After staring in stunned silence for a disconcerting length of time, he finally, excruciatingly tears his gaze away from the machine in front of him to deliver his verdict.
“I’m impressed” he chokes, voice trembling with either laughter or hysteria, “I had no idea it was possible to get it THAT wrong!!”
And so begins my career fixing bicycles.
To be honest I would never describe myself as a natural with any type of mechanical object.
Words, I love them, give me an anagram or a crossword, I’m in my element. Mental arithmetic, bring it on. Even navigating across strange countries or continents, not a problem. But, put a piece of moving equipment in front of me, add in gears, cogs, sprockets and screws, and my brain short circuits and a dense fog descends, producing something I describe as ‘mechanical dyslexia’.
Why is it I can spot the spelling mistake in a sentence at 100 paces, but not the fact that I’ve managed to put the handlebars and front wheel of a bike on backwards….?!
Coming from a family of engineers, surveyors and computer programmers, there were once high expectations that I would possess the same cool, logical talents when it came to dealing with machinery. As a young girl, my father would hopefully give me little technical puzzles which involved dismantling and reassembling basic equipment and I was brilliant….. at enthusiastically pulling things to bits at record speed, but there it ended, in a little pile of nuts, bolts and wires.
Sadly, all this demonstrated early on in life was an aptitude for destruction and a short attention span.
In recent years however, mostly from necessity, I have painstakingly learned the rudiments of bike maintenance. When cycle touring I spent many a frustrating hour with a broken bike upended on the narrow shoulder of a busy highway or dangling from a tree whilst trying to coax, bash and swear my way to fixing chains/gears/wheels.
And I truly want to learn. In fact I love a challenge and what I’ve found since, is that with much repetition and a patient (very patient) person to guide me my brain will grudgingly grasp the basics.
In the store where I work, it’s frequently (and noticeably) commented upon that it’s a strange career choice for a woman and I increasingly find that I can’t avoid the associated gender bias. Now, I have female friends who are adept with a spanner and spoke key. Equally, I have male friends who baulk at changing a light bulb. But there is no getting away from the fact that the majority of people who mend bicycles are male. All the ones that I work with are.
Mulling this over, as I do often, I can’t begin to decide if this is due to:
- Biology – is there some part of the male brain that (generally) connects better to this skill.
- Education – Is it just lack of experience growing up…even I remember school classes that split practical lessons by gender – boys did woodwork, girls did sewing (no, I was no good at that either).
- Or is it more simply societal expectations….. do we still that casually assign gender roles to certain jobs?
Even I’m disheartened by the amount of overt gender bias endemic in the marketing practices of the (National chain) store in which I work, and perpetuated by the parents who frequent it.
Childrens’ bike and accessory ranges are heavily segregated into pink and flowery for the girls or loaded with monster logos and handlebar mounted lasers for the boys. Glitter vs Guns. The number of parents too who steer the little girls away from the bikes with camouflage paint and Batman helmets, and the boys – it seems that the world may possibly stop spinning on it’s axis if one of them were to choose a bike with the colour pink in it.
I’m saddened. Even the adult bikes are segregated into male and female.
‘No they’re not’ I want to yell when a woman shuns the straight crossbar bike she enjoyed riding as “the label says it’s for men”. They’re just metal frames, chose whichever one you feel best on.
Who knows which are the predominant factors above, and of course natural aptitude plays a part, but even more so, so do expectations and experience. If we start telling young people that their options are segregated, we’re not just excluding colour schemes and frames, we’re saying that certain choices are incorrect due to the randomness of gender and not based on talent, fit or preference.
Myself, although the handlebars of a few bikes have suffered for my education, I am always grateful that I’ve grown up with the confidence to know that my choices are limited only by my own beliefs. Thankfully, life too has taught me that I can always tackle challenges and learn new things, whatever my age, gender or circumstance.
And that no matter how old I get, I still don’t like the colour pink!