Why are there so few female bicycle couriers?
Brittney Burkholder and her Cinelli outside of Cafe Pamenar /Photo by Marsha McLeod.
“I don’t know why there are so few female couriers in the industry. I think it's a great job,” said Brittney Burkholder, a full-time bicycle courier, as we spoke outside Cafe Pamenar, a popular spot among couriers and everyday cyclists—possibly due to its next-door location to Bikes on Wheels.
Burkholder turned towards Ben Adams (also a courier) for a possible answer, who said, “I think it’s just inherently male. … It’s like, why aren’t there female elevator mechanics or many female construction workers? It’s hands-on, it’s super active, it’s dirty.”
Over an extended cigarette break, Kai Magobenny, a full-time barista at Pamenar, and an ex-courier (she was on the road for 3.5 years with Quick Messenger Service, or QMS), argued that it’s societal expectations, not women’s bodies that limits the numbers of women who courier.
“Throughout centuries, women have been told that [hard labour] is not a thing that's accessible to them. Women are so often told to be afraid of fear itself, and that’s intimidating to face—as is working exclusively with men," said Magobenny.
In 2011, Patrick Adler, a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Masters of Geography program (he is currently a PhD candidate in Urban Planning at UCLA), began to write his MA thesis on the robust bicycle courier industry in Toronto—an industry which exists primarily to shuttle legal documents, hard drives, and cheques between offices in the downtown core.
In his study, Adler found that female couriers reported feeling as though they needed to prove themselves more than their male counterparts—a sentiment echoed by Magobenny: “There was this precedent that was set for a woman working in the industry to be more badass, tougher, swear more, and be more reckless in order to prove herself.”
I initially thought that a discriminatory hiring process within courier companies could account for the low rates of female couriers. However, when I asked Burkholder about the hiring process, this hypothesis went unfounded: “I went to the Yellow Pages, and just immediately got hired by the one company [Zap Courier Service] who hires everyone," said Burkholder.
Zap Courier Service snappily states on its website: “Call us in the morning and start working the same day!” But a quick hire doesn’t equate to a good job. Burkholder moved from Zap to another company, Speedy Express, within a period of two weeks (“It was still pretty crappy, but less crappy than Zap,” said Burkholder).
Getting a job isn’t a problem, but sometimes, being one of the only women in the industry can be, remarked Magobenny: “My courier nickname was Big Butt, and I don’t even really have a big butt. There are a lot of sexual remarks, and you deal with a lot of shit.”
There are issues that both female and male couriers both deal with, primarily the designation of couriers as “independent contractors” under provincial law, which means they must independently pay into their Canadian Pension Plan, they are not entitled to vacation or statutory pay and they have limited employee rights regarding issues such as receiving paid time-off for work-related injuries.
“It’s an unregulated industry. You have [companies] really taking advantage of people who aren’t assertive of their needs as workers, and while you can make $150 a day, you can also make $50 a day,” said Magobenny.
Bike couriers work on commission, taking a cut of the cost of each delivery they complete, and because there is usually no minimum commission guarantee, “couriers’ cash returns [for] speed are even higher than for cab drivers,” said Adler.
This financial need for speed can lead to serious injury, a reality Burkholder experienced early in her start as a courier when she was caught between a parked car and a taxi driver pulling out from its lane. "I took the parked car's side mirror off with my kidney. I kept working for a few more hours and then I realized I was peeing blood," said Burkholder.
Burkholder's current company, United Messengers Ltd., paid her to take several days off work—a highly unusual practice in the industry. “At basically any other company you are considered disposable; you’re just a body," she said.
Another occupational hazard of the job is the lacklustre effect on your genitals. "In general, you lose some sensitivity; men do, too," said Magobenny. (Pro tip: tilt your saddle backwards rather than forwards to put the pressure onto your sit bones. Also, a hard seat is a much more lady-friendly option than a soft one.) "After 2.5 years, I invested in the right kind of saddle, and it was like this part of my body came alive again; I had no idea it was bad and then all of a sudden I was aware of it: like here it is again, hello!” laughed Magobenny.
Despite injuries, near-minimum wage pay, and precarious employment rights, Adler's research—supported by the various conversations I had—found that generally couriers love their work and are hesitant to leave the culture. If they do leave, they are likely to return.
During the first weekend of May, couriers from around North America convened in Toronto for a series of races that involve racing to different checkpoints around the city: "[Race participants] came from New York, Chicago, Montreal. They were so stoked about the scene here; it's just so fun," said Burkholder.
“It’s like a big family, and like with any big family, I think it’s essential to have women involved.” said Magobenny.
“And the scene is changing,” continued Magobenny. “In the time of me working, there have been countless more women than had ever been on the road in Toronto—[previously] there were maybe six of us, tops—and now there are always people who come join in the summer—"
"Like this one!" exclaimed Magobenny mid-sentence, as a smiling blonde woman walked past our table on Pamenar’s patio.
After greetings were exchanged, as well as on some updates on a lingering elbow injury, Magobenny explained, “Melina and I rode together for a while at QMS.”
Melina is on (a possibly permanent) hiatus from couriering because of her injury and is currently employed as an English teacher. “It’s slightly more profitable than riding, and there’s less chance of injury,” said Melina.
After Magobenny headed back inside to work, Melina hung around to speak of her experiences on the road: “I have to tell you, couriering is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”
An earlier version of this article wrote that five female bicycle couriers were currently working in Toronto; yet, this reflected the numbers of women working only in non-food deliveries, not the industry as a whole. the newspaper apologizes for the lack of clarity.comments powered by Disqus