Sexism in the outdoors

Let's get serious for a minute. There are too many times when women are made to feel uncomfortable while enjoying outdoor experiences. Learn how we are dedicated to eliminating this type of interaction.
Chris Williams Chris Williams
Leadership Development Manager
July 15, 2015

Every Mountaineer is well-meaning. Every volunteer cares about the experiences of their students and participants. But let's look at some statements that women occasionally hear while out on the trails:

  • "Wow, you're pretty strong for a girl" or "you're stronger than you look"
  • "Are you sure you don't want me to carry the _____(rope, stove, tent etc)?"
  • "Did you get into hiking (kayaking, climbing scrambling) because of your boyfriend/husband?"
  • "Don't worry I'll give you a 'boyfriend belay' (oops I mean I'll keep you on a tight belay)"
  • "Is that your boyfriend's truck?"

The Mountaineers has a long, proud legacy of including women in our programs (well before the rest of the country was willing to include them). In fact, half of our founding members were women

But, sexism in the outdoors isn't a new problem or one that other organizations haven't also faced, and our work is not done.

Let's get serious for a minute: it's really not any more impressive when a woman carries the rope than when a man does it. And, like men, women get into the outdoors for lots of reasons, most of which have to do with loving the outdoors - not the implications included in some of the statements cited above. Our longstanding policy has always been for all participants to enjoy their time with us without fear of  harassment or discrimination of any kind. 

Every time someone says things like the above to a woman, we have made an unjust assumption about her and have to start from scratch, rebuilding trust that we've broken.

Bottom Line: We are ALL Mountaineers. The outdoors is our home and our inspiration. We are obligated as humans to be inclusive of everyone we meet on the trails (dirt, snow, or water). As a volunteer-lead organization it takes every member working in sync to "move the dial" on this issue, and we all need to focus on this in our goals to get to the next level. It will also provide a positive example for everyone else to follow. 

As you enjoy your summer, keep this idea in mind: When greeting someone - anyone! - just say "Hi!" and "have a nice trip!" and avoid speculating about anyone's motivation, interest in the outdoors, or abilities - if they want to tell you about themselves - they will! 

And if you hear someone say something offensive, try using some of these phrases to respond. 


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Donald McGee
Donald McGee says:
Sat, Jul 18, 2015 10:22 AM

Well, half right.

Mountaineers, or climbers at least, tend to be disproportionately young and male. When you get a bunch of young men together they will often lapse into a boorish, locker-room humor. It's ungentlemanly, and no woman should have to put up with it if she doesn't find it amusing. Groups of women have their own unique unpleasant behaviors, but that's for another day.

Also, I assume it happens, but I have never witnessed a female climber subjected to unwanted romantic attention on a climb. If so, no woman should put with that either, and the leader and other climbers might be called on to tactfully -- even forcefully -- intervene.

But it's not sexist to acknowledge real physical and psychological differences between men and women. The average female climber weighs maybe 120 pounds, the average male 185 lbs. A woman carrying a 50lb load up Mt Rainier is carrying 42% of her body weight. A man carrying the identical load is carrying only 27%. A 42% body weight load is near the edge of my endurance. At 27%, I can skip. It's not sexist to recognize that.

It's also not sexist to recognize that, for example, driving a pickup truck (like discovering new continents, walking on the moon, or going into the Void) is something men tend to do, not women. Look at who the truck commercials target. Keeping an open and accepting mind is not the same as emptying your head of all life experience. Some people get a chip on their shoulder about such things, and the presence of a peevish spirit on a climb can undermine the energy and psychic integrity of group that depends trust and cooperation to safely get up and back down again.

What is truly sexist however is sometimes less obvious. Chris speaks of women being "made to feel uncomfortable". This implicitly trivializes women as helpless and in need of protection. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." One of the most vibrant lessons of climbing a mountain is learning that the real challenge is inside you.

Most women climbers understand this too, and that's why they climb.

Charles Celmer
Charles Celmer says:
Sun, Jul 19, 2015 5:33 PM

Well said Don. A well balanced reality based approach beats PC for PC's sake every time.

