Tough Girl Tribe Thursday Blog
Every Thursday, we will be championing the writing of women from the Tough Girl Tribe; blogs, poems, thoughts and stories. The aim of Tough Girl Challenges has always been to create a platform for women's voices about the outdoors and sport and now we can hear even more of them.
“You don’t see girls up here that often.”
“You don’t see girls up here that often.”
“Are you on your own?”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay? Do you have a map?”
I don’t get negative comments when I’m wandering in mountains and Scottish bogs on my own, but people are surprised. Most people don’t say anything. Many tell me it’s great that I’m doing it. A few express concern that I’m not sufficiently experienced or equipped to take care of myself. But what runs through it all, is the surprise, especially when they realise I’ve done a big route or been further than they expect (or than them).
Why should they be surprised? Why is it notable that girls are competent in mountains? It’s not notable when boys are. Why are girls in the mountains made a big deal of?
I strongly believe that as soon as climbing mountains is a normal respectable thing that some people do, both boys and girls jump at the chance to do it. At the moment though, in many circles it is a thing that weird girls do; it makes you somehow less of a girl. You are judged by people who aren’t taking part. You are judged by people who are doing it. Why is that you, as a girl, are doing something most girls don’t? It must be because you are somehow different.
This is a toxic (and infectious) mindset.
When I joined the scrambling and winter mountaineering club at university, there weren’t really any other girls. That was quite a big thing for me, even though I was comfortable ‘not being much of a girl’. I threw myself into it and became one of the guys. These guys are some of my best friends, they are the ones that taught me to drink real ale and whisky. These were the guys that taught me being one of the guys could lead to the best opportunities to climb big mountains. It’s not that there was a macho culture there, but I felt more comfortable drinking beer and fitting in, despite my gender. That was the problem. It wasn’t normal to be a girl that climbed mountains.
One of them once said:
“Most girls don’t want to do what we do. There will never be many girls in the club, because they aren’t interested.”
I have never believed this, and I said so at the time. Girls don’t join the club because there aren’t girls in the club. People who have the self-confidence make it work. But even I felt a need to ‘fit in’, despite my experience. If I hadn’t had that confidence in my own skills, I wouldn’t have stuck around. I out-navigated the committee on the Fresher’s trip, yet I still thought twice about whether I deserved to be there. When people don’t see a role model like themselves doing something, they are much more hesitant to put themselves out there and do it. This is especially true for people who don’t have the experience.
We changed this at York University. In one year. It is a microcosm, a tiny club at one University. But by pushing the visibility of female members, with a female captain and a lot of luck by having several keen and experienced girls, we created a club in which girls made up a significant proportion. And the less experienced people stuck around - for the first time in student memory (which in this club is a surprisingly long time). Nobody can say now that “girls just don’t want to do it.” If they lose the girls now, it’s obvious they have done something wrong.*
*Before anyone says it - the club doesn’t do different things now, in fact it does harder, more technical stuff than I’ve ever known. The girls push the level, because it doubles the participation numbers. It’s a good thing for everyone.
Visibility of role models is so so important. It creates an environment where being a girl isn’t weird or damaging. One where you don’t have to change your behaviour in order to be ‘one of the guys.’ A lot of the girls in the club now don’t drink beer and whisky, they drink ‘girl’ drinks and do ‘girl’ things. Climbing mountains has nothing to do with making you ‘less of a girl’. As soon as you aren’t the only girl that does it, that’s obvious.
Breaking down these boundaries on a larger scale is much harder. In the university bubble, membership moves on completely every three or four years and it’s a place where people are looking to take up new hobbies and do new things. It’s also a much smaller club, 6 girls regularly attending trips and socials can be the difference between one girl and 50% girls. But changing things here is a start. And it proves that there is nothing innately improbable about women doing adventure sports; girls do want to do it, it’s just a case of breaking down the barriers that stop them.
If this sort of change happened at every university, if every guy who climbed mountains believed there was a chance of equality and pushed female friends to join in with what they do, if media representation of women in the sport was equal to representation of men - things would change quickly. No one would be surprised to see me, a girl, climbing mountains. No girl would have to question whether they ought to be on the mountain. It would become normal.
Just like at York University, more would be achieved and records would be broken. More mountains would be climbed and more people would be outside appreciating the mountains in a responsible way. There would be more people to rebuild footpaths, more training opportunities, more mainstream media coverage of what we do as a community of mountaineers.
That would be great. Why hasn’t it happened yet?
I didn’t grow up hiking, I only started at school through the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and I got hooked. By the time I left university, was a qualified Mountain Leader, with extensive summer and winter mountaineering experience. I’d spent more time mountaineering than on my degree. Since then I’ve done everything I can to live in the mountains; ski touring, alpine climbing, multi-day hiking, and working my tits off ‘cleaning toilets’, and doing all those jobs that aren’t glamorous, and don’t pay what I could be earning in a soul sucking graduate job. This whole time, I’ve seen the barriers that are presented to women trying to get into outdoor sports. Most of these are psychological, from everyone; the people already doing the sport, people looking in from the outside, and women themselves.
My goal is to help change that. My goal is to get a few women to have the confidence to get outside, and fall in love with mountains. If I helped change that at university, it can’t be impossible to do that at on a wider scale.