Shop Talk

13 12 2010

Warning: this post contains some ugly language that some folks ought to find more offensive than they do.

When I was a kid, my dad was a mechanic, and I spent many hours underfoot in his small business and workshop. I didn’t pay much attention to things mechanical back then (even though I could fill my tires with a compressor before I left elementary school), and besides the air compressor, the only other things I remember are more ephemeral like the grimy concrete floors and the smell of grease and agent orange. And the blatant misogyny, like the walls covered in Sunshine girls and calenders of scantly clad women with power tools, the ubiquitous badly stashed porn, and the never ending disparaging remarks from the guys who worked there about the women in their lives.

All of this left me with a pretty thick skin for boys’ bad behavior in workshops, even leading me to expect it. When I started frequenting the local bicycle co-op, I was just glad that the men’s club I found there was more progressive than the male dominated spaces I remember from my childhood, and tried to brush off the more subtle ways that I felt unwelcome as a female in the shop. For example, the mechanics (though this also goes for pretty much every bike shop I’ve ever been in) would always assume I didn’t know anything, and I would often just go along, buying into the myth that because they were dudes and I wasn’t that I should trust their knowledge over my own.

Another subtle way macho boys clubs exclude anyone who isn’t a macho boy is with the language they use, and unfortunately, I still hear a lot of this in the cycling community today. Need to try harder? Then “Man up!” Didn’t perform to your expectations? Then you’re a “pussy,” or maybe you “pussed out,” “don’t be such a girl,” or perhaps you’re a “sissy,” or a “fag.” Do something stupid? Then you’re a “retard.” Something’s no fun? Then it’s “lame.” Some of you may be thinking “Oh, that’s not serious, it’s just men razzing each other, they do it all the time, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s ironic, feminists have no sense of humor, etc.” Let me spell it out: when I, as a woman, hear this sort of language, it sends a direct message to me that I am not valued for my knowledge & skill, and that I am not wanted in an environment where being like a woman is seen as a detriment. The same goes for queer folks, people with disabilities, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the masculine “norm.”

Boys, the English language is rich and deep, and I think you’ll find there are many ways to engage your competitive spirits without disparaging whole groups of people. You may even find that when you stop behaving like macho stereotypes, people who aren’t macho dudes may be more interested in spending time with you. For bike culture to progress beyond a subcultural fringe, we need to be far more cognizant of how our behavior and the way we communicate creates barriers to the very folk we are trying to win over.

Two years ago, EBC joined in an experiment that has already been running at many bike co-ops across North America and established days when, twice a month,  men aren’t allowed in the shop.

Women & Transgendered peoples' day at Edmonton Bicycle Commuters.

I have helped run these days since the beginning. I do it because I don’t see bike culture changing fast enough away from being a macho boys club. I spend every second Sunday wrenching because I want to know what its like to work in a shop not dominated by testosterone. I do it because the only female hands that have ever worked on any of my bikes are my own, and I don’t want to see another generation of girls grow up thinking that a penis is required equipment for holding a wrench or becoming competent in anything mechanical.

Please don’t misconstrue this rant as painting all men with the same brush, or equating maleness with something negative. I don’t know what I’d do without all the thoughtful, supportive, feminist men in my life, and I’ve been privileged to witness so much positive change in the bicycle scene in the last decade. I’m writing this because we still have far to go and because there are still a small but vocal minority of men who think it’s OK to say and do misogynist BS, especially within a male dominated space. Mostly, I’m writing this in the hopes that the men who hear it and are uncomfortable with it won’t leave it to the only woman in the room to call out chauvinism when it happens.