Here at the PBMA, we wanted to spend a little time with some open discussion and thoughtful ways to focus on the women we have in our industry, and see some of the whys and hows of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going… together, as a group of mechanics. So this week we are going to be featuring women and others in the industry, to better understand the diversity that makes our group of talented technicians unique, and further our profession for all.
When one walks into a bike shop, rarely do we see a female behind the service counter with dark grease staining her fingers and wrench in hand. This has indeed been the norm for decades, but we're seeing some changes happening, and honestly… we should all be grateful.
Women mechanics are beginning to take their places along side the men in shops all over the country, but it has been a long process, and the reasons are myriad as to why the service departments have been dominated by men for so long. It is of special interest to me, personally, as I am a boob-havin', vagina-totin' human being who happens to be very good with technical stuff despite the tradition that these features of my anatomy are not normally associated with such technical aptitude in many minds. Why is that? Anatomy shouldn't necessarily have anything to do with it, right? Well, right! It doesn't. Aptitude in bicycle mechanics is not gender influenced, but it most certainly can be perceived as such, as is evidenced by the women and agender folks we've heard from. I asked a few questions of some women working on the mechanic side of things in our industry, and the responses were very interesting, and not entirely unfamiliar. What follows here are some insights that may help us all understand the bias that some of us face, and be aware and sensitive to it.
I asked how long they had been working on bikes, how they learned, whether there were or continue to be other women in the circles of influence around them, if there were negative reactions or experiences and how they were dealt with, and if they expect to stay in the industry. Here's what I learned…
Of course there is plenty of variation in how long these women had been working on bikes, ranging from relatively new mechanics to over 20 years. The common thread seemed to be simply an interest, some from a very early age in life, some more recent, but these are people who love to ride bikes and once the interest took hold, it manifested into a desire to tinker and eventually get more serious with it as a professional. It shows that it's about passion!
As for how folks learned, some learned from their male partner, as I myself did… any mentor we had who was able to break away the intimidation and fear of doing something wrong is an incredible ally in our growth. It is often that initial hindrance that pushes women away, or anyone, really… we all fear failure and none of us wants to break things or mess them up. So whenever we, as mechanics, have an opportunity to lend a helping hand to a cyclist who wants to understand the technical aspects of a bicycle, we should take it, and not be a barrier to learning for anyone. I've worked with many mechanics who tended to hoard knowledge, unwilling to share it. There is a certain psychology there, which I think is very important to dissect, and it comes (as all bad human behavior does) from fear. When a mechanic is skilled and fears competition from other mechanics, they will keep tidbits of information to themselves to wield as ammunition for the moments when they can swoop into a situation and bear that knowledge like a social sword; "step aside… I know how to do this". This is done so that the importance, the place, the status of said mechanic is not questioned, and job security prevails. However, it is damaging to the social fabric of the service department, as it places stress not only on those who lack the knowledge with possible feelings of inferiority, but also places undue stresses on that almighty-important mechanic who may then feel overloaded with pressure to be the guru. Wouldn't it be better to have all people in the department feel valued and share the knowledge so that problems get tackled by all? Of course there will be those who have less and those who have more knowledge, but the knowledge itself is what should be the shared commodity when at all possible. Then the fear is reduced for all, and bad behavior is reduced for all.
Some of us were very lucky to have women mechanics in our lives as examples of the possibility. I had worked on bikes since I was a kiddo, but had never thought of the possibility of it as a profession until I met my first female mechanic. She worked at the shop I bought my first bike-shop bike at, after having just blown into town coming off a cross-country ride and decided to settle in for a spell. She became the head instructor at Barnett Bicycle Institute eventually, and continued to inspire me for years. If it wasn't for her, who knows what I would be doing, to be perfectly honest. Sometimes it's that one person who however subtly comes along and changes the wind in our sails just enough to veer us into a whole different direction… sometimes it takes a while to understand, and sometimes it is immediate. The point is, you never know how you might influence someone, so why not make it as positive as it can be when we come across these opportunities to share?
We have all had some horror stories or just plain unpleasant experiences as women behind the service counter or even when answering the phone. This is an all-too common thread among the women I interviewed, but for many it was from the customers, and not the fellow mechanics, where the negativity was felt. Often when I answered the phone with "hello, Jenny in service here", I'd get "yeah, can I talk to a mechanic?"… and I wonder, what part of me being in service not let you know I am a mechanic? And in as non-snarky a voice as possible, "yes, I am a mechanic, in the service department… what can I do for you?" "oh. okay, uh, sorry!" And usually the customer self-checks and proceeds on with their query and all is well. Or standing in the service department as a woman and having the customer (male and female!) look past the woman mechanic with a "yea, is there someone back there who can look at my bike"? But some women have found that despite their assertions of being knowledgeable, their work is questioned, they are treated differently, and all is not so well. It is these occasions where co-workers are often great to step in and offer that, in fact, she is the one who knows better and can help you… a few respondents were able to turn these occasions into some gratifying, team-building moments for the whole crew, as well as educational moments for the customer to realize that there are bright minds in more flavors than "man".
It seems that all these respondents were able to ride the waves of adversity with relative aplomb, and carry on with doing what they love… but we don't know how many have not, as they may be lost at sea or got out of the water altogether. But there are many men, too, who were not able to hack the stresses and pressure of being in the trenches at the bike shop. I've met many men over the years who didn't have much technical aptitude or natural mechanical ability, despite their desires to be good at it, and they are off doing things outside the bike industry. Bicycle mechanics, as we all know, is about detail orientation, patience, and problem solving, among many other factors. These qualities are not gendered, not by any means. There are not any particularly high amounts of strength required that cannot be overcome by leverage, and so any physical aspects of gender differences that might be argued are a completely, utterly moot point.
All of the folks interviewed said they want to stay in the industry. They are all passionate about what they do, and see their futures in it. It is a wonderful thing to see so many strong, able women in our industry, helping to shape it, grow it, and share themselves with others who want to be a part of it. May we continue to see many more, and hopefully the men will happily make room and encourage and support the women and non-men folks who want their rightful places in the shops all across the country, and world. We are all better for it.
The rest of this week we'll be looking at individual profiles from some ladies in out there in the world of bicycle mechanics. We're hoping you will find inspiration and understanding of the roles these women have and how the industry moves forward with these amazing women!
written by Jenny Kallista
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