Hey boys, it matters. Oh boy does it matter. What, you ask? Encouraging increasing women participation in the outdoors.
I’m a woman. I’m an outdoorswoman. I am friends with many other outdoorswomen, a lot of whom are certified badasses (unlike myself; though I like to think of myself as a badass-in-training, ha!). And I firmly believe that getting more women into the great outdoors has the power to make a huge positive social contribution - a contribution that reaches far beyond what REI calls “the largest level playing field on earth.”
I said something to the same extent in a recent NBC interview, and it drew a surprising amount of negativity and criticism; most of it from boys. So here are a couple things that I want to clarify - because I think they’re important, and because I care.
- Promoting the notion of women empowerment, female role models and, gasp, the occasional all-female climb or activity is not an anti-male statement. It’s not suggesting that men are misogynists or that climbing with guys is no fun. It’s not about segregation either, but rather an acknowledgement of the unfortunate truth - as shown by many different studies - that in mixed-gender environments, women tend to fall behind and men tend to dominate. And I’ll say it again: this is not about men being misogynists. It’s just how team dynamics, on average, tend to play out when you have both genders present. There’s a term for it too: second-generation gender bias. This is how Robin Ely, Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School, defines it: “Second-generation forms of gender bias aren’t the result of conscious, discriminatory intent; rather, they arise from a million micro interactions, cultural assumptions, and historic ways of doing business that still carry the imprint of our history of gender hierarchy.” Skeptical if it's real? Start by reading this article in the Atlantic.
- On the topic of segregation: the NBC interview drew some responses that suggested that gender shouldn’t matter, and that we should be gender blind because anything else promotes segregation. Conceptually, I would like to agree. In practice, it just doesn’t work that way. Because even with the best intentions gender discrimination is rampant - it’s not something that’s specific to the outdoors, nor is it something that has to be a deliberate act; it’s simply deeply engrained in our societal history and pervasive across too many aspects of daily life. Again, second-generation gender bias. If you are a guy who is (like I would think most if not all of you!) NOT a self-professed misogynist, you’ll most likely not ever experience this gender bias firsthand - though you might witness it in many social interactions around you. Take this anecdote, which is just one among countless others:
On a Thursday in March, a coed climbing party makes a call to a ranger station to enquire about snow and climbing conditions in the backcountry, sharing their plans for a weekend climb. The ranger readily and happily provides beta and advises the team to pass good judgment on their climb but to have fun out there and enjoy the weekend. One day later, the climbing party passes by the ranger station on their way to the trailhead and decides to check in on conditions once more for good measure. The woman in the party, who has many more years of mountain experience than her partner, heads into the ranger station; she’s greeted by the same ranger that her partner spoke to on the phone the previous day. As she asks for an update on conditions - which haven’t changed - the ranger gives her a slow up-and-down, and says “Oh you shouldn’t be going out there honey. It’s dangerous in the backcountry. And you’d need flotation devices anyway - you know, like skis or snowshoes. This is not the weekend for you to attempt this.”
Thinking “what’s the big deal” as you’re reading this? If yes, my guess is that you probably have a Y chromosome. Because if you are a girl, these interactions do matter - not because we can’t get over a one-time, unnecessary sexist remark, but because it happens over and over again, in all sorts of different situations and across the whole universe of imaginable contexts. It suggests to us that we’re weak, that we shouldn’t put ourselves out there, and that we shouldn’t be confident in our abilities. No matter how strong and irreverent a woman may be, this kind of interaction leaves its mark if it happens again and again and again, year after year after year. That’s why being gender blind doesn’t work: because even if you, male reader of this article, may be the most wonderful man and not ever discourage or diminish the women in your social circles, there are plenty of others - men and women both - who do, and many of them without even realizing it (I’m sure the ranger who told me that a climb which he deemed perfectly acceptable for an unknown and for what it’s worth, inexperienced, guy was a really bad idea for me had no bad intentions but simply wanted to keep me safe) and until they stop, and until we consistently tell our little girls and young women and adult females that they’re just as capable as their male counterparts, being gender-blind is a noble thought but utterly amiss of what’s actually happening in the world.
- Next point: Why do I believe that we should put effort and investment and, yes, airtime into promoting all-female activities and into supporting and showcasing female role models? Because when I look at Sharma or Adam Ondra or Tommy Caldwell, I think to myself “Wow those guys are incredible. They’re so strong. I could NEVER do that.” When I look at Beth Rodden or Margo Hayes or Libby Sauter, I think “Wow these girls are incredible. They must have put a ton of work into getting where they are. If they could do it, I wonder how far I could get if I really focused and got after it?” Inspiration is a powerful thing. Women mentors and role models matter, not because male mentors are bad or misogynist or only interested in sex, but because having role models of your own gender is a fantastic source of motivation as well as a huge confidence builder. And it's motivation and confidence that'll enable more women to get outside and experience the joy and freedom that comes from moving competently in the great outdoors.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I firmly believe that women who get to experience and embrace adventure sports are poised to develop a higher level of self-confidence, that they're more likely to challenge the status quo and be strong leaders and female role models for their communities. There's so much more to why this matters, but for now I want to leave it at this: supporting women empowerment in the outdoors is NOT synonymous to accusing men of misogyny; it is not a publicity play, and it shouldn't be divisive either - on the contrary: it should be a no-brainer that unites adventurers and outdoor lovers, male and female alike.
Guys, be part of the solution. Ladies, let's continue to get after it!