The question is asked time and again. Only 6% of Winter and Mountaineering Instructor qualification holders are women. It is often hard to get hold of a woman to run a course because there are so few qualified women, and yet at that level some instructors have reported to me that they still get offered work less than their male counterparts – men still seem to be the default option.
Turning to my own experience and to my research into leadership in the outdoor industry, I started to reflect more deeply on what it was that I have experienced and what I’m learning from the academic literature, to explore the field and develop understandings from different perspectives.
The unwritten rules and social norms
The world is built upon layers of unwritten, tacit rules and norms, which incur subtle sanctions from others which we might not always notice. They have evolved, sometimes over generations. In a broad sense, when people think of a leader they most often think of a man. That is the default. In mountaineering, and the outdoor industry it feels especially true. In the 18th and 19th centuries the ideals of the scientific enlightenment and romanticism fused to create the perfect breeding ground for the image of the modern mountaineer. The era produced a great man, who achieved great things, on the back of the rise of the British Empire and colonial rule. An image of the highest order leadership qualities was formed, irrespective of his shortcomings, and his presence came to be revered, idolised and ultimately developed into the blueprint for what a mountaineer should look, sound and be like.
Of course, this has evolved, yet deep threads weave through today’s outdoor leadership and mountaineering field in the UK which evidence themselves in unwritten rules, norms and expectations. Being able to identify the rules and norms is easier for those who have better access into knowledge networks. Men and women develop social capital (networks) differently, and because of this it’s easier for men to tap into work-enhancing networks, identify suitable role models and gain insights and information. If you don’t know the rules, you can’t play by them.
Who am I?
Identity is an integral part of human existence. Without it, what are we? It helps us to position ourselves in the world, and it helps others to identify who we are, what our motives might be and whether we might be friend or foe. It is a primal and necessary. In western culture at least, when someone loses their identity or has identity challenges, it can lead to distress and to conditions like borderline personality disorder.
When others have expectations of seeing someone different, someone who doesn’t look like you, this shows up in their behaviours, language and actions in ways which can be very subtle. For the person on the receiving end, this can weigh heavily, causing cognitive dissonance, a kind of mismatch in our brain which causes internal conflict and makes us behave differently or not in line with our true self and values. What this means in the outdoors is that the person who doesn’t quite fit the expectation can feel this sense of not fitting in or not having an aligned identity. It takes mental effort to process and challenge. If you’re someone who fits the expected picture of what a leader in the field looks like, then you’re not going to feel the dissonance and you may not notice it unless you’ve specifically attuned to this phenomenon.
What we say and do
The things we say and the things we do each day are what create our culture. Mountaineering culture is still firmly rooted in the shoes of middle class white men. I have experienced language used as part of everyday climbing and mountaineering culture that has put me off or made me feel uncomfortable.
‘Stopping again?’ ‘Ooh it’s loo time for the ladies!’ Yes we are stopping again. I’m 5ft 1 and 8 stone – my bladder is probably half the size of yours. I’ve had a baby. Women need to go to the loo more often. Your comment suggests that you think my body is an inadequacy that is holding you back and now I feel self conscious about not just that, but all the other things that set me apart from you.
‘Find a rock to go behind‘ Ok, I’m fine with that, but if I’m bleeding and need to clean my mooncup, I am going to be a long time and it’s stressful. If you’re all packed up ready to go, having had a snack, when I get back, I’m at a disadvantage for the next leg. As a result I might make more mistakes and be seen as less competent. That is likely to make me feel less competent, even though I’m not.
‘You need a good dose of MTFU!’ Did you mean: ‘great decision! You made it back safe and didn’t die or have a serious accident’. Macho, masculine bravado in action. It would be interesting to see accident stats for people with the MTFU approach to outdoor life.
‘Alright mate‘ It’s so subtle. What i’ve observed is that ‘mate’ is exclusively used by men to other men. To me it signifies something more than being friends, it’s about being part of a club that other people (women, enbies) are not a part of. For what it’s worth, it often seems that employment of the ‘mate’ clause shows the person’s discomfort and feelings of vulnerability.
In summary, the small regular comments, which I find are often ego-driven, are tedious and wearing. It’s time to fully recognise that a woman isn’t a small man and being a woman can mean that we have to make more effort. The average weight of a man in the UK is 83kg. My weight is 50kg. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if we carry the same weight pack I am doing more work, as a proportion of my body weight. In winter, I can’t physically follow the stride of a tall person in front of me – it’s too big, and to make an attempt at this could risk physical injury. These factors have an impact on energy and on my body.
