FEATURE: That Was Good… For A Girl

By on July 26, 2016

How micro-inequities in a mountain town affect both sexes.

160727CoverFeat-1JACKSON HOLE, WY – As they finish their climb, Jeff places the belay device on his harness and Nate begins to coil the rope. “Man you crushed that climb,” Nate exclaims.

Happy with his conquest, Jeff sighs deeply and replies, “Super ballsy climb, so glad I didn’t puss out on the roof.”

Rounding the corner to the crag, Nate sees his  friends Jessica and Anne approaching. “What did you climb?” he yells.

Jessica, proud of her accomplishment, reports, “Brown Flake, 5.10d.”

“Nice, I did that one yesterday,” Nate quickly replies. “I found it easy for the grade, but good work—I have never seen a girl lead that one.”

The intermingling of the sexes is always a loaded scenario where innuendo, testosterone, and flirting come together to form a potpourri of emotions. So it is sometimes hard to decipher what counts as micro versions of sexism. In American culture, blatant sexism has largely gone out of style, and in many arenas women have gained their rightful status as true equals. However, in some enclaves males continue to dominate. The adventure sports world is still seemingly one of those domains running on an outdated system. Maybe the days of outwardly laughing at the idea of a female climber are over, but what about the more subtle side of cross sex interactions?  In mountain towns like Jackson, where adrenaline and hormones mix on both sides of the spectrum, it is especially important to ask what silences a woman’s voice. Survival in the mountains literally depends on good communication and trust. So exploring micro-inequities, the subtle sexism that a lot of men are perhaps not even aware they’re directing at women, could help to strengthen partnerships in the mountains and increase survival rates.

Eric Hinton and Stephen Young, writing about discrimination, define micro-inequities as “subtle often unconscious messages that devalue, discourage, and impair performance of a stigmatized group.” Applying this definition, it is perhaps not difficult for both men and women to cite examples of discrimination in the climbing, skiing, rafting, and outdoor communities. In the adventure sports sphere, who pays the biggest price for micro-inequities and how can both men and women limit this type of discrimination?

Traditional roles play out in the outdoors, too

Are males doing more harm than good when they give unsolicited advice about where a female “should” go or what they could have done “better?” American culture and evolutionary history seem to nudge males towards the protector role. This innate desire to keep women “safe,” however, can impair a woman’s ability to perform. Kelly Halpin, an accomplished endurance athlete, reports that you can only hear so many “tiny zingers with a ‘no you can’t’ undertone before its starts to erode progression.”

Males often feel like they are doing the right thing when they lead every pitch of a climb, but the underlying message they send when always taking the lead is that the mountains are a man’s arena where machismo rules.

Media plays a large part in perpetuating the myth that sports are a man’s domain. Science Daily reports only 3.6 percent of sports articles discussed women’s athletics in the five major newspapers for the year of 2013. In addition, in 2009 ESPN’s Sportscenter only dedicated 1.4 percent of its airtime to coverage of women’s sports. These are some pretty sobering statistics considering women comprise 45 percent of all outdoor recreationists, according to the Outdoor Foundation.

In a study for the LA84 Foundation, Dr. Maragaret Duncan found that when examining the underreporting of women’s athletic achievements, there were many instances of “verbally or visually marking gender for females but not males.” Lynn Hill, for example, was described in a headline as the “first female climber to free the Nose on El Capitan.” Hill, however, was the first person—male or female—to accomplish this feat. Linguistic misogyny, such as referring to woman athletes as “girls” or by portraying females as the weaker sex through condescending language, fuels the unconscious stereotyping of women, especially if young people are exposed to it at a young age.

Halpin recalled a time when she passed a father and son on her descent from Garnet Meadows, the dad grumbling under his breathe, “What are you trying to do—make me look bad in front of my son?” These disparaging comments can cement into a young male brain that a woman’s role in the mountains is behind a man.

