Are mountain adventures for everyone?

Gender inequality exists in the outdoor sector and in mountain adventures, as well as in all other sectors of society. Is it a result of tougher physical demands than in other sectors, or are we facing other challenges? Charlotte Cederbom has written a blogpost with personal views and reflections on the issue.

What you read here is a personal statement. I wish to illustrate my thoughts and concerns with some examples from my own life as well as from others I have spoken with. Although I quote other people and publications, the reflections I make in this text are solely my own.

©Jonas Tufvesson

Old-fashioned structural barriers

Twenty years ago, I tried to realize a long-term dream that I had kept for myself since I was a teenager. I tried to qualify to the mountain guide education. In my case, the lack of talent, physical strength and mountain experience certainly was one reason for why I finally had to give up and never qualified. But there were some additional reasons that are linked to inequality, I believe.

My female alpinist friends, who were 10 years older than me, made the deliberate choice not to get any kids because they felt that it was impossible to combine a professional mountain career with a family life. I chose to try the opposite because I was fortunate to have a partner who were both willing to and had the financial possibility to share the parental leave with me. But it did not work out as planned.

©Sara Widell,
IFMGA guide and forester

Sara Widell is a 35-year-old Swedish mountain guide who is talented, strong and experienced enough to be a professional guide. She was the first woman to manage the Swedish IFMGA guide examination and she chose to start the qualification process plus finish the guide education before getting children. When I talk to her she is pregnant with her third child. “A pregnancy affects you quite a lot, and the guide education is good to achieve without a break. Now having children, I only work a couple of months a year as a guide. I also want to be able to breast-feed so I avoid overnight jobs” Sara says.

My reflection after discussing the subject with Sara is that the rules for attending the guide education system are defined in such a way that it is still tougher for women than men to combine parenthood with professional guiding. There are structural barriers that may be adjusted without reducing the quality of the education. I will come back to this issue later, but first – let me jump to the next type of barriers.

Sticky cultural barriers

The federation for French alpine and mountaineering clubs (FFCAM) have almost 90 000 individual members, of which 40% are women. Nevertheless, only 10% of the leaders and supervisors in the federation are women, and only 2% of the certified French mountain guides are women.1

Half of the world’s population and 39% of the workforce worldwide are women, while there are 27% women in managerial positions globally according to the United Nations.2

Skier: IFMGA mountain guide Eva Eskilsson
©Mountain Spirit Guides

The French Ministry for Youth and Sports does not find the French statistics satisfactory. They have been pushing for gender equality in mountain sports since more than a decade. As a result, FFCAM has created Lead the Climb – an initiative which aims to improve women leadership and autonomy in mountains.

© Marion Poitevin, Mountain rescuer police and IFMGA guide

The front figure and founder of Lead the Climb is Marion Poitevin, a French IFMGA certified mountain guide. Moreover, Marion was the first woman in the French Army Mountaineering Group and the first woman to join the Mountain Rescuer Police team. Although being a pioneer, or perhaps because of that, she has been facing various kinds of mistrust and side-stepping by colleagues, especially when she was young and worked in the military.

Sara Widell and Eva Eskilsson – who were the second Swedish woman to pass the Swedish IFMGA guide examination – both highlight the great support and trust they gained from their male colleagues and instructors during their guide education in the Swedish system. There are certainly well-functioning male-dominated environments too.

But these two women guides constitutes only 3% of the Swedish IFMGA guides. A surprisingly low figure for a country that is regarded as one of the most equal countries in the world.3

My reflection is that if structural challenges can be overcome, there are still cultural barriers for women to tackle in the mountain adventure community. Moreover, as long as there are few women leaders, it will be difficult to change the perception of what is feasible for women to do.

The role of media, equipment and sponsorships

When I was a teenager and scanned through ski magazines, they lacked photos of female freeride skiers playing in the powder. Since my dream to become a mountain guide seemed unrealistic, I kept it to myself. It was not until 10 years later, when I did my first winter season in the village La Grave in the Alps, that I realized how easily women could be as excellent skiers and alpinists as men.

©Morgan Salén, IFMGA guide and medical student

Even though more women appear in outdoor magazines today, women are still underrepresented in action photos. Morgan Salén is a Swedish (male) IFMGA guide who has initiated an internal study how to increase the number of female applicants to the Swedish guide education. “I had a really talented 16-year old client on a ski trip. She was surprised when I told her that women can become mountain guides” Morgan tells me.

Equipment is not everything, but it is nice to be able to knit your ski boots properly or to carry a backpack that fits your body size. It was not until the millennial shift that more technical and advanced mountaineering equipment, especially adapted or designed for women, where possible to find in outdoor shops. When ski-touring boots adapted for women calves finally appeared, it was the first time I could enjoy skiing with ski boots properly tightened. However, mountaineering clothes suitable for breastfeeding in cold winter conditions and in strong winds is still an area of improvement, I believe.

