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Be Gentle With Me – Women in Motorcycling

THREE MEN AND A BABY BMW

Many years ago I attended a meeting set up by a Yamaha product planner in Amsterdam to examine a new motorcycle from BMW. The bike promised to revolutionize the industry, because it was a motorcycle targeted specifically at women.

It was 2001, I was a junior motorcycle designer, and the planner sounded terribly excited.  Many of my Japanese colleagues however, found it just annoying.  To them women were a motorcycle accessory, passengers and hangers-on, not a target audience.  Some of my European colleagues felt the same. That kind of thinking was deeply frowned upon in progressive Holland, but they could openly communicate that inside the offices of a motorcycle manufacturer.  Very few women were in positions of authority at motorcycle companies back then.

The bike was the F650 Scarver (F650CS in North America).  A highly modified version of the latest F650GS, at the time BMW’s best selling bike ever, the Scarver featured lots of semi-transparent plastic, soft contoured bodywork, a maintenance-free belt drive and a palette including a colour my then girlfriend christened “cosmetics counter blue”.  It was heavier and slower than its GS cousin, and a lot more expensive.

Left, some of the official tank storage accessories offered by BMW for the Scarver.  Right, probably the best application of all.
Left, some of the official tank storage accessories offered by BMW for the Scarver. Right, probably the best application of all.

“BMW is going to dominate the women’s market” exclaimed the planner who called the meeting. The rest of us paced around, occasionally touching it.  The men were uncomfortable.  Like some alien artifact we were having trouble judging if it was friendly or not.  The fuel supply was in a tank under the seat, with the traditional tank space used as a shallow storage bin, framed by  transparent luggage rails.
“What goes here?” asked my boss, pointing to the storage bin.  “A purse?”

There was some laughter, a few guffaws.  Then the planner pocketed the keys and the meeting moved to a conference room where we looked at BMW’s marketing campaign for the Scarver. The media presented young, confident looking professional women with the motorcycle, all in lifestyle magazines that had nothing to do with motorcycles.

 

A BMW marketing ad featuring a confident young woman and the Scarver. Courtesy of BMW Automobile Club of America
A BMW marketing ad for the F650CS. Shockingly modern and refreshing. Image courtesy of BMW Car Club of America

The Scarver was a sales flop and quietly disappeared as soon as the first production run was finished.  The lesson Yamaha planners and conservative voices took away from the episode was that there was no specific women’s market.  But the amazing result of this experiment, if looked at through the lens of later facts, is illuminating.

MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM WHERE WE TELL THEM

Since the invention of the motorcycle 120 years ago, women have been used primarily as tools to sell bikes to men, little more than wallpaper in a testosterone-soaked industry.  Women were long considered physically and mentally incapable of operating motorcycles.  After the second world war the message changed to suggest that motorcycles were beneath them, too dirty for the ideal 1950’s modern woman homemaker.

Occasionally, manufacturers suggested that a motorcycle could be a practical and stylish place for a woman to be seen.  Piaggio and Honda made serious efforts to market the Vespa and C50 Cub to everyone, targeting women specifically.  But these were not real motorcycles, and the message said: scooters were so easy to use, even a woman could operate them.

sexbiker

The mainstream marketing position in recent decades has been that women are sexual props on motorcycles, there to titillate male consumers.  This has its roots in a poster campaign undertaken by NVT (the dying amalgamation of Norton, Villers and Triumph) in the 1970’s, when the desperate company scraped the bottom of the marketing barrel to try and stop flagging sales.  Unsurprisingly, the pin-up girls didn’t save the company, but not before searing the image of a helpless bimbo into the collective aegis of the motorcycle marketing industry as the best way to promote bike brands.

MARKETING PROVIDES SUPPORT, INSTEAD OF ILLUMINATION

With few exceptions, woman motorcyclists are considered a counter-culture anathema, slightly awkward misfits rather than heroic rebel-loners like their male counterparts.  Even in progressive societies like the northern nations of Europe, Canada and the US, women account for a scant few percent of motorcycle sales, while in much more chauvinistic countries like Italy, Spain, Brazil, India and China, where motorcycles and scooters are sold in their millions to a wide variety of consumers, they make up around 20%.

She's in for good fun... Image courtesy of OnTrack Media
She’s in for good fun… Image courtesy of OnTrack Media

Are women so reluctant to buy and use motorcycles?  The common industry wisdom says so, that women aren’t attracted to motorcycles like men are, therefore there is no market worth pursuing.  The sales statistics bear that out.  But we have heard this lame explanation before only ten years ago, when the industry claimed that there was no market for modern, exciting, small displacement motorcycles.

