Are there mixed messages in mountain biking?
After a couple of years doing media work in mountain bike racing, it’s a question I get asked every now and then by event promoters desperate to grow women’s participation in their competitions. After all, so many women of all ages are taking up the sport – why is it that women’s fields at events from major national races to quiet club meets hover at about 10 per cent of overall entries? Is there some explanation? Better still, is there a way to attract women we haven’t thought of yet?
At first, the best advice I could come up with was to offer clean toilets. Some ladies aren’t so keen on Portaloos.
But the question of why women aren’t out racing, at least in Australia, is important. There’s an argument that we need women to participate in the public side of the sport because we need industry and the media to see how powerful they are as consumers of their products. I’d love to see more women participate in discussions about where the sport is going and what its values are.
I can’t offer data, just observations and anecdotes – many of which are disgraceful generalisations. In spite of this, I think it’s worth discussing what’s keeping women from participating in MTB events, and as usual your thoughts and comments are welcome. First of all I’m going to look at marketing.
A sense of alienation from the sport, even from women actively participating it, must be partly to blame, and I believe this has its roots in the way mountain biking markets itself to consumers.
Working for MTB media I read every issue of our Aussie mags as they’re released, and even while editors include female writers and feature women’s gear and bikes, nearly all of the ads feature strong guys muscling bikes over some kind of gnar or through the air. This is in spite of the fact that the majority of people heading out on the weekend ride trails that IMBA would classify as ‘green’ or ‘blue’ at their hardest. I’ve been riding for 15 years and they still freak me out. Like a cork on the ocean, a tiny, barely detectable thought floats by: I should be riding that? Jeezus.
On websites and occasionally in mags there are ads for women’s specific bikes and gear, too. They first appeared about ten years ago and are ubiquitous today as the bike industry’s marketing engines work harder and harder at targeting advertising to particular segments. Textbook really. But I find them a bit jarring – and I’m sure you know why: they feature smiling, relaxed, social riding with pretty pastels and prints, accessories, and text that promotes cycling as a safe, social, leisure activity and that’s it.
There’s nothing wrong with either kind of marketing. I’m just a media lady – the people designing these ads are university-educated marketing professionals running focus groups, surveys, and analysing reams and reams of Google and Facebook data to hit the nail on the head. And it must be working or 1. The bike industry would be in trouble 2. They wouldn’t keep running the ads.
Marketing works by connecting a brand with certain characteristics, no matter how aspirational, that people want to be associated with. I assume that bike brands mostly target men between the ages of about 18 and 45, and clearly they want to see some adrenalin, some risk-taking, and skills on display, some hard-core adventure – even if they’re struggling to get over a log themselves.
But I think that for the women’s ads the marketing is about depicting a lifestyle, a sense of wellbeing, fun, and relaxation –the assumption is that women want their mountain bike experience to be more about cupcakes than about risk-taking, mud, air-time, and broken bones. Fair enough. Unfortunately neither of these depictions of mountain biking are encouraging women to race: On one hand they’re exposed to an alienating depiction of hard-core adrenalin that in real life you’d have to enter a downhill or gravity event to experience. On the other they’re told that riding is about lipstick, giggles, and fashion. Racing mountain bikes in cross country or endurance events like I do is really about neither. They’re about challenge, fitness, the outdoors, travel, and exploration.
Inspired by feminist bikers such as Amanda Batty, Jordana Blackman of online group Chicks Who Ride Bikes has recently started a campaign targeting sexist advertising (quite different from the examples I identified above) under the #dearbikeindustry hashtag. A European online bike store, Superior Bikes, recently came under fire and was lambasted as ‘blatantly sexist’ for publishing lines like:
‘Female cyclists do not generally need to push their limits, race against time and increase their adrenaline when riding rough downhill trails. They just want to enjoy the time spent in nature on the bike, and their expectations from the bike are completely different than men’s.’
This was accompanied by images of men riding techy trails, and women sitting around having a picnic with bikes.
The problem, as Jordana sees it, isn’t in identifying that women might want different things from their cycling from men, but in the patriarchal assumption that they do, or that they should.
‘The problem here – the REAL problem – is that women are misunderstood by the bike industry.’
I did a very unscientific analysis of a few websites of races around the country which, I’m sure, are keen to attract more women. Of these websites’ landing pages, all of which displayed several huge images, only two featured a female (one a young elite racer) on a bike. One website’s only picture of women was of a group of volunteers who were not riding. Among this are multitudes of photos of the elite men’s start lines, the men’s winner, the men’s field, children’s racing. I’m sure there are exceptions but my little survey found a trend.
This isn’t the event promoters’ fault and no criticism is intended whatsoever. Unfortunately their predicament is self-perpetuating. The more blokes turn up, the fewer images of women they have to choose from.
It is sensible to target the demographic most likely to enter than the one that frequently doesn’t.
But images like these, and more so, the ones used in industry advertising, are powerful signs that communicate real messages about women’s place in mountain biking, whether we notice it or it quietly floats by.
While some events might struggle with format, prize money, categories in an effort to lure women, I’d suggest that women’s numbers might improve if a little more care was taken with communication: with jargon, with tone, and particularly visual images. Jordana Blackman agrees:
‘You attract what you display,’ she says. ‘In this instance, competitive MTBers wanting to go fast and ride hard. There is a lot of jargon on the website and event description. Race format, laps, times, categories, licences, feed zones, prize money, commissaires… it’s all sounding really hard if you’re new, isn’t it?’
So what do we know? Anyone who’s ever watched an ad or walked through a supermarket looking for bread and walked out with a Mars Bar knows the power of advertising, and more: the power of communication: language, images, even the font we use. We know that women do want different things from men (or there wouldn’t be a problem), but that these things aren’t necessarily the opposite of what men want. We know that encouraging them to race is more complex even than getting the message right, and it’s going to take another post to explore why…