The Language of Skills

There is nothing intrinsically hard or soft about any type of skill. When it comes to technical skills and people skills, our industry has created a construct whereby the technical skills are the most highly valued and have thus been named ‘hard’ skills, becoming the focus of mountaineering qualifications in the UK. The other skills, variously referred to as people skills or interpersonal skills have been resigned to the sidelines as ‘soft skills’. 

Soft skills can be difficult to impart to trainees and they are more difficult to assess. Rather than take on this challenge, the status quo has been maintained and the focus of qualifications remains the technical aspects, including climbing hard, (which is a contentious issue in the field, for discussion in another article!). This demarcation and attribution of enhanced value to ‘hard’ skills is of detriment to everyone. The key skills required of a mountain leader/instructor are to understand, connect with, and communicate effectively with their client to impart skills, knowledge and understanding, whilst, of course, keeping them safe. The same is true in ordinary climbing relationships.

Why does ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ matter?

The bifurcation of skills into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, with a focus on the ‘hard’ skills and the assumption that women will be better at the ‘soft’ skills has a few effects as follows:

a) ‘Soft’ is an insult. It’s seen as less-than. As a result, it’s given less weight and authority. In the field, those skills are the crucial ones.

b) This distinction stops people from gaining the actual skills needed – namely reflexivity and people skills, because the focus is on the traditionally masculinised ‘hard’ skills.

c) It prevents the industry as a whole from developing and being as great as it could be

d) It inhibits some women from entering or progressing in the industry as they perceive that they have to be super tekkers, when in fact they don’t.

Isn’t this changing?

In short, I’m not sure it is. Part of me wonders if the lack of progress in this regard is actually to do with those who have power and influence being unwilling to stick their necks out and do what’s right, out of fear of losing their power and influence (and income). It’s important to recognise that there are a small number of vocal men on the internet whose sole purpose seems to be to dole abusive, derogatory and plain ignorant comments to anyone who doesn’t have their world view. This can and has been directed towards those in power who are ready to effect change, and the result is u-turns and a return to inertia. Staying principled and firm on providing equitable provision can be hard to do. No-one wants to be hated, undermined or up-seated, and that is the risk, particularly in members’ organisations, where maintenance of the status quo can feel more comfortable for members. If things are working for you, why would you call for change and possibly make things harder for yourself?


‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ skills is nonsense terminology and it’s time for it to go. Where that starts? If it isn’t going to start with those in power with widespread influence, then it probably starts with you and me. If you want some ideas for alternatives, here’s a great article from Liz Abinante from the equally male dominated Software industry.

Got something to say about this? Sense check it with a critical friend first, then drop a comment below once it’s passed the ‘not being a douchebag’ test.

2 thoughts on “The Language of Skills”

  1. Samantha McElligott

    Great article, Emily. With Mountain Training and indeed the Outdoor element of the Military, we have been working hard over the past 5 years to rename outdoor elements into ‘developmental’ and ‘technical’ skills, which has gone some way to reframe the dissonance between how the two skill sets are viewed. Still a long way to go, though!

  2. Hi Emily
    Great article and so true
    The soft skills are needed to encourage give assurance and confidence that you can succeed if you have all the tech skills and ability but can’t put that across the journeys ends there
    Hopefully soft skills are being assessed more for mountain qualifications as they do make a big difference

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