After the unexpected introduction of the Honda CBR125R in 2004, sales shot through the roof.  The tiny Honda became the overall best seller in Britain, of all places, a testosterone soaked, boys-club motorcycle culture where power and speed are king.  Today the same product planners and marketing experts who said there was no potential for great small motorcycles loudly boost the hot new 300cc class.

For years, there were few choices, and none of them were good.  As recently as 2010 if you wanted a bike that was small, light, affordable, and with forgiving handling you were forced onto an old, ill-handling and ugly old nail like the Suzuki GS500, Kawasaki EX250 or a Suzuki Savage.   As a result sales of small bikes were terrible, leading to the misconception that no one wanted small bikes.

When it comes to women on motorcycles, the situation is roughly parallel.  If you you go by the sales statistics, women are buying only small, under-powered, and cheap motorcycles.  Very few buy big or powerful machines, and the trend has been thus forever.

But the conclusion here shouldn’t be that there is no viable women specific premium market, but that women don’t like what’s currently available.   The question to ask is “why not?”  What do they want?

WHAT WOMEN WANT

Women love motorcycles too, and here is the unsurprising part: they love them in the same way men do.  Every women motorcyclist polled by the companies I worked with over fifteen years responded to marketing and product planning questions precisely the same way as the men in the same group.  They loved the freedom, the feeling of leaning into corners, the power, the speed.

Maria Herrea racing in the Moto3 Grand Prix world championship.  Her diminutive size certainly does not hurt her aboard a 100kg motorcycle.
Maria Herrea racing in the Moto3 Grand Prix world championship. Her diminutive size certainly does not hurt her aboard a 100kg motorcycle.

The single issue that continued to separate the sexes was physical size, by which I mean seat height and center of gravity.  Like any short person, riding a bike that is too tall and has a mass three times your body weight is a recipe for discomfort and anxiety.

This is not a new problem, because men come in small sizes too.  One of my best friends has been riding for twenty years, owned dozens of bikes, been a track day regular on a 250 grand prix replica and toured cross continent.  But he’s 5’5”.  Since the beginning he’s struggled to find quality motorcycle clothing that fits, or high performance motorcycles that he can ride for more than two or three hours without suffering joint pain.  This is 90% of the problem women motorcyclists face, except that unlike them, no dealer or manufacturer would deign to point my male friend to a lame “beginner” bike like a Savage as a viable option because of its low seat.

When men are anxious about riding a bike that is too big, society expects them to buck up.  When a woman walks into a showroom, inevitably she is expected to settle for what is available.  My friend has decades of skill and knows what he wants: the same awesome, attractive, exciting machinery the rest of us do.  Unsurprisingly, ditto most women attracted to motorcycles.
The motorcycle industry narrative condescends to tell women what their relationship to motorcycles should be rather than let them choose for themselves.  The marketing departments of OEMs follow the path of least resistance, particularly in North America, because it’s felt that the reward is not worth the risk of pushing for something better.  As with small motorcycles before, the facts don’t reflect that conclusion.

FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY

The motorcycle industry needs to stop selling women on motorcycles and start selling motorcycles to women, because the demographic data is spelling out the future pretty clearly.  In all modern economies, women are outpacing men in higher education, while female graduates outnumber men in key high value professions like medicine and law.  Across the spectrum, the millennial generation presents a growing tide of affluent, sophisticated and aggressive female consumers that will finally close the gender gap in economics and political power.

BMW gets it more than any other brand.  Although the "girl power" slogans are probably unnecessary.
BMW gets it more than any other brand. Although the “girl power” slogans are probably unnecessary.

Women already outspend their male counterparts and exert greater influence on household spending and product trends.  Ignoring this market segment to pander to men is not only counter productive but will almost certainly weaken the viability of the motorcycle as a mainstream product.  As the developing world gets richer the core motorcycle buying population aspires to car ownership, just as it did here in the post war years.  In China and India, the two largest motorcycle markets in the world, this is already happening.  The pool of consumers is shrinking, so ignoring 50% of the population is leaving 50% of potential sales on the table.

Given those facts, manufacturers would do well to design desirable, high power, high technology motorcycles that are physically accessible to shorter, lighter customers, and make an effort to market them using real women.  Not another 300cc jewel, but bikes that are big on power and presence with proportions that make them accessible to everyone.  Perhaps it would be worth adding the proviso that they leave the pink tribal stickers out of it.

