Interview with Martha Roskowski

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Note: This blog will be excerpted in part for the upcoming "The Surprising Promise of Bicycling in America" book. We're crowdsourcing thru January 2, 2018 to make sure that can happen. We could use your support! Perks start at just $3: https://igg.me/at/surprisingpromiseofbicycling

Martha Roskowski is former V.P. of Local Innovation for PeopleForBikes, and headed up their Green Lane Project, which recently evolved into the Big Jump Project. She also assisted on broader strategic efforts and leadership for PFB. She left PeopleForBikes in late 2017 to explore new opportunities, with a new project on parking in the works.

Melissa Balmer: What was bicycle advocacy like in the early days?

Martha Roskowski: I started in the biking world in 1990, coordinating BikeWeek for the City of Boulder. I became the Executive Director of Bicycle Colorado in 1994. The bike advocacy mix at the time was mostly guys with a handful of women. The first Thunderhead Gathering was the same. Generally, the men were welcoming and the women were comfortable in working with them. There were, of course, always a few men that overstepped the boundaries, either through sexism or lack of awareness, but the women were generally bold enough to slap it down. I've been lucky to work with strong women at several points in my career. Elissa Margolin, the Executive Director of the League of American Bicyclists, championed my hiring to run the America Bikes campaign, and proved a smart and supportive strategist and collaborator.

I grew up in a family where we were all expected to contribute and achieve, regardless of gender. All of us kids (three boys and two girls) had regular rotating chores of setting the table, doing the dishes, cleaning the bathrooms and mowing the lawn. We were all expected to go to college and have careers. My mother had worked as a food inspector at a time when she was regularly training men who were paid more than her and promoted over her. Her stories were seen as history, not something her daughters would face. I was taught that I could do and be anything I wanted to be.

I must admit being fairly uninvolved in women's issues for much of my career. My upbringing gave me confidence that I would be treated fairly, And for the most part, I have been. I'm determined enough and bold enough that I can hold my ground in most conversations. I've worked in the bike world for nearly 28 years and most sectors are still male-dominated. My strategy, for the most part, has been to fit in with the guys and downplay my gender.

The 2016 election rocked my world. Our country elected a president whose behavior and pronouncements regarding women were totally unacceptable to me. It made me realize that I'd been coasting on the coattails of a lot of other women for a long time, and that things I took for granted were now under attack.  It marked a turning point for me. I gathered up my daughter and marched with a million other women in Washington DC in January, 2017. I write letters and call my members of congress. And I'm more sensitive to sexism, subtle and not-so-subtle. And I feel more responsible for speaking up and helping other women succeed.

Most of the sexism I've encountered was fairly trivial. The worst was probably when I worked in Washington DC, running the America Bikes campaign. We'd had weekly meetings of the allies - the various groups working for more balanced transportation systems, and the men in blue shirts would sit at one end of the table and pontificate and generally dominate the conversation. The women would get a word or two in edgewise, but the men always seconded their male colleague's suggestions, even if one of the women had made the suggestion first. After one of these meetings, one of the women said ""what are we, chopped liver?" and hence was born the Chopped Liver club, which would retire for martinis at the Mayflower Hotel at regular intervals.

MB: What are you most excited about now for women in bike advocacy?

MR: Right now, I'm loving the whole change in bike advocacy, from the identity politics of strong bike riders (mostly male) advocating for their right to ride, to the broader movement for safer streets and more livable communities. It's a shift from the strong and fearless taking the lane to a whole cohort of other people who want to ride safely and comfortably, and sometimes slowly. It includes women, families and older people. Women are stepping up to support places to ride for all ages and abilities, whether it's through traditional advocacy groups or the whole cadre of women who are now leading city transportation departments. Through our work with the Better Bike Share Partnership, we're seeing a diverse arry of community leaders using bikes and bike share as a tool to improve their neighborhoods. It's shifting from bikes as the end, to bikes as a means to achieve broader goals, and its expanding our movement in very positive ways. 

MB: What's missing? What are men in bike advocacy and even the bike industry not understanding about the power of better engaging women in bike leadership?

MR: The U.S. bike industry is still dominated by white men. It seems that the bike industry is figuring out that women are a potential market for bikes, but a lot of the marketing and product development for women is still being led by men. While there are certainly women who are super-tough and can talk technical specs and hang with the boys on bike rides, a lot of women aren't as aggressive in their riding or their clothing and bike choices. And that's a perfectly valid approach to bicycling. There's an interesting new wave of start-up companies run by women, creating clothing and other gear for women that embraces this style.

A few years ago, I attended one of PeopleForBikes's Congressional Fly-ins. It was an all-women event, with female leaders from various sectors of the bike industry. These are smart women who are successful and comfortable working in a male-dominated industry. Several said that they don't generally participate in women's only events, and they attended this one with some trepidation. But they loved the gathering. They felt empowered and engaged. It wasn't a gripe session at all, it was a bunch of strong and successful women marching through the halls of the Capital and working together for change.

MB: If you could wave a magic wand and create the perfect leadership retreat for women in biking and walking advocacy what would it include?

MR: I'd love talks about leadership and change management. I'm not interested in bitch sessions about how horrible men are because they aren't. I want to focus on how we elevate women's voices and women's issues in the bike world. I want to learn more about team-building and communication, and how we help women find the courage to step up and lead. 

Learn more about Martha here, and PeopleForBikes here.