If you want to become a professional in a mountain sport you may need lots of gear. Of course, sponsorships are very beneficial, and may be a crucial parameter for success. But check the websites of five big alpinist-, mountainbike- or ski brands that you know and check what percentage of (sponsored) female ambassadors they have. It is not uncommon that you find only one female ambassador per mountain brand and five or more male ambassadors.

The role of women that have succeeded

If you are talented, physically and mentally strong enough, and you manage to gather enough experience to become an excellent woman athlete in mountain adventures, do you have a certain responsibility of helping other women just because of your gender?

Of course not. But you have the same responsibility as everyone else to avoid supporting and strengthening inequality structures and cultures. Being a privileged, one tends to get blind to inequalities that others are struggling with.

Marion Poitevin from Lead the Climb again: “I believe that some women don’t want to support women-only groups because they fear that their collaboration with male colleagues may suffer if they do. Other women guides argue that it is unfair to promote women. They succeeded without such promotion and support, and they are thus reluctant to change the conditions for the women coming next.”

©Annelie Pompe
World record holder, professional adventurer, business leader etc.

Personally, I have no problem to team up with men only or to try out new things in male-dominated environments. But not all women function like I do. And not all men neither by the way. Annelie Pompe, who is a successful mountaineer and adventurer with some world records in the luggage: “I have been climbing in many different groups and constellations, and many men have told me that they are glad to have a woman in the group because it reduces the competition focus. Without women they find the group mentality very hard” Annelie says.

Examples of how to improve things

There is no quick fix for everything of course. But there are many inspirational initiatives out there already, and good ideas worth trying.

Returning to the Swedish guide education system and a rather old-fashioned structural barrier. Sara Widell questions if 10 years of experience is necessary before you start the education. Perhaps it is possible to adapt the requirements so that you remain the quality of the applicants but enable an earlier start. Alternatively, change the time limit for the education itself. Today, most guides are at least 30-35 years old when they finish the guide education – an education that must be executed within 3-5 years. Probably both male and female applicants would benefit from more flexible rules.

During the internal study within the Swedish Mountain guide organization Morgan Salén realized that women-only activities generated significantly more interest among female clients than conventional mixed tours and courses. Half joking, he asked me “What do you think would happen if I – being a man – start organizing women-only events?” He could see the financial benefit of the much larger number of interests to each event. “Why not try it out?!” I replied.

Antje von Dewitz,

Camber Outdoors is an American organization that has enrolled more than 75 outdoor-industry executives in a mission to attract and retain more women to serve as leaders.4 They have now set the path to improve equality for other minorities within the outdoor industry. Something to try out in Europe as well perhaps?! Antje von Dewitz, who is the CEO for Vaude® and one of the few female business leaders in the European outdoor sector: “In business meetings I often find myself in situations where people don’t know who I am and therefore starts talking to my male colleagues” Antje says with a laugh.

Janine Tschanhenz,
Freeride coach and social worker
©Highland Production

Finally, there is an increasing number of local initiatives in several countries to strengthen teenagers and girls in mountain adventures. By sharing challenges, ideas and experiences, it is easier for small, local initiatives to become long-lived and successful. Janine Tschanhenz is one of several young athletes that make an incredible effort to rub off sticky cultural barriers. “It is important to show teenage girls that freeride skiing is feasible for them too, to gather several girls and to continue to actively invite them” Janine ponders.

Time to focus on SDG 5 – Gender equality

A little too late for my own career dream, I found out that women can become both talented, strong and experienced enough to work and play on equal terms with men in the mountains. Therefore, I hope that teenagers of all genders will get similar opportunities to fulfil their mountain adventure dreams in the future.

Moreover, to manage a rapid transformation of society due to climate chage, it is important to include all genders in discussions, development work and management. By improving gender equality in the mountain adventure and outdoor sector, businesses and organisations will have a much better chance to survive the bumpy ride that is to come.

Please support the work for gender equality, the 5th Global Sustainable Development Goal in Agenda 2030, by sharing your ideas and reflections on a subject so rarely discussed within the mountain adventure community.


Further reading

1 Numbers are taken from Lead the Climb’s first newsletter from May 1st 2018. The statistics have also been communicated by FFCAM representatives in media interviews.

2 The United Nations compile yearly reports for the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG:s). These numbers are presented in the report for 2019 SDG Report 2019 .

3 The Swedish Mountain guide organisation present all certified IMFGA guides on their web page.

4 Camber Outdoor’s work has been described in an article from the American news outlet Colorado Sun. Moreover, Camber Outdoors has published one of few studies about discrimination in the outdoor sector. They conducted a survey of 1364 professionals in the outdoor, bike, run, and snow industries to explore their experiences regarding gender, opportunity, career, and work-life issues. The study identified significant differences in the respondents experiences of attitudes and discrimination, both concerning men versus women and between the different sport industries.

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