Embracing Equity this International Women's Day
Understanding equality when it comes to active travel
March 08, 2023
This year's International Women's Day theme is #EmbraceEquity. Here, GoodGym Redbridge's and Waltham Forest’s Area Activator, Julia discusses International Women's Day, the London Women's Freedom Ride and how equity affects women and their access to active travel and fitness.
Why do you think days, such as International Womens Day, are so important?
It's important because it brings to the forefront the fact that women are still under-represented and disadvantaged in many different areas of life - social, political, personal, business and so on. We still don't have full equality and definitely not equity, though important steps towards that have been made - but not fast enough! International Women's Day highlights some of the key challenges that are ongoing and need all genders to fight towards equity.
When it comes to running and cycling, two activities that make me feel free and empowered, there is still quite a big disparity in representation. Take cycling in London as an example - less than a third of bike journeys are done by women and when you look at women from different backgrounds, that’s even fewer journeys. That doesn’t feel like equity.
(In 2019, Cycling Industry News reported that three times more men cycle than women)
So from your perspective, how important is it that women achieve equity when it comes to equal rights with access to fitness outdoors?
Well, very important, especially, I think, in the beginning of a woman’s journey with fitness outdoors. Getting that kind of initial confidence and skills and empowerment to start is paramount, because different groups of women, whether of different ages, health levels, abilities, different social, religious, ethnic or sexuality background etc, might need a different way of starting to feel more confident walking, cycling or running outdoors on their own or in groups.
As many cyclists, I am involved in many different organisations that help people get on their bikes. As one of the directors and ride leaders with the Joy Riders as well as being involved with the London Cycling Campaign as part of the Redbridge Cycling Campaign group, I see first-hand how different women need different entry points to cycling as a lifestyle or sport. Joy Riders in particular are specifically there to empower women from all walks of life to get on the bike and feel confident, comfortable and skilled to cycle on their own and in groups.
I think organisations such as Cycle Sisters and Black Women On Wheels are a perfect example of providing equitable entry points into the world of non-competitive cycling to women. I’ve been so inspired and encouraged by our local Redbridge Cycle Sisters - to see how the riders are able to gain confidence and skill and then take it to the wider cycling community by joining other cycling groups. It’s amazing.
When and how did you start cycling?
I’ve been wanting to be a cyclist (as a lifestyle not in sport) in London for probably over 10 years before 2020 and always looked with jealousy at those who had the confidence to do it. I was truly terrified of our roads and driving culture so I kept avoiding it.
But then Covid struck, I didn’t drive and I didn’t want to take a seat on public transport. I missed the sense of freedom and wellbeing of riding when I was travelling just before Covid. With cycling really taking off, I bought a bike and signed up to Cycle Confident lessons and joined local rides for women (JoyRiders and Breeze). My GoodGym buddies were on the same journey and we started doing rides together, building our confidence and health. The rest is history. :)
It wasn’t easy - I was terrified, I was planning my routes meticulously, my shoulders were by my ears and hands gripping the handles so I was super tense after each ride. I fell off twice in my first week. But I persisted and took more classes and watched more road cycling videos and over time my shoulders came down.
What challenges do you think women experience accessing and continuing cycling?
This is such a complex issue and it starts early, with significant differences in confidence appearing in teens ('UK girls lose interest in sport as teenagers'). The pressures and stereotypes we put on girls affect them later in life as women and it’s not as easy to start being sporty later in life, especially outdoors. This is where the issue of equity comes in.
Many women will not start or continue cycling/running etc because we have different barriers - self or societal - that we have to overcome. A government survey conducted in 2021 showed that 46% of women surveyed were not confident to cycle.
This could be related to self-confidence, family pressures, feelings of safety when you are exercising outdoors, consideration of routes and times of day to do exercise, women runners and cyclists are more likely to get harrassed, the list goes on.
So you might find confidence to take lessons and start cycling but if you get unpleasant experiences, that might stop you. Which is why different ways of encouragement and support frameworks are needed to achieve equity in representation alongside men on the road.
We also need to consider different groups of women and different challenges they might experience to achieve real equity and make a real step-change - we are not one homogenous group and different structures and messages are needed. That’s what we were demanding on a protest ride last Sunday in London!
How did you get involved in the Women’s Freedom ride and other cycling campaigning?
My cycling journey made me quickly realise how much of a problem it is in the UK to cycle, especially for women, who before lockdown I rarely saw cycling in my area.
