Adventure racer Emily Rowbotham knows all about being a woman in a male-dominated arena. She shares her experiences, along with some ideas for how we can make things more friendly for female adventurers.
Break A Nail Princess?
Men have historically exercised a sense of ownership over the realm of adventure sports. Adventurous and outdoorsy women are confronted routinely by derogatory comments which staunch female participation in outdoor and adventure activities. You would be hard-pressed to find a woman who does not have handful of stories about being catcalled, honked or howled at while out on a run, ride or walk.
Months back, I pulled my hand from the bouldering wall to examine it for the briefest of moments after ripping a couple of blisters near the beginning of the climb. A man in his early 30s who had been waiting behind me to use the same route appeared beneath me.
“Break a nail Princess?”
He caused me to stop and turn.
“Pretty little nails like that won’t be much help here.”
And with that, he pushed up onto the wall, causing me to swing back, and began making his way up the route I was completing, as though it wasn’t corporate rush hour in a suburban climbing gym but some outdoor championship.
I was stunned into silence. I wish I could say I was bold and delivered a raging feminist spiel, but I spent the rest of the evening milling about on the mats as I waited for my friends to finish up, too self-conscious and hesitant to recommence.
Like A Girl
Over the past two years, I have spent most of my time trail running or mountain biking, with frequent interjections of kayaking, climbing and hiking. Through this period I have been confronted by persistent micro-aggressions and vexatious compliments.
Running along a longer ascent on a trail, I had an interaction with a man riding the same trail on his mountain bike.
“Wow, you were really pushing it up there – almost didn’t catch you. Pretty good speed for a chick!”
The eternal words – “Wow! I did not expect “X” from a girl” – ring from climbing gyms, tracks, pools, courts and mountains the world over. The, ‘like a girl’ hashtag began trending in 2015 after the Always ad campaign of the same name.
The campaign featured interviews with people asked to demonstrate what it looks like to ‘run like a girl’ or ‘fight like a girl’. Women, men and younger boys skipped about, pretending to drop imaginary balls and fix their hair. When young girls were asked the same question, ‘what does it mean to run like a girl?’ one responded ‘it means run as fast as you can!’ Sprinting across the room, the young girls jumped, pitched, swung, hit and kicked with all their might.
What changes in puberty that causes so many women to doubt their strength and ability?
My guess is that incessant exposure to sexism and micro-aggressions when attempting ‘outdoorsy’ activities (the majority of which have historically been male-dominated) affects self-confidence. This is not because these women or girls are weak or overly sensitive but because these micro-aggressions become internalised. Repeat belittling fosters self-doubt and unintentional and sometimes unconscious misogynistic beliefs about oneself.
More Role Models Please!
I am thankful for the men that have encouraged me in different ways over the past few years, the men that are my constant companions on rides, runs, climbs and kayaks. The men that encouraged me to hone my determination, drive and grit in the first place, and pulled me away from the ‘like a girl’ attitude. The men that told me that I can.
It’s true – it has been men who have been my biggest motivators and encouragers. But I feel that this has merely been because, in my teenage years, I did not encounter dedicated women bold enough to test the limits of their endurance — who knew the real ability behind ‘like a girl’.
I believe the only reason I did not meet such women is because other women predestined to inspire me and girls around me, did not themselves meet wild, fierce, strong women to encourage them.
Competency in women does not have to be threatening or emasculating to men. The ‘like a girl’ phrase should only connote strength, enthusiasm and passion.
Action Points For Conscious Adventurers
So what can us outdoorsy girls and guys do to change these patterns and free women up to be all they can be in the outdoor space? Here are a few ideas but we’d love to hear more in the comments:
1. Don’t make initial assumptions about someone’s ability. If you would like to offer pointers or assistance, ask if it’s okay first.
2. Take the time to notice where a comment or statement could be interpreted in a negative or patronising way, and either withhold it or re-word. Simple.
3. Be inclusive! Invite your gal-friends along for the ride.
4. Be an ally. Actively call out and educate others where they might be engaged in exclusive behaviour.
5. Call out instances where you might notice an under-representation of women in media. Take notice of advertising, photography and film! (For instance, I was quite disheartened after attending the 2018 Banff Mountain Film’s screening where only two of the films prominently featured women. There — I said it).
6. Women, share and celebrate your successes! Chat about them with friends, post your pictures. Normalise your actions.
7. Make sure you engage in positive self-talk and push forward in the face of adversity.
With the number of women now donning their helmets, packs, and race vests and steeling themselves for chalky hands and muddy boots, the paradigm is shifting. A new generation of inspirational and motivating women are emerging.
So girls, women, don’t apologise for or hide your strengths. Get out and show the guys a thing or two and we’ll all be better for it.