Chris Williams
Chris Williams says:
Mon, Jul 20, 2015 2:45 PM

With complete respect, I disagree with both of you. If anyone, man or woman, is already carrying the rope there's no need to "recognize that" at all. Abilities don't come into play at that point. You're not dealing with "the average" person when you come into contact with someone, you're dealing with actual human beings who can evaluate their own unique abilities - man or woman. This has nothing to do with "political" correctness - it's just being fair in your treatment of people. When a man doesn't get asked the same qualifying questions that a woman does, it has nothing to with statistical generalities. These aren't theoretical statements in the post above - they're actual complaints that have been brought to us from real people who strongly resented them.

Bria Fast
Bria Fast says:
Mon, Jul 20, 2015 8:51 PM

Donald,

I'm not sure if I'm more flabbergasted by your ability to create a comment that so perfectly illustrates why Chris had to write this article in the first place, or impressed that it tied in so many other forms of oppression—victim blaming and colonization just to name a couple.

If you're talking about the average weight of an elite female sport climber, you're probably spot on at 120 as the average weight of the top ten male elite sport climbers is 124lbs. Given the fact that you said the average weight of a male climber is 185, I can only assume you're actually just talking about your good old fashioned athletic mountaineer. Since the average weight of women in this country is 166 (and 5'4'') I feel we can safely assume that a female athlete, occasionally taller than the national average and certainly more muscular would weigh in closer to what was stated above. If we take me as an example, a 50lb pack would only be 26.4% of my body weight, which means I would be skipping up Rainier more free and easy than even you. My point here is, please stop talking about your idea of what a woman's body is, what its limitations are, and how that shapes your version of reality.

Additionally, I would be curious to hear your list of men who have "discovered new continents" (divine help us all if anywhere on that lies Christopher Columbus)and, as for space exploration, we have Alice Bowman to thank for driving one of the most amazing missions in our known human history. In a recent article in the Atlantic on the New Horizons mission, the author talks about sexism within the scientific community. She states that when researchers from Yale presented men with the empirical data that demonstrated that sexism is alive and well in their very own profession, “they found that men “flipped out,” as The Washington Post put it, even when presented with proof of gender bias in science, many of them publishing sexist remarks in response."

Does that sound familiar Donald?

However, it was only after your comment that marketing in the automotive world justifies inappropriate comments towards women on trail (Don, what a nice Subaru you have, must be your wife’s) that I decided I had to say something. Because what you concluded your antiquated, poorly argued, poorly thought out, bigoted comment with is emotional abuse. And I am sick and tired of the abuse that minorities within the outdoor community face on a daily basis, be it women, men and women of color, or queer identified individuals.

When you or others like you make inappropriate, sexist, homophobic, or racist comments to individuals on trail, my peevish spirit better ruin your climb. Because your patriarchal supremacist bullshit just ruined mine. This is victim blaming. Victim blaming takes place when the victim of a wrongful act, in this case the victim of sexism or oppression, is held responsible for the harm that befell them.

“Victim-blaming attitudes marginalize the victim/survivor and make it harder to come forward and report the abuse. If the survivor knows that you or society blames the survivor for the abuse, s/he will not feel safe or comfortable coming forward and talking to you. Victim-blaming attitudes also reinforce what the abuser has been saying all along; that it is the victim’s fault this is happening. It is NOT the victim’s fault or responsibility to fix the situation; it is the abuser’s choice. By engaging in victim-blaming attitudes, society allows the abuser to perpetrate abuse while avoiding accountability for those actions.”

In addition to victim blaming, I’m going to introduce you to another term called gaslighting, which you demonstrated perfectly in your final paragraphs. From everyday feminism, “Gaslighting is a tactic used to destabilize your understanding of reality, making you constantly doubt your own experiences.” It is often used to reinforce uneven power balances and make victims doubt their own perceptions. I am not hysterical. I am not overly emotional. I am not any other term you use to put down and stereotype women, and when you and others use your power to insert yourself to make me feel small when I have worked just as hard as you to be on that climb, I am not always in control of whether or not that makes me furious.

But, sometimes I do choose what I feel. And right now, I choose to feel rage and sadness and despair at the gross injustice and pollution and sickness your comments and those like them help to perpetuate. What you concluded with is that the real sexism here, is calling attention to sexism, and that’s terrifying. That, is what I hope most women climbers understand.