eloquently than I can.

        http://thegenderblenderblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/another-101-fact-there-is-no-such-thing-as-reverse-sexism/

        http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/10/19/sexism-definition/

        Everyone can point to individual level examples (“But I know this woman and she is with a man and he’s scared of her” or “I know a woman CEO”).

        Well…That’s why people must look to systematic inquiry and averages and statistics. It’s when we look at men and women as a group we see that women are disproportionally victims of intimidate partner violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. That men are more likely to get a job, earn higher starting wages, and see a quicker promotion, and be more likely to get to the top. I could go on…

        They don’t necessarily say anything about an individual woman or man (which, is why in my first comment I was talking about how I really don’t like to say men “are” sexist—it’s plays into this very useful tactic that people use to deny oppression exists). They say something about SOCIETY – they talk about what, overall, society values.

        Also, there’s a lot of anti-feminism going around. I get a lot of comments whenever I post anything remotely feminist-like (but, interestingly, my partner pointed out that when HE posts something similarly feminist, people applaud him and he gets a lot more positive comments and likes. Hmmm…). However, don’t let that stop you =) Feminism gets a lot of hate because of men who don’t want to lose their privileged status. They’ve been complaining about women’s equality for centuries, and we live in a sexist society, so it’s easy even as a woman to be anti-feminist.

        The backlash is powerful, but we musn’t back down. We must educate, and let people know that feminism is about EQUALITY for all groups (not man-hating: have you checked out of my posts about how feminists are less hostile to men than non-feminist women?). And science backs feminism up: the degree to which sexism exists in a society is strongly related to how well they are doing on a number of factors, like economic growth, physical and mental health. Etc. That is, more sexist societies have poorer outcomes for men AND women.

        I will check out the website – thanks!

  2. Reblogged this on women.cyclists and commented:
    Are women cyclists being killed because they aren’t confident enough on the road? A thoughtful post about this topic.

  3. interesting… might also be see cyclist, cyclist female, check out, where the eyes are the truck drifts, bump.

    I find riding alone on even slightly trafficked roads results in more close calls. It seems with a group drivers fear the witness and don’t get as close.

  4. Guys are “dumb enough” to put themselves in harms way. Making themselves more visible. Women follow the rules more, which makes them harder to see. Not a good thing but does reflect real life.

    • I disagree–this is a pretty stereotype that really doesn’t help address these issues. I know unsafe women cyclists and really safe male cyclists.

      It also directly conflicts with another stereotype I hear about women all the time–that women are too vain to wear helmets and we have to teach women to be safe and not care so much about looks.

      Neither are accurate, neither are useful.

      • I don’t know why “pretty” is in there…haha … ignore that word!

      • Luckily the only lady bikers i know refuse to go anywhere without a helmut

      • helmet use and gender is an interesting topic. ive tried to pay attention and keep track. i see a slight lean towards women wearing helmets but not much. but i havent been systematic about it. so i dunno!

      • Here in Seattle, downtown it is hands down guys do not wear them. With that many cars I think eh are nuts! In the Chilly Hilly today everyone had them, men and women, but then it was required by the ride.

      • never been. that is super interesting. why do you think that is? i wonder what it is about seattle or the culture there that creates such a stark difference?

      • I’ve never figured it out but I’d say better than half of the downtown riders are taking their lives in their own hands that way

  5. As a woman cycling in London, I’ve never noticed that I get treated any differently by drivers than anyone else. If a driver isn’t paying attention and hasn’t seen a cyclist then by definition they won’t have noticed whether that cyclist they haven’t seen is a man or a woman.

    I’ve read elsewhere that women are more likely to be injured or killed on their bikes because they’re more likely to follow the rules than men and I think that’s true. Staying safe on a bike and following the rules of the road are not always the same thing, and it takes a bit of confidence to know the difference. I cycle confidently and pretty fast, and thus far it’s kept me out of any major accidents, even after 10 years of cycling in London.

    • I take your point about ‘if they haven’t seen you they don’t know what sex you are’. However, this isn’t simply about what someone’s eyes take in, but about how they process that information. Our eyes take in a huge amount of information. As I understand it, our subconscious then processes this and only a certain amount of information impinges on our conscious awareness. Thus I think drivers do see cyclists, register the information, including whether or not the cyclist is male or female, before the information impinges on a conscious level.

      I’ll see if I can find a reference but I read some time ago that car drivers are more likely to see cyclists if they are wearing a police uniform – which raises the same problem. How do they know a cyclist is in a police uniform or not unless they’ve seen them?

      There’s a good article about seeing and perception in relation to driving here http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists/

    • It’s always good to hear cases of non-discrimination. A little bit of “faith in humanity restored” perhaps?

