Women cyclists, implicit bias, and helmet pigtails


Want to get more room on the road while riding your bike? Here’s one way. Have drivers judge that you’re female.

Study after study shows that drivers give more room when passing female cyclists. They also give more room to riders without helmets but that’s another issue.

The original study was done in England by Ian Walker.

“Research suggests drivers tend to believe helmeted cyclists are more serious and less likely to make unexpected moves … the helmet effect seen here is likely a behavioural manifestation of this belief. The gender effect could be the result of female cyclists being rarer than male cyclists in the UK, or it may again be related to drivers’ perceptions of rider experience and predictability.”

You can read about it here:

His results have since been duplicated in the United States. The US study found that on average drivers passed cyclists more closely when cyclists were dressed in “bicycle attire” and if the cyclist was male. The study was unable to determine the reasons on this passing behavior and the authors of the study speculated that, “it [was] possible that motorists perceived less risk passing riders who were in [a] bicycle outfit.” 

You can read about this study here:

It’s a bit of a double edged sword really. Who doesn’t want to be safer riding in traffic? But there’s no explanation of the why of this phenomena that doesn’t give off a whiff of sexism. Some researchers speculate it’s old fashioned chivalry, being nice to the ladies. But others raise the more worrying possibility that it’s because female riders are judged less competent, more wobbly, and less able to hold their line.

And like the implicit bias studies with which philosophers concerned with equity in academia are familiar, the sex of the automobile driver doesn’t matter. Both women and men behind the wheel of a car give female riders more room.

There are lots of example of unequal treatment about which we’re unaware. It’s not like people set out to pass men more closely than they do women. Here’s another example of a very small inequality that’s trivial really, interesting only because no one knows they’re doing it.

In “Ladies First? A Field Study of Discrimination in Coffee Shops” American economist Caitlin Knowles Myers, with her students as research assistants, staked out eight coffee shops in the Boston area and watched how long it took men and women to be served. Her conclusion: “Men get their coffee 20 seconds earlier than do women.” And it’s not just women who wait longer. The researchers found that black women and men wait longer than white women and men, the young wait longer than the old, and the ugly wait longer than the beautiful. (and of course this has nothing to do with who ordered what and the propensity of women to order half caf, soy lattes, no foam, etc. Economists are smart people and they took that into account.)

Originally I thought of the close passing example on analogy with the coffee example. Implicit bias yields small inequality. But I’ve been reading David Benatar’s book Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys and I started to wonder if it’s more serious than that. No one’s died waiting for coffee but cyclists do die when cars pass with insufficient room. Though it’s the kind of accident all cyclists fear fewer than 20 % of car-bike crashes occur this way. That said, the stats on close passing make me wonder if more of those accidents happen to men, proportionally speaking. Benatar has some chilling stats on the higher accidental workplace death rates of men and boys (and not all from risky behavior, as you might want to insist.)  It’s a frustrating book in many ways bit certainly what it makes clear is not all victims of implicit bias are female.

This makes me a bit nervous coming into spring. I have broad shoulders and short hair. I might consider a clip on extension ponytail! Wearing pink won’t help as plenty of male cyclists do that and all cyclists shave their legs. There are motorbike helmets with added fake ponytails. Why not bike helmets? The group I rode with last in Australia were the Valkyrie Vikings. Blond braided pigtails maybe?

Since reading the studies, I’ve tried to observe my own behavior as a driver but that turns out to be as tricky as it is in the cases that involve the evaluation of one’s own bias in ranking academic work. It’s surely a case of implicit bias, rather than explicit, since few people would say that they make a conscious decision to give women cyclists more room on the road.

Curious about the phenomena of implicit bias? You can take the Harvard Implicit Association test here and read about the international research group of which I’m a member at the link below. I’m off to Sheffield this week in fact to take part in a group workshop.

Further Reading:

Implicit Bias & Philosophy International Research Project


13 thoughts on “Women cyclists, implicit bias, and helmet pigtails

  1. Thanks for this, Sam! I think about this a lot when I’m riding: like you, I have short hair and a strong build so I come off as male when people aren’t looking closely (especially when I’m wearing all my gear). That said, my experience has been that as a rider, when I exhibit typically “girl” behaviour (IE: what we culturally classify as girlish), I am often at more risk, not less. Case in point: in thinking closely about what happened just before I was hit by a motor coach in February on my way home from work, I’ve realized that I was very likely riding with more uncertainty and less overt confidence than usual, as a result of a sore hip. The driver may have judged me to be slower as a result (correlating perceived slowness unconsciously with my mildly tentative moves), even though he’d been following me for half a km (and thus matching my speed) when he overtook me (too slowly) and hit me on his left flank. In other words: if I’d been riding with my typical assertiveness, would I have sent different signals to the driver and avoided the collision?
    A reminder, then, to wear those pigtails with boldness and confidence when you’re out on the road!

