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Women in the Outdoors

Growing up, young men are often expected to be strong and brave, always pushing past boundaries and fear. Yet, young women are typically fed different narratives. They’re told to learn empathy and etiquette, and are expected to care for others before themselves. These stereotypes continue throughout our lives, continually reinforced by media and popular culture. Yet, despite all the progress made toward uplifting diversity and equity, why do we still struggle to dismantle gender stereotypes? 

Social norms have shaped our worldviews, so much so that we often subconsciously reinforce them. This is especially true in the outdoor industry and recreation. Take the Boy and Girl Scouts for instance. Young boys have historically had the opportunity to earn badges focused on survival and outdoor skills while young girls have chosen from a variety of badges without having to earn many outdoor related badges.1-2 This may not seem harmful at first, but it suggests that men are made for the outdoors, while women are more fit for support or background roles, not as outdoor warriors. It is noteworthy to add that the Boy Scouts now label themselves as “BSA” and accept girls into troops due to pressure stemming from the gender movement, and the Girl Scouts have increased opportunities for outdoor-related badges and science learning. However, the changes were not without comments from critics and supporters alike.

As women grow up, studies suggest that rates of outdoor recreation among women decrease more significantly than men.2 This is due to a variety of factors including but not limited to: career advancement, family, and social norms. However, it could be partially attributed to the fact that women are told that they shouldn’t hike, run, climb, or even walk in desolate areas (even crowded ones sometimes) alone. From media to family, women are cautioned against recreating alone, suggesting that the outdoors are more dangerous for women and that women are not as capable of defending themselves as their male counterparts.3 Even many women find themselves reinforcing this narrative, stating that they don’t spend time outdoors because they are unable to find someone to go with them. While this argument is certainly valid, as time and time again has shown us that being a woman is often more dangerous (but not always) than being a man, we shouldn’t let fear hold us back from participating in the things we enjoy. The outdoors doesn’t need to be associated with fear and masculinity, it can also be a place of refuge for all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, etc. 

In 2017, REI conducted a study on women in the outdoors, surveying 2,010 women ages 18-35 across the United States to learn more about women's attitudes towards nature.4 They found that a vast majority of those who participated stated that the outdoors is where they feel the most free, but that they also feel pressure to conform to societal norms (7 in 10), many of which separate them from nature.4 The same survey revealed that 6 out of 10 women believe that men's interests in the outdoors are taken more seriously than their own, suggesting that women must “prove” themselves in order to feel worthy in the outdoors or the outdoor industry.2,4 It is no wonder that women are reluctant to pursue their outdoor endeavors when men are continually valued more than them in virtually every space they enter. 

In a time where gender equity seems to be a priority, why do we fail to see actions taken to address the gender gap in the outdoors? We must realize that The notion that men in the outdoors must be masculine and brave helps highlight the importance of dismantling toxic masculinity as much as it helps illuminate the struggles women face when spending time outdoors. Creating a more inclusive environment that welcomes men, women, non-binary, transgender and others on the gender spectrum will create happier members of society, which will see its benefits in realms beyond the outdoors. It will be no easy feat to achieve, as we’ve seen with the continual fight for gender equity, but it can start with education. Once we understand the issue, we are better equipped to dismantle it. Together,  we can push past barriers that divide us and keep us from enjoying the outdoors, and make nature a safe space for all. 

Please join our webinar, “Women in the Outdoors: Common Interests, Diverse Experiences” on August 12th from 5-6:30pm as we hear from diverse women in the outdoors/outdoor industry discuss their experiences about what it means to be a woman in the outdoors.

For more on Women in the Outdoors, check out this recent edition of Woodlands Magazine

References

[1] Brach, G. (2021). The Paradox of Gendering Nature. Medium. 

[2] Oakes, K. (n.d.) Closing the Gender Gap in the Great Outdoors. REI CO-OP.

[3] Littleton, H. (2017). The Benefits of Hiking Alone. REI CO-OP. 

[4] REI CO-OP. (2017). 2017 National Study on Women and the Outdoors. 

[5] Ellison, J. (2018). Meet the Women Who are Helping Create a More Inclusive Climbing Community. [Image]. REI CO-OP. 

Resources

Reading:  

Arnold, C. (2020). In Pandemic, People are Turning to Nature - Especially Women. The University of Vermont. 

Bauer, L. (n.d.). Female Pioneers Who Paved the Way for Women in the Outdoors. REI CO-OP.

Estés, C. P. (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. Rider Publishing.

Outdoor Women’s Alliance. (n.d.). Home Page. 

Warren, K. (2018). Gender in Outdoor Studies. Hampshire College.

Warren, K. (2002). Preparing the Next Generation: Social Justice in Outdoor Leadership Education and Training. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(1), 231-238.

Listening:

Bolton, L. (Host). (n.d.). The Outdoors Fix. [Podcast].

Straub, G. (Host). (n.d.). She Explores Podcast. [Podcast]. 

Vokey, A. (Host). (n.d.). Anchored Podcast. [Podcast]. Anchored Outdoors.

Claire Nichols (she/her) studies Environmental Resource Management and Geographic Information Science at Arizona State University. She is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar at Yale University and is passionate about policy, transit oriented development, and environmental justice.