Jess Kate Davis looks at gender and climbing
In a small, stuffy, testosterone- and chalk-filled gym I pull onto the red plastic crimper problem, steel myself, make a move and fall off. Ready for some problem solving, I briefly contemplate the possible ways I reckon I could do the moves before I’m interrupted.
‘You should put your foot there.’
Moving away from the source of the interruption, I head to another problem only for another all-knowing man to tell me how I could do it better. See the pattern?
During the time I worked in this bouldering gym, I was often the subject of unsolicited beta-sprays, and I would rail against it (stop telling me what to do!). I also observed other women (and some men) being subjected to the same belittling behaviour. And it got me thinking about why it’s different to be a woman in this situation and the role gender plays in our experiences as climbers.
In climbing, unlike most sports, women and men compete in the same arena, success and failure happen in equal measure on the same routes and in the same mountains. It’s a sport that’s seen women dominate at the top, women like Ann Pauligk, Lynn Hill and Louise Shepherd were the equal if not better than their male counterparts. Climbing has the potential for women to move outside of gender stereotypes, it’s a space where women can be celebrated for their physical and mental strength. But it remains a sport dominated by men and the culture still suffers under gender stereotypes and norms that result in women’s achievements being questioned, downplayed and marginalised.
It’s hard to get specific numbers on gender in climbing (or race, or sexuality for that matter). But those that do exist point towards an imbalance of about 75 per cent male to 25 per cent female. Dr Shelagh Ferguson, a researcher from the University of Otago, says while statistics are hard to come by, the numbers in the UK are the most accurate, because government surveys are made publicly available. The UK numbers show a 25 per cent female participation rate in climbing gyms and sport climbing, however, when it comes to traditional climbing and mountaineering the proportion of women participants is much lower. Dr Ferguson says numbers in NZ and the US reflect a similar picture, but she has no data for Oz. If we take a straight gender breakdown from the social media following of Vertical Life, we find a similar ratio of 75 per cent men to 25 per cent women.
So there are fewer female than male climbers. Climbing grading systems were created by men, climbing industry and equipment is produced mainly by men, there are more men developing and putting up first ascents (FAs) and the climbing media is male-centric. Dr Ferguson says climbing is dominated by masculine discourses and so it valourises masculine attributes. ‘There are some blokes who just don’t see that men are the dominant group and they don’t see that might be intimidating for someone of the opposite gender.’ The experience of female climbers is shaped by the percentages because the culture is tilted towards men, day-to-day in our experiences at both the crag and the gym and in harder to qualify philosophical ways.
A recent survey by Flash Foxy (an online women’s climbing website) found evidence of a sexist culture that is overlooked in climbing gyms, with 64 percent of women reporting they felt uncomfortable, insulted or dismissed at some point in their climbing. The reporting of the survey results sparked debate online (check Reddit if you need a rainy day activity). The survey gathered data on the correlation between gender and ‘micro aggressions’, which Flash Foxy defined as ‘unwanted staring and advice, blatant physical and verbal harassment, and general discomfort in specific areas of the gym’.
Ashlee Hendy is a Melbourne-based climber, who started climbing in the gym when she was 12. Despite not having a harness that fit and shrinking her t-shirt because they only had boy’s sizes, she says the climbing community was always encouraging, respectful and treated her as an equal. ‘What a positive experience it was for me to grow up in this environment,’ she says. Ashlee says that after finishing Flash Foxy’s survey she felt angry and frustrated at the leading nature of the questions. ‘I thought the idea of such a survey was to give a voice to female climbers,’ she says, ‘But it felt like quite the opposite.’ In contrast, boulderer and developer Sophie Vivien says that almost every time she goes into a gym someone will try and hit on her or tell her what to do. ‘It does feel patronising when they tell you to stick your foot here or do this,’ she says, ‘I certainly find it very confronting.’
Women’s experiences vary, with some like Ashlee believing no discrimination exists and others like Sophie and myself finding behaviour like beta-spraying confronting. Clearly, women’s reactions to the same behaviour will not be homogenous. Of course, many men yell, ‘men are sprayed too!’, but the experience is different to that of a woman. For a woman in a male-dominated space this behaviour can be particularly intimidating and disempowering. As Dr Ferguson says, when trying to correlate the experience of men and women, there are some blokes who just don’t see that men are the dominant group and that makes all the difference. Being a member of a dominant group means having power, privilege and social status – in climbing there is often an assumption that men are stronger and more knowledgeable and this can lead to patronising behaviours.
