Let's get women back to our Mother, Nature.
If your expectation of me is to be a cute prop in outdoor photos and not have an opinion on things that directly affect me, you can stop reading…now. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been called a feminist, like it’s a bad thing. The fact there is still a need for conversation around women in the outdoors is just proof feminism is ESSENTIAL. This is not a new conversation but rather a continuing dialogue.
Before I go any further – I want to acknowledge the privilege that comes with enjoying the outdoors period. There are many barriers people face to enjoying the outdoors with classism in the cost of gear, ableism in the lack of accessibility, and racism in the form of lack of representation (amongst other things) – these are just a few examples. My own privilege exists as being a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, & straight-sized woman who can afford to play outdoors. Although I have captured some insights from women who identify differently, as an opinion piece this is my lens – this is how I see the world & how the world sees me.
Another key mention here is this is an opinion piece. Although I am a scientist by background, I am not an expert in women’s issues, and this is not a thorough literature review, nor did I conduct a statistically significant survey. This is my lived experience as a woman who happens to enjoy the outdoors and share that passion on my Instagram page @polishthepaddle. In sharing this passion on social media I’ve stumbled into many interesting conversations and discussions in my DM’s – some of which boil down to gender discrimination and sexism in the outdoors. How does it show up on Instagram you may wonder… it shows up as fellow women followers looking for gear recommendations that have a proper fit and functionality for women. It shows up as the frustrations shared among peers about how people (mostly men) have approached them with unsolicited advice about how to do something (i.e. pack gear) or even how they should dress and present themselves online. It shows up in willingly ignorant questions of a women’s lived experience in the outdoors – “no that doesn’t happen” or “no I haven’t witnessed that”. This shows up for ME a white, cisgender, straight woman – this experience is amplified tremendously for BIPOC women, for fat women, for women in the LGBTQIA2S+ community.
All of the above examples had me wonder how women in my immediate community experience gender in the outdoors, or if they do at all. I had a total of 62 responses from women in the outdoors to my non-scientific survey. Of those 62 women, 47% responded “Yes” to whether they have experienced gender discrimination in the outdoors. The question was vague intentionally, because I didn’t want to skew what someone may feel was discriminatory against them. Of those women, 50% offered further insight into their experiences. These experiences varied:
being excluded on “boys’ trips” or in “men’s activities”
unwanted/unsolicited advice about how to “properly” do something, being questioned on their ability to complete a task (ie. lifting a heavy canoe), or unwanted help in completing a task
being assigned gender-based roles whether that be sitting at the front of the canoe or cooking
having their services refused when selling outdoor goods or alternately while purchasing outdoor goods being overlooked and having products sold to male companions instead
inappropriate and unnecessary commentary on the trails i.e., “don’t break a nail”
I’ve highlighted some of these experiences in more detailed quotes below.
“I was the experienced canoeist but was told by a company I need to sit in the front, “the girly seat” while on an exploring trip.”
“I find that my male peers or counterparts will explain skills to me without observing that I may already possess those skills. This is more often than not unsolicited.”
“Hunt Camp- women stay in the cabin cleaning and doing "women chores" while the men are outside doing whatever”
“…was once called out on trail by someone who didn’t know me. Wondering why my husband wasn’t carrying my pack.”
“being called hon or sweetie, having men try to scare me when I’m alone on a site or intimidate me”
“I would also like to add that being a female AND person of colour seems to impact the way people look at me. I have so many people say “you don’t seem Indian” because I enjoy camping, and being outside. It’s so ignorant, not to mention micro aggression...”
“Husband and I came across a group of men saying that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the end of the hike, as I was the only woman and it was a difficult hike.”
“Gender based negative comments from male strangers on the trail (one specifically being “that’s not really a safe trail for a girl to be on, you might chip a nail”)”
“I have had men not accept my service when I sold outdoor gear.”
“I was just as qualified, if not more qualified than the men I worked with, but my employer would only give me day trips.”
