September 6, 2013
Anne Zube’s fascination with motor sports began with a muscle car at age 15, followed by a string of Jeeps, boats, all-terrain vehicles, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle shortly after her 40th birthday.
Now she’s president of Stilettos on Steel, a Milwaukee-area women’s motorcycle club that represents a wide range of female bikers, regardless of the brand of bike they ride.
Female riders are among the most important demographics for Harley as it cultivates the next generation of motorcyclists. About a third of the students enrolled in Harley’s rider training classes are female.
The company has worked hard to overcome stereotypes that have kept women out of motorcycling, including the notion that a petite female can’t handle a big, powerful bike. It’s more about technique, skill and confidence than physical strength.
Zube, the events manager for Coast Restaurant in Milwaukee, says driving a motorcycle came naturally to her when she took a Rider’s Edge safety class to get her license.
“As soon as I took my feet off the ground and put them on the bike’s foot pegs, I throttled myself into a new life and knew it wasn’t just a bucket list kind of thing,” Zube said.
Still, she and other women motorcyclists aren’t always welcomed or understood in a male-dominated activity where even the dealerships sometimes ignore them or don’t take them seriously.
“They haven’t quite learned to look at women as potential equals in the game,” Zube said.
One woman who has spent many years trying to change that is Leslie Prevish, a former Harley-Davidson executive who now has a consulting business focused on marketing to women and diverse audiences in the outdoor and motor sports industries.
While at Harley, her duties included leading the “garage party” program aimed at introducing women to motorcycling in an unintimidating way. Before she was hired by the motorcycle company in 1989, she spent three years working at a Harley dealership.
Companies can spend millions of dollars marketing products to women, but it’s wasted money if the people dealing directly with customers don’t follow through and treat women with the same respect as men, according to Prevish.
“What I have witnessed is the owner or manager of a shop needs to drive the awareness,” she said.
Zube and other women say they’ve been treated poorly at some dealerships, where the sales staff assumes the women are more interested in clothing than bikes, and the service department doesn’t take them seriously.
“And I am a pretty outspoken woman. I can’t imagine what it’s like for women who aren’t,” Zube said.
Harley-Davidson has a website for women motorcyclists and an outreach program with events aimed at women and racial minorities. The company has done more in both areas than other motorcycle manufacturers, according to Genevieve Schmitt, publisher of Women Riders Now, an online publication.
“There is not one other manufacturer that is dedicating resources to attract women riders, and that is very disturbing to me,” Schmitt said.
“Kudos to Harley. They get it,” she said.
The motorcycle industry is dominated by men who don’t appreciate that women control the spending in most families, including money spent on recreation, according to Schmitt.
“It’s disturbing that motorcycling chooses to disregard the influence of females. There are some dealerships who take the initiative and don’t wait for the manufacturers to tell them what to do. But there are many dealerships that just wait. … It’s sad that even a small amount of money can’t go to appealing to women through female-focused marketing messages,” Schmitt said.
Harley-Davidson doesn’t disclose what percentage of its customers are women but says the marketing efforts aimed at attracting female buyers have been a success.
The company doesn’t have a specific bike that’s made for women because, like men, they have varied interests in riding and types of motorcycles.
“We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re typecast into a certain bike. You pick the one that appeals to you, and our dealers will work with you to make sure it fits properly,” said Claudia Garber, Harley-Davidson’s director of women’s marketing outreach.
“There are so many different bikes and fit options, that I don’t think sizing is a barrier,” Garber said.
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As more women become motorcyclists, as a driver or a passenger, it’s helped fuel the feminine culture.
Experienced women riders are encouraged to bring their female friends to the garage parties at Harley dealerships, where the guests range in age from teenagers to senior citizens.
At some of the parties, women can climb aboard a running motorcycle that’s strapped to a machine. They can twist the throttle and experience the rumble of the powerful engine without having to take the bike on the road.
The free events cover everything from motorcycle clothing to engine maintenance. There’s also the “bike lift” lesson to show how a petite woman can lift a tipped-over motorcycle by using technique and her lower body strength.
Garage party guests can ask questions without feeling awkward or intimidated, since the events are aimed at beginner motorcyclists.
Advanced garage parties also would be helpful, according to Zube of Stilettos on Steel.
“For such an empowering sport, you would think the women who have their own bikes and ride would be tough and let everything bounce off them. But they need to feel welcomed, just like anyone else,” she said.
The club’s members come from many backgrounds and professions including teaching and nursing.
“Twenty years ago, if you were a female rider, you were the ‘tough biker chick.’ Now women feel good about wearing lipstick when they ride, and my favorite thing is that our girls paint their nails to match their bike,” Zube said.
For many women, and men, motorcycling is a way to step out of their busy, demanding world. While on the bike, their entire attention has to be on the machine and the road.
“The passion of motorcycle riding should open the door to your soul. It should be that moment, that time, when you can be whatever you want to be and know that no one will judge you,” Zube said.
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