  2. I think it is at least a logical possibility that there is a “positive” reason for why people give female bicyclists more room. I’m not saying that it is the case, just that there are many possibilities and I can think of at least a few off the top of my head that aren’t sexist.

    I haven’t read “The Second Sexism,” but already the title has my hackles up a bit. I imagine it does the same to the vast majority of feminists. Is this MRA stuff? “The Second Sexism” sounds, to my mind, like another way of saying “Reverse Sexism.” And we all know that “reverse racism,” “reverse sexism,” etc. don’t exist despite how badly men and white people want them to.

    Again, I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me from perusing its amazon page that it argues basically from a “what about the men” perspective. Which, hey, I guess that is fine for an academic gathering and reporting on information. But as far as feminists and social justice people are concerned it doesn’t seem to me to be a productive approach. The two are distinct to some degree, but of course overlapping in to some degree so whether this is a relevant comment depends on “which degree” one is operating in (to put it sort of awkwardly).

    1. The tricky thing is that people don’t know why we do what we do so asking drivers why they give more room to women isn’t likely to be useful. And I bet most people don’t know even that they do it. So sure, it’s likely a mix of chivalry and sexism.

      And Benatar, a mixed bag for sure. He’s frustrating because he doesn’t seem to have read or credit feminist work in the field but it’s still worth reading. I’ve been thinking about inequalities that harm men for awhile (not just because I’m the mum of two teenage boys!) I think feminists are actually well placed to give a good analysis of them. It’s not a surprise that sexism hurts men.

  3. Interesting. I’m going to throw one more thing into the mix — I will give a cyclist more respect/room if I see them following traffic laws and signaling properly, and in particular if they are wearing a helmet. Not doing those things indicates to me that the cyclist already has little regard for their safety, and while I will be careful around them, I’m not as conscientious about it. Perhaps women are more inclined to be good cycling citizens that than men?

    1. I suspect it’s lots more complicated than that since apparently most drivers give women more room. I don’t think there’s judgement involved. We just do it.

  4. I think women, and riders without helmets are unconsciously perceived as inexperienced, vulnerable and erratic and therefore given a wide berth. I have long hair, and when I wear ‘all the gear’ and ride drops I feel like I get closer passes than when I’m riding flat bars in civvys without a helmet.

  5. Benatar first advanced the “second sexism” idea in an article in Social Theory & Practice a few years ago. At the journal’s invitation, I wrote a rebuttal, putting him in the larger context of “angry white men” syndrome (now known as MRAs), showing how the disadvantages specific to men are not sexism, and explaining why men need feminism. The title is “Male Trouble,” and I’d be happy to send a copy to you or anyone else. BTW, some of the ideas in that article are updated and way-expanded in chapter 6 of my forthcoming book. The chapter is titled “gender terrorism, gender sacrifice: getting beyond the zero-sum gender game.” I have not read Benatar’s “second sexism” book, given that his original article was so bad. It was very much an antifeminist piece, But he did not address feminists by name in the text, only citing their work in footnotes. So in my rebuttal, I did the same in return, never addressing him by name in the text, only citing them in footnotes. 🙂

  6. Interesting study. I am a female in my late 30’s and recently got back into biking after a back injury hiatus. I have had some interesting experiences with male drivers this last year while cycling to and from work. I live in the SF bay area and there are lots of cyclists on the road here. I have noticed that male drivers often stop and motion for me to pass (e.g. when turning left). It is sometimes not safe for me to turn left, even with one driver stopped – and in this situation, I motion for the driver to keep going. But, male drivers often ignore this and will just wait for me anyway. A few times, I’ve had to turn around and ride in an opposite direction or else the stopped car would have just stayed there, blocking traffic for who knows how long…

    This happens to me, on average, about once or twice a week. I have never experienced this while riding with my husband, only when I’m riding solo. So far, I have only experienced this with male drivers.
    I generally avoid looking too “feminine” while riding- loose jersey, base layer, sports bra, capri cycling pants and a camelbak with my office clothes in it. I’m on my mountain bike since I take a combo of trails and roads on my current commute route.

    When I was in my early 20’s, I commuted into San Francisco every day on a road bike. I don’t remember any particular issues with male drivers. A few things were different then – I was overall, thinner and less curvy (I was riding centuries and had a 9-5 job that entailed physical labor). I was also younger, riding a road bike and had short hair then. My hair is now shoulder-length and generally in a bun or pony tail beneath my helmet.

  7. As a fairly new cyclist I try to look feminine when riding for this very reason – I want more space. So I never hide my long hair and my jerseys are feminine.
    As a feminist this bothers me – all cyclists should get plenty of space. But I’ll take what I can get.

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