THE BUZZ: A Man’s World

By on May 31, 2017

How a male-dominated workforce takes a toll on women in the valley.

Jan Bradley, the first woman to guide the Snake River Canyon.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Women in Jackson Hole can prove themselves on the river or in mountains in ways that are unambiguous—either you flip the raft, or you don’t, you ski the line or you go around. However, many of the most celebrated jobs in the valley, from guides to performers to elected officials, are still dominated by men.

The effects of this disparity are far-reaching.

A 2015 study by Indiana University in Bloomington demonstrated that women who work in male dominated occupations have higher levels of stress than those who don’t, and research published by the American Psychological Association demonstrates that, unsurprisingly, women in male dominated industries face more gender harassment. How does this play out for local women?

One of the guys

In 1978, Jan Bradley became the first woman to guide the Snake River Canyon. Mad River hired her when she was in her mid-20s at a time when many guides were men in their 40s. They weren’t used to sharing the river. Once, she found a note on her car that read: “It takes balls to be a boatman.” The outdoor industry was “a male dominated bastion of men who ski patrolled in the winter and were river guides in the summer. It was a boundary women didn’t cross,” she said.

Bradley crossed that boundary without realizing it. She had been a shuttle driver in past summers, and had grown to love the river. She was thrilled when she got the job, and shocked by the outcry. “There was a lot of talk about me not being strong enough or capable enough,” she said.

“Innocence had a lot of protective value for me,” Bradley continued. “I never stopped to think, ‘What if I can’t do this?’ I just kept doing my job.”

Slowly, Bradley earned the respect of the men who had been skeptical. “They finally accepted me because I proved myself. I never flipped the boat, and they saw that. I won my way into their hearts.”

Bradley’s career lasted 10 years. During that time she was a senior guide and the first female logistics coordinator. The other guides became family—on the river, they had to have each others’ backs.

“The fact that I was a woman opened the door for other women,” Bradley said.

Now, the gender breakdown has changed, but the field is still dominated by men. Currently, of Mad River’s 23 guides, four are women. These numbers are similar across the industry in Jackson—of the 91 guides currently listed on Exum’s website, 21 are women. Last year, 17 of 82 ski patrollers were women.

For Bradley, working on the Snake made her feel stronger emotionally, intellectually, and physically. At the time, she says “it seemed so much gentler because it was all just unfolding.” Now that it is more common for women to lead in the outdoors, Bradley says that in some ways, it seems more difficult.

Lucy Tompkins, 22, is one of the women whose experiences suggest that Bradley might be right. Tompkins spent part of her childhood in Jackson and guided on the Clark Fork River the summer after sophomore year of college.

The job was not what she expected.

Tompkins sought out a company founded by women that prided itself on hiring more female guides and being family friendly. Instead she was among just a few women guides in a work culture inhospitable to women.

Early in the summer one of the male guides told a sexist joke. “What’s the difference between a woman and a washing machine?” he asked. “A machine won’t follow you around after you dump your load in it.”

Everybody, except Tompkins, laughed. Later, a co-worker was making fun of her for not laughing, and began retelling the joke. Before he could finish, their boss told Tompkins that she should repeat the punchline for everybody.

“My heart was racing, I felt my face was red. I was realizing, I think I have to do this if I want to be a part of the culture, which I really do,” she said.

That feeling became familiar. “River culture is raunchy,” she said. “You’re supposed to be dirty.” It was expected that guides participate in this culture, which meant ignoring the sexist and racist jokes. It meant not knowing what to do when a guide in charge started hitting on the younger women when he was drunk.

“It’s hard to speak out when the person who is perpetuating it is in power,” she said. “Women are put in the position of choosing to act more like the dudes to be accepted, or to stand firm in their femininity, which is hard to do.”

So she tried to do both. Male guides labeled her as uptight and “no fun” until she started to party with them. “To be accepted into the group you sort of had to be OK with things you weren’t OK with,” she admitted.

Tompkins was always cognizant she was in the minority. “It’s really intimidating to walk into a room of strong, outdoorsy guys, especially if they’re not welcoming, or if they’re treating you like a sex object,” she said.

“The outdoors is white, privileged, and male dominated,” Tompkins continued. “It’s comfortable for them to be on top. They’ve never been excluded from anything in their lives, they’ve never been the butt of the joke.”

Despite her discomfort, Tompkins learned to guide. She got to know the river, and facilitated amazing experiences for the families on her boat. A year later, however, she sent her boss an email explaining her decision not to return. He apologized and said that because of her email, they were making significant changes to company culture.

Tompkins’ summer on the river still impacts her. These are the experiences, she says, that may deter more women from seeking out jobs in male dominated environments, even if they really want them.

“I haven’t gone back to rafting, and I definitely mourn that.”

That was then, this is now: Lucy Tompkins at the helm.

You can’t win

The outdoor industry is not the only one in which women learn to navigate their careers surrounded by men.

