Are Experiences for Women Making the Outdoors More Inclusive?

Kayaking and backcountry skiing clinics. Social media platforms. Mountain bike races. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s almost impossible not to take note of how experiences for women have permeated the modern world.

It’s a model that has spread through industries in recent years as a way to amplify women’s achievements and elevate the number of women in male-dominated sectors, from business and finance to media—and it’s caught on with stunning popularity in the outdoor sector. While it isn’t new for a group of women to head out together for an adventure, the structured approach to experiences geared toward women has gained significant momentum.

The question at hand: Is this model effective in leveling the playing field, or has it gone too far to authentically facilitate true integration of women in adventure sports that have historically been dominated by men?

In speaking with both leaders and recreationists who are women in the outdoor industry, the answer is unequivocally yes, it’s effective. Of course it has pitfalls, but most will emphatically testify that this participation model is responsible for beginning to increase women’s integration and the recognition of women as major players in the outdoor scene.  

Overcoming a Popular Narrative

Popular narrative around outdoor activities have trained those who identify as women that they aren’t fast enough, strong enough or fearless enough to keep up with men. Karen Warren noted in “Gender in Outdoor Studies” that in a study analyzing popular outdoor advertising, “conclusions showed that women were depicted as participating in less physically and time demanding engagements in outdoor pursuits, were shown as followers rather than leaders, and were seen as either escaping from motherhood or being the instigator of outdoor time with their families” (McNiel, Harris & Fondren, 2012).

To understand how we’ve internalized this thinking in outdoor culture, consider this example: There’s a backcountry ski line on Rogers Pass in British Columbia called the “Girlfriend Run.” In this big-mountain paradise full of complex terrain that requires no small amount of knowledge and skill, the Girlfriend Run is closest to the parking lot, short and mellow—the one you apparently take your girlfriend on because it’s easy. Otherwise, as we’ve all heard so many times that we’ve internalized it without even being aware, she’s likely to get scared, start crying and want to go home.

This is compounded by popular outdoor media that shapes the way we think women should look. “The dominant model in white American culture centers on fitness, youth and body shape,” said Jenny Brusothe founder of Unlikely Hikers. “The outdoor world is behind so many things—we’re still seeing such weird objectifying ads and stories about women.”

This theme is a big and intimidating barrier to entry for women looking to get into outdoor activities for the first time: If you perceive that you’re always the weak link in mixed company, it’s pretty hard to want to put yourself in that situation. Many women guides and mentors will verify this, like Emily Slaco, a mountain bike guide with Tyax Adventures on the coast of British Columbia. A few years ago, she started to notice that lots of women would stay behind at the campsites while their partners who were men went riding. “I’d ask why they weren’t out there too, and I’d always get the same story: I don’t want to hold anyone back.” It can be tough to learn new skills, participate on equal footing and lead in a culture where many parties have internalized this kind of story.

It’s a pervasive narrative that’s reflected across the industry. In REI’s own 2017 study on women in the outdoors, six in 10 women said that men’s interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women’s and that men are taken more seriously than women when shopping at sporting goods stores.

Experiences for women in the outdoor realm tend to be effective because they allow for entry, growth and opportunities to lead outside of that age-old narrative that women are slower, weaker or less serious about adventure sports.

Crossing the Primrose icefield nearing the summit of Primrose Peak. Tour lead by female Association of Canadian Mountain Guides Kate Devine and Shannon Werner during the Alpine Finishing School.

“Any way that we can stop ourselves from using the language that women’s worth is only measured in how good they are at elite sports that are hard to get good at, that take a lot of money and time to get good at—that’s hugely effective,” said Claire Smallwood, executive director of SheJumps. Smallwood founded the organization 10 years ago with athletes Lynsey Dyer and Vanessa Pierce to increase the participation of women and girls in outdoor activities, with the understanding that confidence in the outdoors can translate to reaching one’s highest potential in other aspects of life. 

