Women Empowerment in the Outdoors: Inclusion or Exclusion?
I grew up with three older brothers. I learned to stand my ground as the lone female in the pack at an early age. Growing up with brothers meant being the weird one and the outcast at times. A boys club, after all, entails a different focus from a girls club. I wasn’t always privy to everything that was going on and the fun things that my brothers did, especially when it involved an element of risk. Despite my limited participation in the shenanigans my brothers engaged in, by simply living with boys who one day became men, molded me to who I am now.
Fast forward to now, I can honestly say it doesn’t bother me one bit to play in the outdoors with men. In fact, I enjoy their company as much as I can appreciate the uniqueness of my interactions with women. There’s a certain level of openness with men that I don’t experience with women - one in which I can tap into my masculine leaning side where I peak bag mountain summits just like any guy would or get into an endless banter without worrying about offending the other by my brutal way of delivering my thoughts. Being delicate and gentle with my manner of speaking can be set aside so I can be blunt. Personally, I like that. On the other hand, in the company of women, I find myself more reserve with my thoughts and overly mindful of the delivery of my words. To not have to work that hard once in a while is certainly a much wanted break.
Recently, in the outdoors world, there’s been so much media frenzy around the notion of women empowerment. Big companies like REI are promoting the presence of women in the media, as well as, hosting female-only events to encourage women to hike, climb, bike, kayak and everything that has to do with the outdoors.
My addiction to the outdoors happens to involve hiking and multi-day backpacking. Hence, I know first-hand how the field is dominated by men. I founded a social enterprise, Peak Explorations, that markets trekking and adventure tours worldwide, and all but one of my local operators are men. Despite a disproportionate number of men over women in my social enterprise, I’m not at all feeling intimidated or hindered by this fact. In a way, it instills in me so much gratitude that the men in my life whose main purpose is to expand the growth of my social enterprise are all supportive of a female-led social enterprise. How much more feminist can a man get? At least in my mind, they have made more than enough effort to show their support for equality between men and women.
This leads me to question the notion of all-women treks, women focused outdoor organizations and entities. Do we need them? Setting aside my personal experiences with men, I do understand that some women feel a level of discomfort from participating in outdoors activities that involve a larger number of male participants. As a female myself, I can agree with women who hold such sentiment, especially when they are in the beginning phase of their pursuit of hiking or trekking mountains. Rewinding back to the initial phases of my own hiking life, I can attest to the fact that yes, I certainly would feel a slight sense of intimidation to be around mostly men as a newbie hiker. And, I did. Thanks to time and experience, I overcame that sense of discomfort.
Recently, as part of my social enterprise’s mission to promote women in the outdoors, I initiated an introductory class on wilderness backpacking with a focus on women only. I soon learned that within the hiking groups where I have been an organizer for over a decade, the idea of women only activities is potentially intimidating to the opposite gender. Accusations of being discriminatory and actively excluding men were easily shared with me. Some viewed my action as politically motivated while others felt the event shouldn’t be organized at all within a co-ed hiking group. I then find myself having to justify my action by stating multiple times that the class is meant to empower and encourage women who are new to hiking to take on the hobby. After all, the female members of the hiking groups were the ones who approached me to make the request to have a women-only class to learn the basics. As an organizer who happens to be a female, I felt it is only natural for me to finally organize an event to address this particular need. Mind you, this was my first time in over 10 years as an organizer to schedule a series of female-only events. As it turns out and as I have anticipated, it is a risky move on my part, especially when I’m still creating a foundation for my social enterprise.
So, going back to my earlier question - why do women need to be in a women-only group to learn backpacking?
For one, there is a sense of comfort knowing that all members share more or less similar backgrounds, be it gender-specific social challenges, life experiences, physical strength, and unwelcome social expectations that are too often imposed on them. This naturally leads to a sense of camaraderie and empathy among the female participants, just as there’s a unique camaraderie that bonds men when they engage in a boy’s night out or getaway.
In addition, women do face a unique set of issues when it comes to backpacking and being outdoors. In discussing those issues, I'm sure men wouldn't feel the need or desire to be a part of it. Similarly, most women would likely find themselves feeling uncomfortable divulging information pertaining to their menstrual cycle, among other topics, in the presence of men.
Lastly, inspiring women can best be achieved if the role model is a female versus a male. The outdoors world is without a doubt filled with male leaders, role models and mentors. For women to feel inspired to partake in the outdoors, the presence of a female leader, mentor, role model or fellow hiker is crucial. Of course, women admire certain male role models in the outdoors but such admiration is just not enough to compel them to partake in outdoor activities. Therefore, arguably, women-only groups fill the void as a result of the lack of female voices in the media.
Now, be honest, how hard is it to grasp the above concepts? How much more justification does any of us need to understand that an all-women event is in reality harmless? In fact, the outcome of this endeavor leads to more women actively engaging in the outdoors. Hence, INCLUSION, right?
Don’t we all see this as a positive result? Is there anything morally or ethically wrong with that? If there is, I’d like to be the first to know. Assuming you support diversity and women in the outdoors, I cannot imagine a scenario where anyone can justifiably hold an objection to women-only events.
So, maybe you feel a bit excluded. I understand the notion. In this case, however, in the decade I’ve organized events, with the exception of the most recent slew of women-only activities, members of my hiking groups availed themselves of countless opportunities to join co-ed trips locally, nationally and globally. To date, the treks that have been offered through my social enterprise are ALL co-ed. So, it begs the question - at what point in time did one gender get excluded?
I’m here to tell you that along with REI and myself, there are plenty of other entities out there that are now seeing the value of holding women-only events for the same reasons noted above. I’m not alone when it comes to this definition of empowerment; although, I’d like to add that I also join the mainstream in supporting co-ed events. As much as I find value in women-only events, I also find it significantly progressive and empowering for women to break out of the bubble of the women-only events to pursue outdoor activities alongside men without any sense of fear or insecurity.
So, is one a greater version of women empowerment than the other?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d find elements of empowerment in both scenarios. One does not have to exist exclusive of the other. In my world, both are equally important and for the sake of my social enterprise, Peak Explorations, I should be able to execute both notions for the purpose of achieving an authentic version of inclusion.
As much as I understand the fear and insecurity behind "excluding" one gender, the most productive measure to take is to understand the motivations behind women-only events. The problem is it’s easy for us to quickly judge and express our opinions based on fear, as opposed to sound logic. Yet, now is an opportune time for us all to be open-minded in a moment in our society where some of us are engaged in creating scenarios that challenge everyone’s preconceived notions and levels of comfort in the outdoors. The discomfort should not lead to quick conclusions. It should initiate conversations towards a greater understanding of the underlying issues behind being a female in the outdoors. Only then can you truly have the means to decide for yourself whether anyone is being excluded or whether the endeavor is actually moving us closer to the spirit of inclusion.