23 thoughts on “Be Gentle With Me – Women in Motorcycling”

  1. Great article, but WTF is up with the title? “Be Gentle With Me?” Every way I look at it seems demeaning, especially since the rest of the article points out that the misogyny rampant in the MC industry already believes that we (women) can’t cut it.

  2. Models on bikes are lame, if I wanted porn I know where to find it. You know what would be REALLY appealing? A bike surrounded by the nerdy engineers who designed it and the folks who put it together. I’d probably think “Hey they look exhausted like they lost a lot of sleep trying to make this thing into a rocket.”

    I want a bike ad with a full spec sheet. I don’t even need a photo of someone riding it to tell me how cool I’ll look. Motorcycle, in a white washed well lit room, next to a bunch of numbers. Promise I can work on it myself, with colossal service intervals, that it will go on to develop a reputation as “bulletproof,” that I will have it so long that I will want another when I lose it.

  3. As a 5 ft tall female rider of a Triumph Street Triple, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I’ve only been riding since 2012, and I learned a bit more about the industry and how women on motorcycles have been seen. I hope to be a positive role model and inspire more ladies and shorter riders to get out there.

  4. Funny enough, a large number of men I know hate the sex sells crap. It’s pretty demeaning to them too. “Hey guys, we’re not going to bother creating a bike or product that is great or tell you about why it’s great if we have, we’ll just put some tits and ass on it and you won’t bother with what the bike or product actually is because you’re too dumb to care!” At least that’s what it says to a number of them. It’s easy enough to find porn on the internet folks, only those who have restricted internet access need to find it in ads.

    There isn’t a need to make bikes FOR women… there’s a need to make bikes for people of all sizes. There are plenty of men who are shorter than I am. There are plenty of people (me included) who would like smaller displacement bikes to add to their stable of bigger bikes. And there are plenty of people who would like bigger displacement bikes that fit people who aren’t quite so tall.

    But when I walk into a shop and CAN NOT get helped even when standing at a parts counter waiting to purchase something, there’s something very wrong with the industry. No, not all shops. Sadly, far more often than not. (and yes, this has literally happened)

    With women being the fastest growing segment of the motorcycling industry, those who are making product and those selling it need to decide if they want that money. There’s not a huge profit margin in this business. Can these folks afford to give up business? There are a few brands who are more than willing to take it from them…

  5. Why don`t you put real women riders on real bikes. I am offended in so many ways. What era did you come from. Real women who ride do not want to be shown as a piece of meat. Why don`t you go out and ride with a few and ask real questions about what they ride and why.

  6. ” After the unexpected introduction of the Honda CBR125R in 2004, sales shot through the roof. The tiny Honda became the overall best seller in Britain, of all places, a testosterone soaked, boys-club motorcycle culture where power and speed are king. Today the same product planners and marketing experts who said there was no potential for great small motorcycles loudly boost the hot new 300cc class.”

    Well, duh.
    In 1971, one out of every two motorcycles sold in North America was a Honda, and one of of two Hondas sold was a CB350.
    Maybe, just maybe, ignoring the middleweight market whether focusing on men or women has been the issue ?

  7. I have been a rider now for 8 years and have ridden almost all types of bikes in that time. I started out on a standard position Kwai kz250. Too small a displacement. From there I rode a Honda 600vlx cruiser for 5 years. Loved it. Had enough power to get me places but not enough to get me into trouble. The weight was low as well as the seat height. From there I rode a 600RR for two years. NOT a beginners bike in any means. More power than you could shake a stick at. From 0 to 120 in the slightest turn of the wrist. Fun and agile but very fast. Now I ride a bmw f800 GS (lowered version). Very comfortable, even at a 32 inch inseam it is quite tall. That doesn’t slow me down though. Just rode 2600kms last week. I would like to see more female friendly advertising as I will never be on the back or an accessory on a motorcycle. Who rides a bike in a bikini? Seriously

  8. Oh, and that Triumph ad is from 2002, not 2015. We had to search to find it, and of course it’s from the one country where I was most furiously ignored as a moto-journalist, Italy. The men working booths at EICMA stunned me with their desperate need to ignore my intelligent questions. 😉

  9. Thanks for the article Michael! You know, I didn’t know that about the Scarver, but it’s a bike I rented to ride from Barcelona to Italy (because it was cheap) and hated it from the start. I crashed it in Nice and have a history of only crashing bikes I hate. But then, I’m not your typical female. At 6’0 I’m taller than most MEN. Before then the only BMW’s I’d ridden were the R60/6 I’d owned and a friends GS1100 I’d borrowed for a couple weeks and LOVED.