In the survey and Dr Ferguson’s research women spoke about condescending comments, for example: you climb hard for a girl. It’s not uncommon to be met with surprise when you climb something hard and you happen to be a girl. Ashlee Hendy says she takes this as a compliment. ‘Just because your biceps are bigger than mine doesn’t mean you know how to use them,’ she says. Many of Dr Ferguson’s research respondents said their reaction to such patronising comments wold be to out-climb the person who said them. But she says if you respond in this way you haven’t challenged the guy, while if you’re new to climbing or you can’t out-climb the guy telling you what to do, it’s even more disempowering. Women should respond in a way makes them feel empowered and men should be aware that while they might think it’s just friendly banter, their culturally-rooted position of power affects the way it’s received.
Beta-spraying in the gym is just one symptom of the masculine and male-dominated culture that exists in climbing. Whilst climbing isn’t a blatant culture of sexism and misogyny, it suffers from the same patriarchal structures that exist in the outside world.
I’m able to catch mountaineer Masha Gordon in between ascents, over a scratchy Skype call from a tea room in the mountains of Nepal. She tells me she’s just become the first woman to climb Cholatse, a 6000m peak [EDITOR’S NOTE: US climber, Catherine Freer, was actually the first woman to climb Cholatse in 1984]. ‘It was a nice feature [to be the first woman] but I actually didn’t know it before I went up,’ she says. This brings to mind a much debated issue, does the first female ascent (FFA) matter?
Earlier this year a furore broke out over FFAs after American commentator Andrew Bisharat wrote an article in which he hypothesised that FFAs are a curse ‘pushing women forward and simultaneously holding them back’. Bisharat wrote:
‘One potential problem with up-playing every FFA is, perhaps, that women might not be as motivated to go off and envision their own first ascents. Rather, they are taking the easier path of repeating routes because they know that they will be celebrated for being the first woman to climb those routes, however circumstantial that ascent may be.’
As is so often the case with men telling women what their problems are, Bisharat failed to speak to any women for his article, which goes to another topic of women’s voices in the media in general and in climbing in particular. One response that garnered a lot of attention was writer Georgie Abel’s open letter to Bisharat:
‘I also disagree that the key to breaking down gender barriers in climbing is for women to put up more FAs and to downplay their first female ascents. I think that the way for women to empower themselves is to do whatever the fuck they want to do. Paige Classen is a great example of this – she thinks FFAs are lame, so she doesn’t report them. That’s badass. However, if another woman wants to report her FFA, that’s badass too. A lot of people will be inspired by both scenarios. One of them is not better or more empowering than the other. The power lies within these women doing whatever they want to do – regardless of what society and articles like yours are suggesting that they ‘should’ do.’
As Georgie Abel says, women have differing opinions on whether FFAs are important and that’s okay. Masha Gordon says recognising FFAs is great, because by celebrating these achievements we create role models that can catalyse public opinion and capture people’s imagination. ‘I’m of Russian origin, right, we recognised the first woman who went into space. It was great and it was a big deal,’ she says. ‘In the Soviet Union it was this great statement about equality between men and women.’
Melbourne climber Ashlee Hendy says the idea of FFAs goes against her notion of gender equality. ‘Sometimes they are ground breaking, exciting, and worthy of media coverage,’ she says, ‘But to truly let a woman feel equal with a man, you don’t change the rules for her.’ The problem is though that the rules that currently define climbing (and indeed all of society) favour men. Dr Shelagh Ferguson says ultimately it would be awesome not to have FFAs, but then the discourse would have to privilege women more. ‘Females have been largely absent from climbing history and climbing achievements,’ she says. A discourse that privileges women more requires breaking down binary gender stereotypes about men’s and women’s physicality – no easy task.
Masha Gordon says FFAs are small wins and the first step towards equality. ‘Let’s set a goal that in twenty years we don’t have to talk about first female ascents we’ll just have women making first ascents.’
