Using Seattle’s Pedestrians as an Object Lesson in Sexism

I’m a bike messenger in downtown Seattle. Due to the prevalence of one-way streets and the endless labyrinth of construction sites, I frequently find myself riding on the sidewalk because there’s just nowhere else to go. Occasionally a pedestrian will see me coming and alert the person they are walking with to my approach.

(Before I continue, a few things, because I can already hear the anti-cyclist crowd whining about bikes on the sidewalk. First, it’s legal in Seattle, so, you know, get over it. Second, I am neither going very fast nor being pushy, like the bogeyman of the Bad Cyclist does, nor do I ride on the sidewalk unless it is the safest or most expedient option (which it rarely is). I wait my turn, I don’t yell at people to move, and I generally try to behave in such a way that no one will be alarmed at my presence. So when I mention that someone is getting out of the way, it’s not because they’re afraid I’ll mow them down, but because they feel it would only be polite to step aside and let me go past.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, an observation. When it’s a man walking with another man, he will usually alert his companion verbally. “Hey, watch out.” Occasionally he’ll just start walking to the side, hoping his companion will follow suit. (This latter technique has limited success rate, but hey, I don’t like interrupting people when they’re talking either.) Sometimes he makes a gesture to draw attention to the approaching cyclist.

When it’s a man walking with a woman, however, he will, almost without fail, physically move her out of the way, as if she were a child. It’s almost never with enough force that she loses balance, or even enough force that it would be interpreted as a violent act, but it’s definitely more than just a nudge. He’s not just trying to get her attention. It’s a subtle way of saying “I don’t trust you to handle this problem on your own.” A man walking with a man respects his companion enough to respond to a verbal warning. A man walking with a woman treats her as if she doesn’t know how to walk in the city.

I mention this to illustrate that sexism often isn’t a conscious choice, but the result of subconscious thought patterns. These men probably aren’t even aware they’re doing it. When you see something unexpected, you don’t have time to consciously analyze it; you make an impulsive decision. And those impulses can reveal unconscious biases.