It’s an amazing feeling to be able to get on your bike and get from A to B without creating more pollution or congestion and I wanted more women to experience that. The fact that we have so little safe infrastructure and so much of road aggression really got my goat and I started to get more involved in campaigning with Joy Riders and then with Redbridge Cycling Campaign (part of LCC), who continue to push for better cycling infrastructure with the council, an uphill battle it must be said!
Despite weekly aggression on the road and lack of safe infrastructure, I love seeing the confidence cycling brings to women and I see more and more women cycling! I just had to get involved in the Women’s Freedom Ride and lead our Redbridge feeder ride into London together with the fantastic marshalls. Being part of the ride really boosted me and it was amazing to see so many diverse women cycling together through London taking up all the space we deserve. This is just the beginning!
This Girl Can has just brought out a new campaign around the enjoyment gap with exercise - 2.4m women are missing out on the opportunity to enjoy fitness and relieve stress, build connections and improve self-esteem…
Sometimes, in certain areas, on certain hours or in certain situations, as a woman you might have a much worse experience doing the same cycle routes as men. And, you know, if you get bothered more, chances are you’re just going to stop doing it.
I know a lot of women, with children in particular, that just don't feel safe anymore on the road. That’s really, really sad.
I found it surprising how much harassment is still out there - before cycling I thought, once you kind of get over your twenties and you’re in a different environment, you don't expect as much harassment. But on the road, once again I became a target. I guess things have not moved on as much as I thought.
I give as good as I get in these situations, but again it can be really off-putting and some days it disheartens me and I can imagine how it can put others off and that’s heart-breaking, especially if it’s something you really enjoy.
So how did you feel when you found out that GoodGym has partnered with Raleigh?
It was a great announcement, because actually my first bike that I got in 2020 was a Raleigh! The bike is great and I called it She-ra (the princess of power!) because why wouldn’t you name your bike? ;)
Whilst She-Ra is usually there for local trips to go to the supermarket, parkrun, GoodGym sessions or meet a friend for coffee, she was out on Sunday doing 70km ride for the London Women’s Freedom Ride! I feel like she represents Raleigh well - sturdy and reliable:)
The fact that we are partnering with this great British cycling brand is fantastic! GoodGym was so important for me to start and continue cycling and I’m excited about our journey with Raleigh!
As a woman, what does GoodGym give you that any other fitness or volunteering organisation doesn't?
Community. I think that's the number one thing. GoodGym has provided me with the great community and friends that have the same kind of ethos -doing good in the community and being active.
Often I think: "I'm struggling to show up. I need some motivation" and my fellow GoodGymers help me to get out of the house as I know they'll be waiting at our scheduled session. My life became more active because of GoodGym and because the organisation is not there just for fitness but for something bigger - it helped me to become part of the community and help others to do the same whilst improving their mental and physical health and the health of the community’s environment.
What can men do to help? In terms of women wanting to do GoodGym, women wanting to cycle, what can men do?
Empathy: I think number one thing is realising that everyone, and not just because you're a woman, has different attitudes to exercise. Women in particular might have different experiences because of their gender and our male allies can help us feel understood and supported through empathy and realising that what might work for fellas might not be right for women. Don’t try and solve it for us or ‘protect’ us - listen and understand.
Encouragement: Number two is just being supportive and encouraging. Some women need their partner or friend or family member to support and say, "I'll come with you to this first GoodGym session" or they can encourage with "You can do it, give it a go” or “how can I support?” whilst others don’t need that and would appreciate a simple ‘how did it go?’ afterwards.
So what would you give as encouragement to a woman that's thinking about cycling with GoodGym?
Well, a couple of things, really. I think a lot of people don't realise how much support they can get. Some councils do free cycle confidence lessons that you can sign up to to help you get that first step of getting on your bike, learning how to ride, understanding rules of the road etc.
The second one is buddying (with someone or reaching out to your local Cycling Campaign).
Third, offering to go out for a ride together as a GoodGymer. We'll just cycle somewhere really safe in the park and see how that goes. Being part of the GoodGym family, the encouragement kind of comes effortlessly.
Fourth, get a few GoodGym buddies together and join a local group ride for women such as JoyRiders!
It does require a woman taking that first step through the fear and kind of going “I'm terrified, but I'm gonna try it and see what happens”. I know what it's like and it’s not easy but it’s possible. Because, you know, at the end of the day, you look at other women on the road and think, well, if they can do it, why can’t I?
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