Of course, women have been putting up first ascents since the early days of climbing, albeit in fewer numbers than men. In 1986, Nyrie Dodd freed Passport to Insanity, an overhanging crack that many of the top male climbers of the time had tried and failed. She graded it 28 (it’s now considered 27) and Louise Shepherd says the climbing scene erupted at the news. ‘It was beyond the realms of imagination that people could actually free climb that, so it was doubly confronting that it was a woman,’ says Louise. Chris Baxter wrote it up in Wild magazine with the grade of between 24-28, depending on your hand size. Louise calls this out for exactly what it is, bullshit. ‘If a bloke had’ve done it nobody would have questioned it,’ she says. Men, who dominated climbing and the media that wrote climbing’s lore, derided a woman’s achievements, is it any wonder there haven’t been more Nyrie Dodds?
Rachel Dilley writes in her article, ‘Women’s Climbing Physicalities: Bodies, Experience and Representation’, about the double-edged sword when it comes to assumptions about female climbers and their bodies:
‘This presumed physical superiority of male climbers has resulted in women’s achievements being treated with scepticism and disbelief… Women’s physiology has also been used to explain their achievements, and this explanation too often entails insinuations of cheating in the form of an unfair “natural” advantage’
Lynn Hill’s first free ascent of the Nose is a classic achievement that all climbers know. It is also another example of a female achievement that was derided because she was a woman dominating in a man’s world. Lynn’s FA was explained away by her ‘small hands’.
On her blog Lynn Hill writes, ‘I’ve heard many times, “Lynn could do the great roof because she has small fingers.” Tommy [Caldwell] is missing the tip of his index finger on one hand and even though it would have been easier with all of his finger tips, clearly he was able to find a way to make it work. He proved my point that one’s attitude and spirit is more important than one’s physical make-up.’
Boulderer and developer Sophie Vivien says she hears it all the time. ‘You just have shoot back – well you did it because you’re tall or strong,’ she says. Sophie is a woman who has put up many FAs, particularly in the Grampians, and has developed new areas alongside her partner Dave Kellerman. She says every time they go to a gym people will recognise Dave and approach him to ask about new areas and routes. ‘I don’t know that anyone knows who I am,’ she says. It’s not something that bothers her, but she does notice it. ‘People don’t give you the same kind of recognition,’ she says. So even when women do put up first ascents they are not always given the same recognition as men, their femaleness is either used to question it or belittle it.
Sophie says it shits her that if she puts up a beautiful V5 in a new area that gets lots of repeats, it’s always the V14 that’s going to get all the attention. ‘I resent this holding up of everything that’s hard rather than innovative or beautiful,’ she says. ‘It’s a skill to see the line, have the vision and take the time.’ There is a broader debate here about grade versus beauty in climbing that ties into masculine and feminine qualities. Climbing discourses are inherently masculine and by valourising the hard, burly routes we reinforce our admiration of masculine qualities and measure difficulty through the same lens. But how do you change the discourse to privilege women and female physiological ways of climbing without falling into the same trap of masculine versus feminine qualities?
The dichotomy of gender reinforces ideas about what it means to be female. For a woman to be a good climber she has to be like a man by copying male characteristics. But to receive recognition, sponsorship and media coverage she can’t be too manly. The sexualisation of female climbers in the media often reinforces these ideas of femininity and can result in us celebrating women’s bodies rather than their achievements. On climbing trips women and men will be rolling around in the dirt for days with no shower looking anything but glamorous. It’s okay to wear a sports bra, if that’s what you want, but it’s also okay to wear a dirty, baggy t-shirt.
Another symptom of this is the climbing industry’s lack of practical clothing and gear for women, which nearly always comes in pink or purple – Dr Ferguson calls this ‘the classic pink it and shrink it’. Masha Gordon says always choosing images of women in skimpy clothing over someone covered in snow can be off-putting for someone who isn’t classically athletic but who wants to get into mountaineering. ‘We need to show real stories and we shouldn’t be put off by showing women with chapped lips,’ she says, ‘I have chapped lips now.’
Media coverage and sponsorship are important because they help women at the top climb more and achieve more. But they also provide role models for other women and young girls. If we reinforce these ideas of beauty and perfection we’re not representing the sport, we are not using the opportunity climbing provides to challenge wider gender norms and we’re doing nothing to get more girls climbing.