“…mistakenly assume that i must be a guy if I have an online outdoor account”
“There’s still a macho mentality that comes with anything outdoors that downright challenges the capabilities of women. Eg: Women can’t start fires, women can’t tie knots, need that kayak on top of your car? Better get a man to help you.”
“Men and women thinking I’m not actually knowledgeable in my field (fishing) and going and finding a man to answer questions I’ve already answered correctly…”
“ I am not worried about animals in the backcountry I am concerned about people in the backcountry.”
It is also important to note that some of the women who answered “no” to whether they’ve experienced gender discrimination offered caveats including that they primarily go into outdoor spaces with their male partners or that while they haven’t specifically experienced the discrimination IN the outdoors they have about the outdoors (ie. discussing upcoming trips with work colleagues and being met with assumptions of how a male partner planned it). I also wonder about whether all women are able to recognize the systemic forms of sexism they may face because it is so engrained in our every day, we often internalize it.
Gender discrimination also shows up for women in the more systemic form of barriers to accessing the outdoors. These barriers can include but are not limited to safety, skills, role models, gear, and gender norms such as childrearing and housekeeping that present a time barrier.
In my informal survey, only 29% of women agreed (or strongly agreed) to feeling safe to explore urban outdoor spaces alone, compared to 55% which agreed (or strongly agreed) to feeling safe to explore backcountry or trails alone. This statistic wasn’t surprising to me given the perceived threats in urban spaces are generally greater. I say perceived threats, because the dominant narrative in popular culture and the media tell us women aren’t safe in the outdoors - even just a quick google search on attacks on women in park spaces in Toronto, Hamilton, or Ottawa consistently reveal sexual assaults or violent attacks in these spaces over the last decade. These are just the reported cases; we know subtle cases of harassment and other assaults often go unreported. I would be remiss not to mention the violence against women which disproportionately affects the BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ communities, and specifically in Canada the continued violence against Indigenous women and girls. And as I write this blog, Aisha White has bravely come forward to share her story about being raped by a prominent figure in the birding community in the US. I believe Aisha. I believe women. You can support her here. All of the above reasons may prevent women from accessing the outdoors at all, limit their access to group-based or pair-based activities, or may make women take extra precautions like route reporting and carrying items for safety (sprays, whistles, keys between the knuckles, etc.)
In my informal survey 66% of women agreed (or strongly agreed) that they have consistently practiced their outdoor skills since childhood. Not surprising, given I surveyed women who are active in the outdoor community BUT this is not representative of what we know from statistics. Although girls are often encouraged to partake in outdoor activities and sports at a young age this is typically short-lived, 1 in 3 girls drop out of sport by late adolescence. That was my experience. Though I had the skills they weren’t encouraged through adolescence when I was pushed to focus on academics and other more “girly” activities like music and art. My outdoor skills are something I had to get reacquainted with, and of course without skill there is fear in trying a new activity or sport. This intimidation is a barrier to women exploring the outdoors. Exactly the reason why seeing businesses such as Paddle Like a Girl emerge is so important, women need that safe space free from intimidation to gain confidence and skills.
Although this isn’t something I captured in my survey, in researching this topic I came across an interesting statistic from REI’s study on women in the outdoors. 6 in 10 women could not think of an outdoor woman role model, and when they did examples included Serena Williams, Jillian Michaels, and Michelle Obama – incredible women but not so much outdoor role models. For those of us WITHIN the community it’s not as hard to think of people we admire but what about that 13-year-old girl who was just told fishing is for boys… is she seeing Demeisha Dennis of @BrownGirlOutdoorWorld? What about the fat girl who thinks hiking looks like thin white, blonde women posing on mountain peaks, is she seeing Jenny Bruso and other unlikely hikers? Are young BIPOC women seeing Anita Naidu when they look through the sea of white male mountain bikers? I hope they are but living in an echo chamber of the outdoor community on Instagram I’m not sure how amplified these messages are getting…how far they’re reaching outside of people who are already interested in the outdoors.