      However, it’s also important for people to not discount the reality of a widespread problem, like the one discussed here, that harms a GROUP on the basis of ONE, individual experience. If there’s one female CEO, does that mean the glass ceiling doesn’t exist? If there’s a Black president (now I’m talking US context of course) does that mean racism has ended?

      These are working hypotheses. Given the historical, political, and economic context of global sexism, this is by far the most plausible I have seen that actually addresses this context without victim blaming or stereotyping.

      But that’s why, as I mentioned in my reply to Helen, research and systematic inquiry is crucial for understanding issues like these. We realized long ago that human minds were not good at just “seeing” patterns while going about everyday life. They are important, and can help inform a systematic inquiry, but they are by no means sufficient. Social psychologists have done a lot of work to show how such observations are often faulty, because of things like confirmation bias and hindsight bias.

  6. This is a really interesting and very hard-hitting post. As a female cyclist in London I must confess I was ignorant of how many cyclist deaths were actually female. It’s shocking and so saddening. Are these stupid drivers showing so little respect to female cyclists because we’re just “girls” and not very scary?! I spend at least 2 hours a day on my bike and in that time I usually spy at least one male cyclist shouting abuse at a car/lorry/bus with great anger for being cut up/pushed off the road. However I don’t see any of the same aggression coming from the women. Surely we don’t have to become foul-mouthed angry women to get some respect on the roads? What shocks me most of all these drivers that treat women so badly must have mothers, possibly wives or girlfriends, maybe even a sister, a daughter; where is the compassion and how do they manage to disassociate that from the female sitting in front of them on a bike?
    Ironically some of the worst close shaves I’ve experienced have been thanks to bad women drivers! I just think so much more needs to be done as a whole for cyclists’s safety on the roads in London.

    • Very good points! I think that in general, as a society we think women are more likely to defer, to be passive, “follow the rules”. If everyone (men and women) grow up with this, then it makes sense that both men and women drivers would behave similarly.

      It could be because we aren’t scary. I think that could definitely be part of it. I also think that another part could be that women are supposed to defer to others, to be scared and timid, and not aggressive. So, it might not be lack of respect, per se, but the expectation that women will just get out of the way because that’s what women do.

    • When I was a cycle messenger in London most of the time when I was rugged up in my outdoors gear I looked like guy. A small guy, but while I was on my bike, drivers didn’t have long enough to take a good look at me and assumed I was male. The same happened on foot and as most cycle couriers are male, women would assume that I was a guy and being male would hold doors open for them. Say I was entering a building and I could get through a door a good 15 seconds or more before an oncoming woman could pass through, I wouldn’t stand around (in the cold & rain) holding the door for them. If its a close range thing then I would wait, generally the building I was entering was our client and it pays to be polite but otherwise I wouldn’t go out of my way. Women would get really annoyed at me and would often swear at me for not holding doors. I would remove my scarf or hat and they would realise their mistake and stalk off.

      I have seen enough women cyclists doing the same thing at junctions, thinking a left turning van or HGV will wait for them to pass before turning. Most cyclists seem totally unaware for the huge blind spots this type of vehicle has anyway but from my observations some women also seem to have the view that the driver of a HGV is male and will “hold the door for them”.

      I have had a comedic amount of apologies from van couriers who have turned across in front of me that I have then caught up with in a loading bay. They normally start the conversation with “sorry love i didn’t realise” as if its OK to cut across in front of a male cyclist! I guess this stems from the belief than male cyclists are more aware and would react quickly to a vehicle turning ahead of them? I have also had a lot of aborted attempts at this maneuver from black cabbies who then stop and shout “sorry love, after you” when they notice I’m female. The only time that I am overtaken by left turning vehicles is during my rush hour commute when I am surrounding by loads of cyclists and a much higher proportion of irate drivers who do have to fight across the crowds of cyclists to be able to turn. Do you think that this means that men have more drivers pulling across in front of them and women have more drivers overtaking them and then turning left across them? The driver turning across in front is much easier to avoid than the one coming from nowhere and taking you by surprise so it this a reason for more female fatalities?

    • Road rage has no gender bias. It treats men and women the same (before the persons own views and biases rein it in, or not).

  7. When I was a cycle messenger in London most of the time when I was rugged up in my outdoors gear I looked like guy. A small guy, but while I was on my bike, drivers didn’t have long enough to take a good look at me and assumed I was male. The same happened on foot and as most cycle couriers are male, women would assume that I was a guy and being male would hold doors open for them. Say I was entering a building and I could get through a door a good 15 seconds or more before an oncoming woman could pass through, I wouldn’t stand around (in the cold & rain) holding the door for them. If its a close range thing then I would wait, generally the building I was entering was our client and it pays to be polite but otherwise I wouldn’t go out of my way. Women would get really annoyed at me and would often swear at me for not holding doors. I would remove my scarf or hat and they would realise their mistake and stalk off.