It’s also a way for women to pursue the activities they love without some of the social pressures they may experience in mixed gender settings. “Affinity spaces tend to be effective because there will be base-level experiences that are already understood that inform a lot of our behavior,” Bruso said. “Even if we’re not talking about those experiences or analyzing that, that fundamental understanding puts you more at ease.”  

Tyler, a high school senior who’s part of the Venture Out Project that connects LGBTQ youth and adults to the outdoors, started mountain biking when she was 14, and progressed quickly on the trails. Riding with predominantly men in the Florida mountain biking community, she experienced both put-downs from men who assumed she couldn’t keep up, and another factor that can affect women in adventure sports: “I experienced a lot of sexualization from men, to the point where I was always worried about being in male-dominated spaces. When I started going on a few women-only rides, it was so relieving that it wasn’t something I even had to think about.”

The Monumental Importance of Role Models

SheJumps also aims to provide girls with the strong women role models its founders never had in the outdoors—an issue that on its own could carry the argument for why experiences geared toward women are effective. “For me personally, founding SheJumps came from wanting the identity from a young age of being a woman in the outdoors and not having had many, if any, role models to look up to,” said Smallwood. “It’s a bigger conversation about diversity in the outdoors, this barrier to entry of ‘No one looks like me who’s doing this, so why should I think I can do it?’ We need to see people who look like us, role models that make us think we can do it, too.”

Women of color have even fewer role models in the outdoor world. When Bethany Lebewitz founded Brown Girls Climb, she saw a mix of women showing up, from experienced climbers to newbies. She was still looking at herself as a fairly new climber then, and identified with the women who were just starting out and didn’t have many culturally relevant role models. But, she said, “I saw a Colombian woman who had just finished her 12a project, and I thought, ‘Maybe I could start sport climbing.’ It had a positive effect on my approach and how I saw myself developing as a climber, and how I could also contribute my knowledge.”

Those role models can also be mentors, and the mentorship that clinics and groups for women foster is critical for actually keeping women involved in outdoor activities. “It’s what’s been seen in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] also: Mentorship or a support system are key factors in retention, especially with regard to higher level leadership positions,” said Lebewitz. “This is what we do with Brown Girls Climb. The women that we mentor are interested in developing as climbers and some are interested in entering the outdoor industry—but because they’ll be going into white, male-dominated spaces, it will be challenging. We have to remind each other why that struggle is worth it, not only for ourselves but for our community.”

Constant communication is key. After a morning of ski touring these women are reassessing their objective for the day at a hut.

Many women will testify that the support system is an attractive feature of experiences for women, especially in the realm of adventure sports that has traditionally embodied masculine traits of competition and aggression. A recent SheJumps survey found that community, rather than competition, is a major way that women connect and approach the outdoors. “Even though your mountain bike ride is your individual experience, you still want to share it with people,” explained Smallwood.

Elevating the Women’s Platform as a Whole

Along those lines, the permeation of women’s offerings elevates the women’s platform as a whole in the outdoors, sort of like a giant exercise in Shine Theory. Popularized by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, Shine Theory says that rather than viewing the most successful, powerful, skilled (insert extreme attribute here) woman as competition, women’s success can empower other women. Furthermore, teaming up to amplify each other’s achievements can ultimately elevate an entire segment. The concept was made famous by a group of aids in the Obama administration who practiced this strategy to successfully bring more women into a cabinet where they were outnumbered.

The origin story of Camber Outdoors, which aims to accelerate equity in the outdoors from the boardroom to the backcountry, echoes this principle. Founder Ann Krcik from The North Face and Carolyn Cooke, founder of Isis, one of the first outdoor brands for women, recognized there were few women on the corporate side of the outdoor industry. “Ann and Carolyn came at it from the concept that if they weren’t looking after each other as women in the industry, then no one else would be,” said Deanne Buck, Camber Outdoors executive director. “This was, and in some ways still is, counter to the popular narrative that’s out there that women are sometimes their own worst enemy and tend not to help other women.”

