The Case For All-Female Climbing Events

If you're a woman or female-identifying, you've probably faced this moment. When you're scrolling through clinics at a climbing festival, or looking through online course offerings somewhere—and you see the "women's only" option. And you have to decide. Do I choose the course where I'll be among all genders, or just my own? Maybe it's no question—maybe you always opt for the female-only choice. But if you haven't ever tried a female-only event, like a rock climbing clinic, there might be things you're missing out on. We chatted with Dawn Glanc, a professional climber for Outdoor Research and co-owner of Chicks Climbing Skiing, because she's been teaching clinics for years. She's seen the good, the bad and the ugly. And here's what she thinks of women's only events.

Do you tailor the way you teach women differently than how you would teach men? Why/why not?

At Chicks, we are teaching climbing and skiing skills. There is no need to educate men and women differently. The mountains do not have a gender preference, so we must focus on skills, safety issues, and technical systems without bias.

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Do you notice a difference in how women behave when they're in an all-female clinic, versus mixed-gender?

Studies have shown the men and women learn best if they are in same-gender groups. Norms are abandoned, and new roles have to be taken on when in same-sex groups. We all have social habits that are ingrained deep into our personalities. When we are in mixed groups, these weird social behaviors can emerge without us even realizing it. When we separate the genders for educational purposes, we can leave behind any weirdness and focus on the task at hand. At Chicks, we encourage women to attend a clinic for knowledge and experience. This, in turn, will create a more confident individual who can operate with independence when in the real co-ed world.

Also—do you teach men much? Or, host clinics with both men and women?

I do occasionally work with men, but it is rare. I work in Ouray as an ice and rock climbing instructor at Peak Mountain Guides. I also host the clinics at climbing festivals for my sponsors. Being a climbing instructor and passing on my passion for climbing is super fun to do. It is awesome to watch people push themselves and grow their skills. I don't mind working with men, I just prefer working with women.

As I'm typing this, I realize it's sexist to ask is women learn differently, or behave differently—because that's putting the male model as the standard. I should be asking, do men learn differently or act differently from women?

The most significant observation I have found is that couples learn differently than a single person. When couples stay together in the same group, weird coping and protective behaviors surface. The barriers created can be almost impossible for the instructor to break through.  Couples can bring baggage to the experience that they do not even know they had. No matter what the gender makeup of the couple is,  it is best for everyone involved if they split into separate groups to learn something new. We do have couples attend Chicks clinics, I encourage the women to work in different groups to climb.

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Can you describe the difference you see between an all-female clinic versus a mixed-gender clinic?

The big difference I see in all-female groups is the willingness to step up and try something new. The women support one another to work hard and push the comfort bubble. At the end of the day, even I feel like we achieved more as an all-female group. I have a different sense of pride at the end of the day when I work with women. 

I have seen mighty, competent women act entirely different in a mixed gender group. The social habits that we all have come out when men and women come together. I have watched with bewilderment as a strong female leader doubted herself and deferred to the male for no reason at all. I can't explain it, as even I am guilty of this self-defeating behavior.  

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What advice do you have for women going into either type of clinic for getting the most out of it?

If you are going to a clinic to learn, take advantage of what the instructor has to offer. Ask questions, participate in demonstrations, take notes, and video a lesson to help remember the experience.  If you walk away from an opportunity to advance your skills and feel the clinic was useless, that is your fault for not being proactive in your learning. Take some time before the clinic to write down questions and to identify areas where you need improvement.

What can we all do to help our counterparts learn better, regardless of gender?

We all want to be treated with respect. If we can start with respect, then we can build a better environment for everyone.


Photos by Jeremiah Watt.