Madelaine German is a musician in Jackson, a town whose music scene is primarily made up of men. She’s also an athlete. “I’m a rock climber and a skier and a horse wrangler. I grew up chasing men around the mountains,” she said.

Like Bradley, she feels that Jackson has provided unique opportunities as well as challenges. “Wyoming has a pioneer homestead history,” German noted. “This is a hard place to live, women historically had to work as hard as men. There’s room for women to step into leadership.”

While Jackson has given German the room to grow as a musician, she says her gender is always present in her work in a way that it is not for her male counterparts: “You’re never just able to be a musician. You’ll always be a girl too.”

Once, when German walked off stage with her band, an audience member high-fived all the male musicians. When German asked where her high-five was, the man sarcastically replied, “Oh yeah, great job shaking your ass.”

No matter how she responds, she says it’s easy for men to dismiss her. “The learning curve for me was steep,” German recalled. “You can’t win. I can work my ass off to get a gig, and guys will say, ‘Well, it’s because you’re a cute girl.’ If you play the cute role, you get dismissed. If you are assertive, you get called a bitch.”

German moved to Jackson six years ago. She started as a waitress, but quickly began devoting herself to her music. She has a music degree, and is a performer, a teacher, and a band leader. She has found that some are threatened by her expertise. “Many people have fallen into music here. I didn’t fall, I studied. I’m ambitious, I speak my mind, and I know about music. I trigger something in the men here.” She’s been called crazy, over the top.

“Women have to work twice as hard … if I achieve success in my career, no matter what, people will say it’s because I’m a girl.”

When Bradley began guiding, she learned to work differently. She had less brute power than her male counterparts, so she learned to compensate. “I was taught that because of a possible lack of strength, I would have to finesse things. I would have to think about my moves way ahead of time. I had to be more thoughtful.”

German, too, sees that she can approach her work differently. Without many successful female role models in the industry around her, German is forging her own path: “I try not to adopt the energy of competition, or feel like I need to be ‘one of the guys’ … In the end, I’ve learned that moving my feminine energy fully into leadership creates something that is more open, more collaborative. In my rehearsals, I bring this kind of energy … at the root of my music is the desire to open the space for people to be themselves.”

Feeling like she needs to prove herself takes a toll, though. German says she’s had to take a break from the local music scene. “It’s negatively affected me to always feel like people see me as a girl, not a musician … there’s not an open, invited space for women.”

If women feel pushed to the margins of male-dominated industries, it can have a long-term impact on their future. The stressors that impact many in Jackson might be compounded for them.

For German, taking a break is no small decision when she’s already struggling. She recently lost her housing unexpectedly, and she’s not sure she’ll be able to stay: “I’m trying to grow roots in this community and to give back to this community, but it’s hard when at any moment you could lose your housing … it makes you feel like a second class citizen, like you’re not really valued.”

Constant fear of losing housing and struggling to make ends meet can distract from career development: “It affects health and productivity … when you’re working 12 hours a day six days a week it doesn’t really leave the time or space to do your best work. When you can only spend 5 percent of your time creating because you’re trying to survive, it’s discouraging.”

German has given herself one more year in Jackson. If she can’t find more stable housing or work, she may have to leave, taking a part of the female-driven music industry with her.

The tipping point

As Tompkins noted, feeling marginalized based on gender may deter women from entering male-dominated fields, or encourage them to quit. This can have long term impacts on women. Male dominated fields tend to be better paying, though that changes once women enter them.

Researchers with the National University of Singapore found that men “abandoned formerly all-male professions in droves after women’s participation reaches tipping points, fearing the social stigma and wage penalties associated with ‘feminine’ occupations.”

Part of that “wage penalty” is attributable to a recent federal court decision. In April, courts ruled that it’s legal to underpay women based on their previous experiences. Employers can ask new hires what they made in their previous work, and pay based on that salary. Because women are already likely to have been paid less throughout their lifetimes, this perpetuates a pattern of women’s work being devalued.

As a report by Equitable Growth puts it, these cycles are difficult to break: “Men often underestimate women’s skills based on their current underrepresentation in certain occupations and thus discriminate against women in these occupations on the false assumption that increasing their representation would lower their overall productivity.”

According to Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the way to tackle the negative associations with women in male-dominated fields is to hire more women. Once occupations achieve a “critical mass of women they … dramatically reduce the prevalence of discriminatory behavior and force their workplaces to adapt to their female employees’ needs and demands.”

Greater gender representation in the workplace is beneficial for individuals and their companies. A recent Gallup study of more than 800 businesses found that gender diverse institutions had significantly better financial outcomes than those dominated by one gender.

Tompkins sensed that gender parity in the rafting company would have made it a more hospitable environment, one she may have been more likely to stay in: “If there are more women in the room, it’s just different. It’s less likely that people will make those kinds of jokes that make them feel unwelcome, it’s a different awareness.” PJH

About Sarah Ross

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