In my informal survey, 54% of women disagreed (or strongly disagreed) to the statement “I have no issues finding clothing or gear that is practical and fits”. In the follow up comments many people acknowledged that we’ve come a long way in the last ten years with gear and clothing for women in the outdoors, but barriers still exist. One of the barriers identified in my survey was cost and practicality of clothing (ie. pockets and other features). I was so curious to see these differences in action so I took to searching popular outdoor clothing brands for comparable men’s and women’s items which was admittedly hard – they aren’t always clearly comparable (and we can’t be looking at apples vs. oranges here). I did however find this…
So, I’m not saying one example is representative of the entire conversation about gear but let’s point out the differences here with items that are seemingly comparable. Women’s pants, slightly more expensive and offered in limited colours (there were actually two, but one was sold out). Where it got more interesting for me was looking at the product descriptions of these two comparable pants.
Women’s Pants Features as described:
Men’s Pants Features as described:
Hmm. SO is it that the women’s version doesn’t use this bluesign® certified fabric, doesn’t have two-way stretch fabric, doesn’t have StormRepel® DWR finish? Or is it that this company doesn’t feel that it’s important for women to know the product has these features? As I scrolled through comparable items on this particular site, this happened over and over again, with some men’s pants highlighting odour control technology in the waistband but the women’s version wouldn’t. Do women not sweat? Would they not want to know their pants have odour control technology? I can’t speak for other women, but these are things I want to know.
And YES, we have come a long way from pinkshrink gear where everything has butterflies – but not far enough. Recently @thewimpycamper even had this debate go off in the comment section in one of her posts, women want neutral colour options and neutral colour accents – why is the defacto mint green, light blue and purple? Of course, there are women who like these colours but some of us buy things because that’s what is available – my worn-out trail runners are full of purple accents, a colour I don’t own in my wardrobe otherwise.
Beyond everything I’ve already discussed, another theme emerged in my survey. Outdoor clothing is made for an ideal of the outdoor “fit women”, excluding women with different body types or fat women from purchasing these options, opting for men’s clothing and tailoring instead OR opting out altogether. I am a straight-sized woman, so this is not something I’ve personally experienced beyond ill fitting clothing, but Marielle Elizabeth captured this incredibly in her op-ed “Apparently, I’m Too Fat to Ski”.
When it comes to gear, I can go on and on but this conversation has happened before and will continue happening so I’m leaving it here with links to other gear-specific articles. There is also a valid conversation to be had about the cost of gear and how it prices out women and people in general from participating in the outdoors.
In my informal survey, when asked if they felt no barriers to accessing the outdoors (skill, safety, time) 40% of women disagreed. Some identified time, city life, and cost of outdoor gear as barriers when asked to further elaborate. One theme that didn’t emerge in my survey but has in other settings is barriers related to family obligations. Women traditionally assume the role of gatekeepers and caregivers in a family dynamic and so will stay home to meet those demands while their partners pursue outdoor activities.
The last item I wanted to explore in this opinion piece was gender-based microaggressions women may face in the outdoors. What is a microaggression? It is defined as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (for the purposes of this blog, that group is women). The University of New Hampshire actually has an incredible resource on gender-based microaggressions I will be referencing here. Microaggressions happen as a result of our inherent bias which we can absorb from media stereotypes, our friends and family, or society as a whole. They also aren’t limited to gender biases; they can be race-based aggressions which would show up in the lived experience of BIPOC women in the outdoors. They can also be rooted in heterosexism and homophobia, showing up in the lived experience of women in the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Microaggressions show up in a few ways including in their most blatant form, microassaults or more subtly in the form of microinsults or microinvalidation.
So how would this show up in the outdoors? A microassault against a woman in the outdoors would show up deliberately in the form of name-calling or with purposeful discriminatory action i.e. a woman selling outdoor gear has a customer refuse her help opting for a male coworker’s help instead because… “women don’t know about the outdoors, stick to fashion”. Microinsults on the other hand are a little more subtle and often unintentional, this may show up as being “mansplained” on how to set up a tent or comments in the backcountry like “oh wow you know how to tie knots, that’s impressive for a girl” or “this isn’t a safe trail for a girl to be on alone”. Lastly microinvalidations may show up by brushing these comments off as a “harmless joke” or calling us “too sensitive” when called out thereby dismissing or denying a women’s experience… “that didn’t happen”.