Effective Environment for Learning Skills & Leadership

Talk to any guide in the outdoor community, and they’ll likely name a nearly identical set of factors as common barriers to entry for women in the outdoors: A lack of confidence in skills, a subsequent lack of confidence in decision-making in adventure sport missions, and fears of not being able to keep up and holding back a group. These observations are mirrored in a study by Snowsports Industries America and RRC Associates that found women new to snowsports consistently listed four major hurdles when entering a new sport: intimidation and lack of confidence, inadequate knowledge of gear, uncertainty in how to plan outdoor outings, and cost.

The designed-for-women model recognizes those barriers to entry and seeks to address the narrative that has shaped traditional outdoor culture. It provides a space for learning skills and building confidence within a context that makes sense for a particular group. “With climbing, there’s a lot of risk involved,” noted Lebewitz. “In order to be a skilled and competent climber and lead people outdoors, you have to have a high confidence level, and how do you develop that? The style of many women, and women’s groups, typically involves a lot of external feedback and recognition of the individual. At Brown Girls Climb meetups, we always go through pronouns, where you’re coming from, skill level, but we also provide feedback. At the end of the day, there’s an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what I think I did well and here’s what I want to work on.’ You don’t get that from just hanging out on the crag. We need to identify our own strengths and continue building on those.”

The premise here is that such affinity spaces allow for effective skill, confidence and leadership development that can then be translated back into mixed group situations.

“Back when I was getting into climbing, I realized I would give decision-making over to my male partners—especially in technical parts like leading and choosing routes,” said Buck. “So my girlfriend and I went to Joshua Tree and made a promise to ourselves that we wouldn’t climb something unless we led it from the ground to the top. That took away my excuses—all our choices were fully ours to own. That’s why so many offerings for women focus on skills: Women tend to be socialized to learn differently than men in American culture, and it’s about being respectful that the historical approach to entering new activities has a gendered and culturally influenced foundation, even if we don’t label it as such.”

Does It Create a Separate Playing Field Rather than Leveling the Common One?

Many (both women and men) point out that a pitfall of the predominance of experiences for women is that they don’t actually level the existing playing field; they just create a totally separate one and miss the point of integrating women more equally in the outdoor arena.

It could be argued that there are different playing fields—that there are physiological differences that mean that men are simply faster and stronger.

Stephanie Mawson practicing her crevasse rescue skills while a smile.

But physiology doesn’t necessarily dictate the edge. Many of the first-evers in adventure sports belong to women: Lynn Hill with the first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan, Kit DesLauriers skiing off all seven of the world’s highest summits, Christina Lustenberger ticking off big mountain first descents left and right, Ashima Shiraishi becoming the youngest person to climb a V15, Denise Mueller-Korenek’s recent record as the fastest person on a bicycle—the list goes on.

In a domain like the outdoors—where masculinity has prevailed for decades—programming for women is a first step toward promoting greater inclusion and participation in the outdoor world. It’s about recognition of women as legitimate players in the outdoors and all the parts that add up to a whole of being a representative part of the conversation.

We’re seeing that women have more background information, technical knowledge and experience, so that it’s not enough to just shrink it and pink it anymore,” said Smallwood. Experiences for women are about “the concept of equity to bring the pendulum to the middle.”

And once it’s in the middle, says Buck, it’s about translating that into the everyday experience so that designed-for-women spaces are an option—but they’re no longer necessary.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a dialogue on the topic of representation and the outdoors. It should be noted that the current binary gender model limits conversations about participation. Transgender, nonbinary, intersex people and others, for example, may feel rejected by a framework that makes assumptions about their ability to pursue outdoor goals based on physiology and genetic makeup. There is work that needs to be done to push beyond the bounds of our current systems of understanding.

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All photos by Abby Cooper.