Halpin, by the way, just completed the “Triple Teton” triathlon, traveling more than 60 miles from the town of Jackson to the summit of three major Teton peaks, followed by swimming and biking back to town. She completed the mission unsupported, even after being laughed at when she mentioned the idea to a male friend.

Viewed as solitary events by outside observers, many examples of micro-inequities seem insignificant and often go unnoticed. However, it is the cumulative effect over time that can eat away at a woman’s confidence. Men may shrug off their behavior as “not a big deal” or say “it’s just guys being guys,” but subtle messages of inferiority can have large consequences on a woman’s psyche. Girl Guiding, a nonprofit that focuses on empowering young females, points to the statistic that three out or four girls ages 11 to 21 suffer from low self-esteem. Micro-inequities these young women ostensibly face may certainly be part of the problem.

In The Atlantic, Kattie Cay and Claire Shipman discuss why so many females doubt themselves, hypothesizing that it may be because young women are socialized to aspire to perfection, where men are socialized to be brave. The authors reference an internal study by Hewlett Packard showing that males will apply for a position if they fit 60 percent of the qualifications. Women, on the other hand, will only apply if they fit 100 percent of the criteria. Transferring this finding over to the mountain realm, it is easy to see examples of men taking risks even if it entails failure. Women, on the other hand, may back down if they don’t feel like they will succeed the first time.

Biased in the backcountry

Open communication and trusting your partner is an essential part of backcountry safety and if a woman senses her voice isn’t recognized she may be less likely to speak up in a dangerous situation. Bree Buckley, a local climber, says the majority of the time her male climbing partners include her in group discussions. Sometimes, however, she admits that men “fail to even take my opinion into consideration and there is no hope of a mutual decision being made.”

Silencing women’s voices is perhaps the last thing men should do. One study by the Journal of Travel Medicine indicated that during a two-year period, men comprised 75 percent of deaths in U.S. national parks. This disparity between male and female deaths may be due in part to the different ways that each gender perceives risks. A University of California San Diego study by Christine Harris and Michael Jenkins examined the  gender differences in risk assessments. According to the study,  males are more likely to take risks because they believe they will obtain greater benefits and enjoyment from risky behavior. Women, on the other hand, were shown to spend more time examining the severity and probability of negative outcomes in dangerous situations.

Halpin reported one instance in the Jackson Hole backcountry when she decided to speak up to a solo male skier with no safety gear. The lone individual quickly brushed her aside saying, “Don’t you worry about me little girl, I can take care of myself,” as he continued into avalanche terrain.

160727CoverFeat-2Biological differences in the brain may also be playing a part in why women are less likely to die in backcountry accidents. Studies examining the brain’s fear center seem to indicate that the amygdala is more easily activated in response to negative stimuli in women than men. Cay and Shipman explain that the part of the brain that recognizes errors and weighs options, the anterior cingulate cortex, is larger in women as well.

Oftentimes women do not confront many of the micro-inequities they are subjected to because they appear insignificant, however, when patterns become apparent there is a reason to worry. Crista Valentino, a local adventure athlete, has seen a number of themes appear in her travels through the convoluted world of cross gender interactions. For instance, she says males often ask for confirmation of a decision from a female, rather than first asking for her input.

“Let’s go do this route, OK?” versus “This is what I was thinking we could do, what are your thoughts?” Valentino has also noticed that many males unwittingly play the protector role instead of the companion role. She pointed to a time when her three male river companions rented packrafts for themselves but a duckie for her “as the safer option.”

Sexism at its most basic level is treating members of the opposite sex differently. Mountain guide Brendan Burns has seen firsthand how people react differently to a woman’s voice in the backcountry compared to a man’s. Burns says that when he first got into guiding, groups would often “view women who spoke up about safety concerns as overbearing, while men who presented the same information were seen as strong leaders.”