It’s these consistent, often unintentional comments or well-intentioned offers of help that can make women feel less welcome or give us a different experience of the outdoors. In my informal survey, 42% of women agreed (or strongly agreed) that they have received unsolicited advice or help in the outdoors. So how can we be more intentional about the things we say to women or the things we might do to women?
1. Don’t assume or question our capabilities. You don’t know us. Why would you assume to know a stranger’s abilities or lack thereof? Do you know how much weight we can carry, if not why are you offering help? I think a lot of this may be well-intentioned but when it’s not invited it can be completely invalidating to a woman’s confidence in her own abilities – a microaggression. This can be avoided by just stopping before speaking or stopping before interjecting into a situation. Chances are if someone needs help – they will ask you for it!
2. Ask yourself - is your comment adding anything of value to the conversation? When you say “don’t chip a nail” is that going to help me in anyway, or are you just being a jerk? Does the woman walking the trail alone really need you to point out that she’s alone? Sure, comment on the weather and make small talk – but otherwise if it doesn’t add value let’s skip it.
3. Don’t shoehorn us into traditional gender roles. Don’t get me wrong here, personally I love to cook BUT some women don’t. So, let’s stop assigning gender-based tasks or seats in a canoe or excluding us from activities that aren’t “girly” – some of us want to build fires and fish too thank you very much.
4. Ask yourself – would you say the same thing to a man? If not, let’s just stop it right there. You wouldn't ask a man "why isn't your wife carrying your pack, hun?" would you?
I think it’s important to say this isn’t just directed at men – women can participate in and perpetuate gender discrimination too; we grow up in the same patriarchal society and often internalize sexism or stereotypes. We see this all the time in how women are pit against other women, in how women judge other women for how they dress or the makeup they wear or don’t wear, and in the overall perceptions and judgements they may hold about other women. We should also stop and think before we pass judgement or make comments and keep showing up for other women even if it’s imperfectly (because you don’t unlearn lifelong behaviours in one blog).
Whew. That was a lot. Turns out I have 31 years of pent-up feelings and things to unpack about being a woman who enjoys the outdoors. I grew up on beaches playing in sand with my cousins, in forests learning how to forage mushrooms like a good Polish girl, at summer cottage rentals with my brother and dad fishing – and at some point, I lost that. I can’t pinpoint it on one moment exactly, but it never really is one thing, is it? I learned to love other things like hair, makeup, and music which somehow no longer fit the “outdoor” mold and honestly didn’t have anyone to push me back into it. I kept up other athletic pursuits until my French teacher used my volleyball games as a way to prey on and have access to me after making multiple passes (some more clear than others) and so I quit recreational sports at 16. I grew up in a low-income Toronto neighbourhood, Rexdale, where walking outside as a teenage girl was a guarantee to be harassed so I started carrying keys between my knuckles when I had to walk alone, but mostly avoided it all together. I listened to all the things that were thrown at me about being “a princess” or a “scaredy cat” or judged about wearing makeup on a campsite – I guess I didn’t belong here after all? I got wrapped up in a toxic relationship where my partner’s interests became my interests and well, I lost all sense of self. I got lost in all the things that are thrown at women, at girls, growing up in this world. Getting back to this place - this wild, is getting back to myself. But every so often, even wrapped up in the calm of Mother Nature, I’m reminded I’m a woman and that means something different. It means there is no invisible boundary on the trailhead where I don’t experience any or all of the barriers and discrimination I’ve discussed here. It also means I’m not alone in my experience.
This is for all the women out there – makeup or no makeup, girly or not, fit or fat. I hope we break these barriers and all the barriers we put on ourselves and get back to our Mother, Nature.