    There is no need for women’s bikes, just like there’s no need for girl’s toys. The only bikes missing in the market are powerful sportbikes for short people. Or so I’ve heard. I love my big bikes, a 2004 Yamaha R1 and a 2013 Zero FX which is the first bike I’ve ever owned that I can’t quite flat-foot. And that was a big part of its appeal for this amazon.

    I don’t mind seeing sexy babes in pictures of bikes, I just assume it’s what men need to see because sex sells, blahblahblah. I don’t need marketers to appease me, but I do need sales and repair “professionals” to treat me like a human being.

    The East Side Moto Babes have done a LOT more for selling triumphs than the horrible ad you show above. That girl isn’t even dressed cool! OK, so they’re trying to show her retro, but dude. There’s MUCH better styling inspiration in any Babes on Motos shoot the ESMB do every year, here: http://eastsidemotobabes.blogspot.com/

    1. Great comments Susanna,

      I think using sex to sell anything is ok, but in a clever way. Showing beautiful people doing cool things on motorcycles (the Ducati Scrambler videos of hipsters on the beach, or BMW’s new “Make Life a Ride” video come to mind) are sexy. All feature toned, young models flicking hair or flexing muscles in impossibly romantic motorcycle scenarios, and that is using sex to sell. “Be like me and have these experiences/friends/partners”.

      It is sort of like foreplay versus intercourse: requiring craft and charm and leading to ultimately deeper satisfaction.

      There is a saying at EICMA, that the size of the breasts and shortness of skirts of a given brand’s show girls are inversely proportional to the strength of the business. When Aprilia was the brand to beat throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s, they had pretty women in full length, colourful gowns. Just before the company went belly up in 2003 it was gaudy makeup and pushup double D cups as far as the eye could see.

      I think we can call it the Flesh For Financial Instability rule. It looks like this:

      MV = k / SL x BS

      where:

      MK is market value
      k is constant of proportionality
      SL is skirt length
      BS is breast size

      Who said algebra can’t be fun?

      1. Michael – Nailed it!! Hah!

        1) This article was so spot on
        2) Totally rad my photo made it in to your article!! I’m #555 racing at Loudon NH in that photo 🙂
        3) As another disgruntled industry insider I started tackling some of the women’s gear issues with my
        small start up Fableriders.com . Would love to chat with you about it if you’re ever interested!

        Thanks again for this insightful read!

    2. I agree completely! At 5’10, I don’t need a smaller bike. However when I first started riding, sales staff all pushed me towards the CBR125. I’m way too tall for it; my arms and legs stuck out uncomfortably. But I’m a woman, and it’s a “women’s bike” in some people’s view.

      Attitudes in the shops are changing here (Canada), but I often get told about the colours the bikes come in, not actual specifications like torque, handling, or the characteristics of the engine.

  10. Another great read! I have no problems riding tall bikes, I’m average height, yet would still love a small, fast, high tech bike like you mentioned. (Even if I had to paint over pink tribal designs.)
    I’d love to see some R or RR versions of the latest crop of 300’s. My wife has a ninja 250 and loves it to bits. When ever I ride it though, it feels like something wants to fall off. The interesting thing is, I have never thought it did not have enough power…

    Out of curiosity, Micheal, how much influence do the marketing departments have when designing a bike?

    1. Cael

      Marketing have varying degrees of influence depending on the company. Without being specific for the sake of professional discretion, all I will say is that the brands with the most to lose tend to have extremely
      empowered marketing departments who dictate pretty strongly the design brief. It’s been my observation that those brands produce more flops…

      People often confuse marketing for product planning. These activities represent a conflict of interest, and must be separated or else the product is dangerously compromised. Marketing is sales for today built around observations of the past; product planning is plotting a vision for the future built on analysis of the present.

  11. Michael,

    I spent four years as a motorcycle safety instructor in the Toronto area, and when women approached our fleet of 2008 cbr125 bikes, I found very quickly that these bikes were not targeted at diminutive riders.

    * The levers are not adjustable for smaller grip
    * The seat height is not adjustable

    I really would like to see bikes on the market with more room for adjustment to suit a rider that is starting out, be they male or female.

    A good friend of mine had to lower her Honda F4i so much, that she complained she was scraping bits on the track long before her knee slider ever got close. 🙂

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