    I have seen enough women cyclists doing the same thing at junctions, thinking a left turning van or HGV will wait for them to pass before turning. Most cyclists seem totally unaware for the huge blind spots this type of vehicle has anyway but from my observations some women also seem to have the view that the driver of a HGV is male and will “hold the door for them”.

    I have had a comedic amount of apologies from van couriers who have turned across in front of me that I have then caught up with in a loading bay. They normally start the conversation with “sorry love i didn’t realise” as if its OK to cut across in front of a male cyclist! I guess this stems from the belief than male cyclists are more aware and would react quickly to a vehicle turning ahead of them? I have also had a lot of aborted attempts at this maneuver from black cabbies who then stop and shout “sorry love, after you” when they notice I’m female. The only time that I am overtaken by left turning vehicles is during my rush hour commute when I am surrounding by loads of cyclists and a much higher proportion of irate drivers who do have to fight across the crowds of cyclists to be able to turn. Do you think that this means that men have more drivers pulling across in front of them and women have more drivers overtaking them and then turning left across them? The driver turning across in front is much easier to avoid than the one coming from nowhere and taking you by surprise so it this a reason for more female fatalities?

    • Odd, isn’t it, Pixi? I guess male drivers might try to be chivalrous towards female cyclists, but it’s just sexism with slightly better PR. I would rather people just considered the feelings of other human beings. Don’t carve people up, because it’s dangerous and scares the shit out of them, regardless of what sex they are. And hold doors open for other people, not because you think that ladies are literally and metaphorically incapable of opening doors for themselves, but because it is simply polite.

      As for your final question, I’m not sure. I bought a new bike recently and when I took it out for a test ride I got to test the brakes, and nearly went over the handlebars, because someone cut across me. I don’t think there was any doubting what sex I am as I was wearing stereotypically female clothes, had my long hair loose, no helmet (sue me) and a handbag slung over my shoulder. That’s just one example though and as womencyclists points out, we need evidence that applies to groups, not just anecdotes.

      But as much as anything it feels to me as if driver perception is that I am ‘in the way’. When I’m out riding my horse, a rather well-built Irish Draught cross, drivers more or less have to back down because of the size of him. This effect is doubled if I lead out his friend with him, a Shire cross of equal size. With some male drivers I can feel the resentment boiling off them as they realise that yes, they have to back down in the face of a 55kg woman if she happens to be in charge of two horses with a combined weight of around 1200kg. It’s a very interesting power reversal.

      • I have to agree with you. I would rather just be left alone rather than have to cycle around expecting everyone in a car to do something dumb or dangerous. Especially as I’m perceived to be slow and docile. And it would have been really nice if those women that I held doors for would do the same for me rather than dropping the thing right in my face. However there is a disparity and HGV awareness needs to be targeted as within London the most fatalities (Men and women) have been due HGV’s.

        I rather like the borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s road safety awareness campaign “road hug” which focuses on vulnerable road users as people not vehicles which whatever sex you are is the real key. We are not vehicles, we are not surrounded by a big protective metal cage and when you nearly hit us we don’t dent, we die. I think people see there cars as extensions of their homes and it’s totally acceptable for them to have a bit a tantrum safely tucked away behind closed doors. BUT when they start screaming away in their car the whole word can see AT someone then that is not on. You wouldn’t do it if you where standing on the street in the open so why do it in you car? How about introducing anger management in driver training?

        Maybe I should lead a horse out with me everywhere I go. Not sure where I would keep it though. I’ve also found a size disparity with the way drivers treat me. My husband is 6’4″ (I’m 5’6″) and drivers have a tendency to overtake me, then ‘suddenly’ see him and panic as they need to give him more space, wait to overtake him and force me into the curb as the have forgotten I’m there. I don’t think this one is a question of sex as I do have a male mate that I’ve got 6 inches on and the same thing happens to him if hes behind me. I’ve found a polite knock (yes, really, polite) on the passengers window reminds them I’m there, often with comical results (varying from profuse apologies to death threats for having touched their car).

        On a funny note, I liked riding around pillion on a motorbike as I could have a right old stare into peoples cars. I didn’t have to concentrate on the driving and you have a really good vantage point and get right up close! Do you get the same vantage on the horse or do you have to pay more attention than that?

  8. Pingback: Cycling Deaths in London (UK) — Why are Women dying more thant men? | Bicycle Geek

  9. Pingback: Cycling Deaths in London (UK) — Why are Women dying more than men? | Bicycle Geek

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