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Women’s Forum: Separate But Equal?

It’s been just one week since a record-breaking crowd of more than 420 advocates — both male and female — gathered for the National Women’s Bicycling Forum. And already the third annual event has stoked some great conversation about how to approach women’s cycling advocacy.

As Elly Blue points out: “In the wake of the 3rd annual National Women’s Bicycling Forum in DC last week, there’s been some buzz online — does it make sense to have a separate women’s event? Does it help or does it segregate? Is the women’s forum the reason that the ensuing National Bike Summit was largely populated and led by white men? Does having a separate event mean women are accepting “separate but equal” status? Or is it empowering? Or a little of both? A lot of folks are talking about this, and with a lot of uncertainty.”

I love that the Forum has sparked this debate. For me, the most inspiring — and energizing — aspect of the Women Bike movement is that we are not a homogenous demographic. We have different approaches to how to engage the vast diversity of female riders.

So here’s my take.

At least for the near term, I do believe that the Women’s Forum deserves its own day. For too long, female voices have been marginalized. For too many years, we have been conspicuously absent from the podiums of major gatherings, passed over in the telling of the movement’s history and overlooked as leaders and innovators and change agents in our communities. Too often, we’re the only woman in the room or the only female on the panel — and feel tokenized or singled out to speak for women rather than speak about what inspires or motivates us about bicycling. The Women’s Forum gives us a space to feel part of something big. To look around and, not just feel like a determined trailblazer in our community, but feel supported and surrounded by fellow leaders who have likely walked the same path and shared some of the same challenges as female leaders in a traditionally male-dominated movement.

I believe the Women’s Forum showcases and validates our contributions and highlights unique efforts to deal with a very real, very important disparity in American bicycling. I believe that the gender gap — just 24% of bicycle trips in 2009 were taken by women — is one of the most important issues facing the bike movement. It’s the kind of conversation that needs to be called out, set as a priority and given the time and space to delve into the multifaceted issue in a way that doesn’t short change the discussion or minimize it to a single perspective or “track” within a larger conference.

Here at the League, our goal is to build a Bicycle Friendly America for everyone. We know we can’t do that with just half the population. We know we can’t achieve that with business as usual; we have to change our approach, try new strategies. So we started Women Bike, not to segregate, but to dedicate staff time and attention to this critical issue — in everything that we do. As we’ve learned too many times in our conversations about building an inclusive movement, any campaign that lacks resources is quickly sidelined to second-class status once the buzz of the conference recedes and the reality of over-worked advocates trying to do it all on a shoe-string budget returns.

And my role isn’t just to organize the Women’s Forum — though hosting a gathering with 400+ attendees, 20+ speakers, and three keynote plenaries, including national and international leaders, is a huge task! — but to be the voice within the organization that pushes for gender equity in all of our programs. This isn’t going to happen overnight, but the culture is shifting.

This year, we integrated the Forum into the same program, under the same theme, focusing on the same three top-line objectives as the overall Summit: better messaging, winning advocacy campaigns and next-level leadership. We had reduced rates for folks who attended the Forum and Summit — but kept the Forum accessible to all, by allowing a separate registration for that day that was less than $100.

And I was heartened to hear from so many Summit participants that the 2014 event felt… different… than it did even three years ago. On one hand, the Women’s Forum has put a fresh and inviting face on the National Bike Summit overall, drawing in female leaders who didn’t see the (admittedly costly) event as relevant to their lives or work. The 2012 Women’s Forum also opened the space and discussion for the League to launch a larger Equity Initiative in 2013 — and include a series of sessions on the topic at the 2014 Summit, rightly elevating the work and perspective of leaders of color. And Women Bike, now in its second year, has made it clear that our perspectives need a seat at the table, too — and 17 of the 20 Summit break-out sessions included female leaders.

But we still need to do more.

While we invited female leaders to address the full Summit as keynote speakers, our final line-up was all male. We need to do better. While we provided scholarships for the Women’s Forum, we weren’t able to extend those to the full Summit. We need to do better. While we increased the number of men and the overall number of participants at the Women’s Forum — growing to more than 420 in just our third year — we need to make sure this is a conversation that everyone is part of, not just those who self-select into hearing it.

Afterall, the ultimate goal of Women Bike is to put ourselves out of business; to close the gender gap and make events like the Summit accessible to and representative of folks from all backgrounds and gender expressions.

So let’s keep the conversation going! Sign up for our Women Bike E-news, get engaged in our social media communities and always feel free to drop me a line ([email protected]).

Photo: Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, addressing the 2014 Women’s Forum, credit Brian Palmer