Jessica Baker, a lead mountain guide for Exum, has noticed that often a woman’s value in the backcountry is determined by whether or not she expresses male traits. She openly acknowledges: “pure brute force is not one of women’s strong points.” But, she says that shouldn’t overshadow what women bring to the table, such as “sensitivity to detail, mutual decision making, and the ability to multi-task in complex situations.”

The battle for recognition rages on

In the adventure sports world, gaining sponsorship is one area where females have made noticeable strides. But the spotlight hasn’t come without criticism. Buckley reports one instance of being cornered by a male climber who felt she didn’t deserve a sponsorship, chastising her for “getting lucky because she was a blonde haired girl.” After taking the verbal blow, Buckley felt angry that she had been so easily misjudged by one of her climbing peers.

Social media is another arena where micro-inequities are abundant. Elizabeth Koutrelakos, an avid mountaineer and Planet columnist, reports one story of a male friend who froze on a steep section of snow and needed her assistance. Koutrelakos’ “partner” then decided to post photos of just himself skiing the line, failing to make any mention of his femal cohort and backcountry savior, err partner. However, he must have mentioned her presence to one of his friends who approached Koutrelakos and casually said: “I heard you were taken up The Sliver. How was it?”


Since then, Koutrelakos say she has relinquished any involvement in social media. “I don’t look at it, and I don’t want to be involved, and that makes me a much happier person,” she said.

As women battle for equality in adventure sports, some may argue that Instagram and other social media sites are a breeding ground for misinterpreting the role women are “suppose” to play in the outdoors. Many of the top adventure sports Instagram feeds show attractive women in the backcountry with shiny untangled hair and glossy lips. Meanwhile, many of the females who are pushing their limits in the mountains go unnoticed.

Valentino points to the complexity of social media standards, and the judgments it leads to. “Who is to blame? Men for favoring photos of women with less clothes on, the women for posting it, or the system that makes the cycle go around and around?” she asked.

It is plausible that the actions of a few males are spoiling it for the rest. However, research now indicates there is more to the puzzle. The National Academy for Sciences released a study showing that “women are just as likely as men to show sexism towards women in hiring practices, salaries and professional mentorship.” In the adventure sports world, these biases can be expressed through micro-aggressions between females. Halpin recalled a snowboard trip to Japan where some of her female companions transformed into veritable mean girls. “I felt torn apart in an environment where females should be working together,” she said.

Feminist psychological theory might then argue that hostility among females in the outdoors is due to internalizing the patriarchy of the system, a system in which they are trying to gain status.

“As women come to consider being prized by men as their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize,” explained evolutionary psychologist Noam Shpancer.

Don’t shoot the (male) messenger

The days of overt sexism, where women are forbidden or discouraged from partaking in certain activities have come and gone. But the grey area of subtle messages pointing to female inferiority seem commonplace. Perhaps these engrained biases are unintentional, but when repeated over time, micro level events seem to build up and create a status differential between men and women in the outdoor world.

160727CoverFeat-4The line between what counts as sexist and what doesn’t is blurry in today’s society. So to make the boundaries clearer, Valentino urges people to consider “the intention of the male messenger” in cross-gender interactions. But more importantly, she encourages men to also contemplate how a female might interpret the message. Adding to the dialogue, Bill Truelove, a local climber, says that his litmus test of what he considers acceptable is “whether or not I would want my mom or dad to hear it.” Truelove noted, however, that safety in the backcountry should always be the main concern and “fear of sexism should not influence an honest dialogue in the mountains.”

Every individual is unique and what is offensive to one person may be perceived as friendly banter to another. Is it then a hopeless task to determine what counts as sexist if all events will be interpreted differently? Or can we root out unintentional bias if we question our beliefs and sort through the labels and stigmas we may have in an outdoor setting?

Baker noted that since she started guiding in 2004, “things have definitely improved, but it’s still a mixed bag. Just because we pretend sexism has gone away that doesn’t make it so.”

If the system is going to change, she says females have a hefty responsibility: to continually fight for their voice and be persistently proactive in challenging their own biases and those held by males. PJH

About Ryan Burke

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