Before Masha Gordon started mountaineering in her 30s she was a high flier in the finance world, including as the Managing Director of Goldman Sachs. She says she witnessed the glass ceiling shatter in finance and in the boardroom. The latest percentage of women on ASK 200 boards is 23.4% (30 June 2016) up from 8.3% in 2009. Similar to the representation of women in climbing but better than mountaineering. Travelling around the world’s base camps, Masha says in the groups of unsupported climbers doing the more difficult routes, you see almost no women and it’s not because women can’t climb. Masha points to a few obstacles required to shatter the glass ceiling of mountaineering – money, experience and encouragement.
She says companies make commercial decisions based on existing markets, which in the case of mountaineering is seen to be predominantly men. As a result, you have very few high altitude sponsored female athletes. Not only this, but mountaineering gear doesn’t come in female sizes. Masha is the fastest woman to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, climbing the highest peak on every continent and skiing to the two poles, which she completed in under eight months. She did this despite polar boots only going down to a size 39 when she is a 36 and the Everest down suit only coming in male sizes. She says if women can’t get sponsorship (or gear) and they don’t have money, then they can’t accumulate the layers of experience needed to put up new routes and climb difficult mountains. ‘You need to have the stories in your mind of the mountains you walked away from,’ she says.
So Masha started an organisation that provides funding to female expeditions and teaches climbing to girls in disadvantaged communities. Masha wants to raise a new generation of brave girls. ‘I hope five years from now we’ll look back and say we’ve done something,’ she says. ‘Out of say 50 notable ascents of Piolet d’Or, ten are women when before there were two.’
Masha’s fund is part of an upsurge in programs aimed to support women in climbing. Women’s climbing groups, workshops and online spaces provide women with the experience and encouragement they need to develop their climbing. At the forefront of this is the Women’s Climbing Symposium in the UK which was founded six years ago by a then-17-year-old Shauna Coxsey. This is where Dr Ferguson presented her research earlier this year, and it is an event that provides bolting, route-setting and training workshops, as well as inviting inspiring speakers and maintaining an online presence.
These practical initiatives are what Dr Ferguson calls macro-level or institutional changes. But she says the other part of the equation are micro and personal practices around how women are empowered – which are harder to define. ‘There are also some more difficult to articulate ideas around being brave and conquering fear that sit in conflict with what it means to be female’, she says. Experience in the outdoors and notions of bravery start from a young age. Girls are taught to avoid risk and failure while boys are taught to be tough. Bravery and boldness are seen as masculine qualities while being timid and scared are seen to be feminine qualities. Parents are four times more likely to tell girls to ‘be more careful’ than boys according to the US Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
It is interesting to note that one of Australia’s best ever female climbers, Louise Shepherd, didn’t have the kind of childhood where her parents chided her to be careful. She says that while it’s hard to separate the strands, her childhood and the changes wrought by second-wave feminism were both important in shaping her as a climber and a person. Her dad left her and her brothers to run around the bush on holidays in what she says might be considered by others as ‘gross parental neglect’. ‘We were kids on this remote island with massive cliffs and the big Southern Ocean swirling below and the assumption was we’d take care of ourselves,’ she says. She did take care of herself and went on to become a bold and skilful climber.
After thousands of years of patriarchy, it’s difficult to cast off the shackles of gender norms. Small cultural changes like how we negotiate our relationship with a climbing partner who is also a boyfriend; what we do when we’re beta-sprayed in the gym; and how we encourage each other to be braver and bolder will take time. With a new generation of brave and bold girls, practical initiatives and cultural changes we can only hope to see more of a gender balance in climbing. Not purely in numbers, but in fair media representation, numbers of women putting up FAs and in subtler ways, like in our relationships and discourses. Dr Ferguson says cultural changes will trickle across into climbing organically. ‘[Changes] that empower women to go, ”actually I don’t want to go climbing with my boyfriend”,’ Dr Ferguson says, ‘When he says, “You know you’re off route?” “Fuck off, I’m making my own decisions here.”’
Jess Kate Davis
This piece originally appeared in VL#19, which you can download here.