New S.F. study opens door to exploring gender differences in environmental policies

Some San Franciscans remember a life in the 1950s before our “throwaway culture” took hold. Home cooked meals were the norm. Dishes were cleaned after breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as after birthday parties and picnics. Baby diapers were washed and reused. Ripped clothes were mended. In fact, Halloween costumes and holiday sweaters were often made by hand.

Women performed most, if not all, of these duties. In 1950, only 34 percent of women ages 25-34 were employed or actively looking for work. By 2015, the number had risen to 73 percent. Today, many women continue to manage household duties with full-time jobs, which can make convenience mighty attractive — at least, in my personal experience.

Obviously, there are many factors contributing to our “throwaway culture,” and to environmental challenges generally. No woman should feel like she needs to step back into the kitchen to save the planet. Instead, more women share their perspectives. Policymakers and industry leaders need to hear our stories to develop equitable solutions.

A bicycling gender gap

San Francisco’s recent study into gender differences in bicycle riding provides a snapshot of how environmental challenges and policies impact women differently. Based on the findings, The City has identified steps it can take to support more women. San Francisco should build on the study and conduct more research. We should work toward our waste reduction and climate change targets while striving for greater gender equality and empowerment.

“I think we need to approach the subject with deep curiosity to find out where gender matters,” Deborah Raphael, director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, told me.

Last month, the Department presented a new study on women and biking to the first joint-meeting of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment and the Commission on the Status of Women. Researchers investigated the use of bike lanes in the South of Market (SoMa) area with a focus on gender, race and ethnicity, income, and mobility.

Like other cities that have found a significant gender gap in bicycling, the San Francisco-specific study found that white men are disproportionately represented. Of people surveyed, only 29 percent self-identified as women. In addition, while women of color make up 34 percent of The City’s population, they only represented 13 percent of SoMa bikers.

Bring on the showers, changing rooms

Commissioners at the meeting were quick to question why the study was conducted in SoMa. There are many tech companies in the neighborhood – an industry dominated by white men.

But the study prompted commissioners to share stories about their experiences both as drivers and bicyclists, which provided insight. San Francisco streets don’t feel safe for anyone. Bicycles cost money, and are easily and often stolen in The City.

Women would also like a place to clean up and put on work-appropriate clothes after riding. It’s not easy to bike in pumps and dress suits.

“It takes a lot of planning,” Commissioner Breanna Zwart, a bicyclist, admitted. “I often get teased when people see my backpack.”

Can The City become a Copenhagen?

Commissioner Zwart and others suggested having a biking partner, increasing protected bike lanes and creating more places to safely store bikes and change. These changes could support more women cyclists.

Of course, turning San Francisco into a city like Copenhagen, where women make up over 50 percent of cyclists, requires a bigger cultural shift and maybe smaller hills. But the study could provide solutions to help more San Franciscans get out of cars and on to bicycles. It also reinforces the need for services and solutions to support environmental choices among women.

“We’re all so good at asking ourselves what we need to do to combat climate change,” Raphael told me. “What we’re not good at asking is if those actions differ if you are a man or a woman.”

Asking how gender matters is essential to providing more equitable answers. Many women want to combat climate change and reduce waste, but don’t have the time or resources. Options like changing rooms at work and food delivery services that use reusable containers can help us inch closer to gender equality and a more sustainable planet.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at

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