Do you know any women who climb? Odds are, according to a recent survey, at least one out of every two of them would admit they’ve been the victim of sexist behavior, either at the gym or at the crag. The survey, conducted online by Flash Foxy, found that 64% of the female climbers who responded feel uncomfortable, insulted, or dismissed at some point during their training. This might seem surprising, since most of the male climbers we know would never purposefully make a female climber feel uncomfortable or degraded. So we wondered: Is there a disconnect between what men perceive as degrading or sexist and what actually makes women feel uncomfortable?
Whether you climb with women, coach or guide women, or are in love with a woman who climbs, here are five ways to help female climbers feel comfortable, respected and safe.
Be aware of making assumptions about her climbing ability, knowledge, and experience.
Social conditioning and gender norms can lead our brains to draw conclusions about people based on their gender, their size—even the clothes they wear—whether we like it or realize it or not. Be aware if you’re using this to make judgements about someone’s climbing ability, knowledge or experience. Instead of making assumptions about whether or not she wants to lead, warms up on 5.13, knows how to tie a clove hitch, or feels comfortable soloing, just ask her.
Ask her for advice.
Chances are, the women at the crag or at the gym might have valuable insight on why your foot keeps slipping off that smear, fun ways to train in the gym, how to make tape gloves, and other things. Asking for her advice shows that you respect her opinion and knowledge.
Be aware of the language you use, especially when giving compliments and in coaching/mentoring situations.
Would you tell one of your bros how impressed you were with their inner hip flexibility? If you want to compliment a woman at the gym, instead of focusing on her appearance, give her compliments that highlight her strength, power, creativity, or smarts—you know, things that actually have to do with rock climbing. If you want to strike up a conversation, ask about the route she’s on.
In coaching/mentoring situations—whether she’s learning from you or you’re learning from her—this comes into sharp focus. Simply asking yourself, “Would I say this to a man?” goes a long way. If the answer is no, it doesn’t mean you’re a misogynistic jerk—it just shows how much these thought patterns are ingrained in most of us—and you may want to consider using different language.
Respect and trust her climbing approach and process.
If she says she wants to top rope something that you feel like she can lead, it’s not necessarily your job to push her. The difference between pushing and belittling is a fine line. Comments like, “Oh come on, why are you always so scared?” can really hurt and disempower. However, she might be the kind of person who thrives off of comments such as, “Okay, but you’re more than capable of leading that route.” One of the greatest things about a good climbing partner is that they can give us confidence to do things we aren’t sure we’re capable of. Just ask her if she’s the kind of athlete that performs well when pushed, or if she’d rather you just take her word the first time.
On the flip side, if she wants to lead a route that seems runout or scary, trust her to make that decision. This doesn’t mean you can’t voice your concern if you feel she’s putting herself in an unsafe situation, but at the end of the day, we all make our own personal decisions about risk and safety. Again, asking yourself if you’d say the same thing to a man is a good way to check yourself.
Giving beta or advice is another aspect of this. If she’s about to rope up for a route that you have dialed, simply ask her whether she would like beta or not. If she says no, be sure to respect that—even if there’s this super cool hidden undercling that you really want her to know about. Chances are, she’ll find it on her own, which is often half the fun. The only exception would be for safety—like if you know that one of the holds on the route is hollow and could potentially break, point it out to her.
Speak up in sexist situations, even if no women are present.
This is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do to stop sexism in rock climbing and everywhere else. If you hear a sexist comment, see instances of harassment, or read a sexist article/social media post, call it out. It could be as simple as saying, “Hey, that’s not cool.” It might be awkward or uncomfortable for a second, but this is a small price to pay to help women be seen as equal. It’s important for people of all genders to point out sexism, but it’s especially influential when coming from a male. Whether you’re at the gym, the crag, on social media, or just hanging out with your bros without any women around, it means a lot when you speak up.
Photos by Andrew Burr and Forest Woodward, respectively.