It takes concerted and purposeful effort and a willingness to question, be vulnerable and be wrong, to move forward from here.
I am not alone in having felt that as the lone woman in a group I am somehow representing all women and need to be perfect. The psychological weight of this can be demanding and make the experience less enjoyable. Stereotype threat is a widely recognised phenomenon whereby an individual in a minority who is concerned about stereotypes within a particular group will have a tendency to conform to the stereotype. This has the impact of reinforcing that stereotype to everyone. In a group where they are not at risk of being stereotyped, this conformity to the stereotype disappears.
If you’d like to know more about stereotype threat there is an excellent podcast here: How They See Us
The in crowd and the out crowd
Everyone has felt this at one point or another. The phenomenon has existed since the dawn of civilisation and is fundamentally a survival instinct – we tend to like people who are like us. Having preferred people helps us to take shortcuts and makes things easier for us, however, in terms of survival in the 21st century and the best use of resources, it pays us to utilise the best available talent, skill and knowledge rather than those people who look like us.
Expectations of others
Some of the subtle undercurrents I’ve experienced are laddishness, bravado, the idolatry of risk-taking behaviours, and language which subtly undermines womens’ presence in the sphere. When it is overt it is sometimes brushed off as a joke. When it is spoken by older men, it is referred to as a ‘generational thing’, which will eventually disappear. When this is not challenged by others in the group, particularly by other men who don’t want to rock the boat, lose status or be seen as difficult, it’s left to the women. And they then become the difficult woman.
You might ask how I know it isn’t the same in groups of predominantly women. Over the last few years I have run women-only meetups and in those groups the language and culture has been different – open, reflective and willing to adapt and accept mistakes.
Finding a place and feeling important are central to human existence. Laddish and ego-driven behaviours are ways in which I see men (most often) asserting their power and vying for status within a group. It often appears to me that the behaviours are driven by people’s ego and are strategies used to disguise their discomfort and fear of losing status.
There are a vast swathe of ways in which women are treated more negatively than men in the same scenarios. I’ve realised recently that I’ve got a number of different ‘voices’, and it’s the loud persistent voice that I have to use most often in groups of men. However, this has its challenges. Women and men who do the exact same thing are perceived and rated differently. Assertive women are seen as difficult, whereas assertive men are perceived as leaderly.
The most frustrating experience I’ve had was on a training course where I was the only woman. One of the other participants was allowed to take over and, quite frankly, be a bit of a bully. The boundaries for learning weren’t set and the training was awful. I spent the whole day feeling defensive and attacked. This was run by a nationally recognised organisation. My take from this, as an educator who seeks to improve and recognise my shortcomings: the facilitation skills of course leaders has to improve. Skilled facilitators should be able to effectively manage members of a group who are being oppressive towards others and are inhibiting others’ learning. This is a learned skill, but this isn’t a skill which is taught effectively on any training courses, as far as I know. Train people in the skills they need to enable people to grow and develop. That is a core part of the role of leaders in the outdoor industry. This idea took me onto the way we talk about skills, which is a topic I wrote about on a different post: The Language of Skills.
This skill is the number one undervalued and underutilised skill within training programmes and the industry. It is a skill that can enable us to come to the deep recognition that we are inherently biased creatures and that this inevitably leads us to favour one over another. Without this bias, our brains would struggle to take action, but with it we create ‘in’ crews and ‘out’’ crews. To deny this is to deny the fundamentals of human-nature. Reflection in an open, safe and honey way can unlock individual agency, so that we can make change happen and do things differently. Reflexivity should form the foundation of all training courses.
What to do
Other people are biased. And so are we, so instead of accusing others of bias or defending our position, those of us who are in a position of power and those of us who are in a minority need to take a deep breath and channel the anger, frustration, fear, discomfort and confusion into reflecting on ourselves, and deepening our understanding of the drivers and motivations of others so that our efforts might meaningfully have an impact and effect change. The industry as a whole needs to step up, those at the top – NGB’s, national associations and, in particular, training providers., however the industry is formulated largely from a freelance population. Whilst individuals don’t need to do all the work, it is the day-by-day actions of you as an individual which imparts true cultural change.
Put your ego aside, reflect on and recognise your shortcomings and do something about it.
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