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Irish teenage girls subjected to bullying for cycling which is seen as “a boy’s thing”

— 3.7% of boys but only 0.4% of girls cycle in Ireland.
— Forced helmet use was seen as a major barrier by both girls and boys.
— Even in schools where trousers are allowed, there was disapproval from peers and, in one group, perception of disapproval from a principal.

A range of issues prevents larger numbers of teenage girls from cycling to secondary school, including the fear of backlash from going against the dominant social norms, restrictive school-level policy on uniforms, the parental ‘forcing’ of helmet use, and the lack of infrastructure which enables not just safer but also slower and social cycling.

The research stems from feedback from over 100 second-level students gained from 17 in-depth qualitative focus groups carried out by Green-Schools Travel staff across the Republic of Ireland as part of its #andshecycles programme.

The peer-reviewed research paper, published in the Active Travel Studies journal yesterday, was written by Robert Egan and Jane Hackett of Green-Schools Travel, and funded by the National Transport Authority.

The researchers said that cycling is seen as non-conformity with gender norms of what is seen as masculine or feminine. Deviation from the norm is “regulated” socially by peers and adults, including in some respects by school principals.

The researchers wrote: “For the most part, female participants recounted experiences and fears of being ‘looked’ and ‘stared at’, being the subject of socially stigmatising gossip (‘talked about’), being ridiculed (‘laughed at’), and being ‘heckled’ and intimidated primarily by groups of teenage boys for engaging in ‘A Boy’s Thing’.”

“As one participant described, as a girl, one feels social pressure to not cycle and to walk instead. As a boy, on the other hand, ‘They all, like, do it together. Like, you always see boys cycling in groups.’ Indeed, female participants who did engage in cycling to school felt the need to account for and excuse their deviance. Furthermore, since cycling as a means of travelling to secondary school is primarily practiced by teenage boys, and much of this cycling may be amongst other boys cycling, cycling as a girl constitutes a particularly high-visibility form of deviance…,” said the researchers.

The paper said that, in focus groups, cycling was “widely perceived by girls in particular as something requiring athleticism to engage in, rather than being a relatively modest form of physical activity”. The researchers said that feedback from the groups “indicates that stigma may not only occur due to body-shaming but also because a teenage girl cycling can be perceived by boys as a threat to their masculinity.”

Researchers said that participants in the groups described how beauty or “looking good” as a teenage girl was “largely incompatible with cycling”.

The researchers wrote: “One particularly salient pattern among female participants in this respect was the difficulty of maintaining ‘presentable’ hair and appearance during and following cycling. For example, many participants were made by their parents to wear helmets when cycling and, as a result, would often end up with unkempt and self-described messy ‘helmet hair’ due to the pressure of the helmet, the difficulty of fitting one’s hair into the helmet but also potentially the proliferation of sweat the helmet can induce.

On this, the researchers added: “Indeed, wearing a helmet itself was seen as a major transgression of acceptable feminine appearance (as well as a transgression of performing the masculine trait of indifference and audacity) with many participants, similar to the findings of Russell et al. (2021), describing how they would feel ‘ugly’ if using one whilst cycling. As one participant commented: ‘when you wear the helmet it just doesn’t look good at all […] when you take it off it’s even worse.’ Others would cycle to school without a helmet but, because of wind and/or rain, their originally styled, generally long hair would become un-styled and ‘wild’.”

Where trousers are allowed by a school, this is still often seen as a social transgression which is “costly”, in an actual sense because of the need to buy a second uniform and also socially as it is seen as “dressing like a boy”. The research said: “Consequently, many female participants described how they would be ‘stared at’ particularly by boys if they opted for this uniform choice since it would constitute deviance from dressing like a girl – namely, in a skirt.”

Even where trousers are allowed as an option in some schools, researchers said that one participant described her perception that the principal had a preference for girls wearing the skirt. The participant was quoted: “She mightn’t say it, but…we all know she does.”

Researchers also said that the “practice of modesty was not necessarily specific to the use of skirts” and that participants “also mentioned concerns about immodestly exposing oneself to others through the use of alternative clothing when cycling into school – ‘the cars passing would be looking at you in leggings’ – or even trousers if these were an option in the school.”

Helmets were also seen as a barrier for teenage boys. Researchers said: “…other male participants who did (or, rather, were forced to) wear helmets were acutely aware of how wearing a helmet was a transgression of the masculine ideal of indifference to danger, with some describing their intuitive knowledge of this deviance presenting as embarrassment and a sense of being the ‘odd one out’.”

The paper ‘The Social Practice and Regulation of Cycling as ‘A Boy’s Thing’ in Irish Secondary Schools’ can be read in full on open-access activetravelstudies.org.

Clarification: The third standfirst (bullet point) was edited to better reflect the research.

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