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Where Are the Women Outdoors?

We sat down on Instagram Live with four women taking on the world of outdoor sports: a climber, scuba diver, slackliner, and hiker – to talk about the reasons why women repeatedly find themselves outnumbered in the outdoors, how this trend starts, and just a little bit of what we can do about it. 

The results? A lot of insight, raw stories, and real women talking about real things that they’ve endured, experienced, and think that may make a major impact on the future of women in the outdoors.

Without further adieu…

Let’s Meet the Athletes:

Vydehi Kadur

Vydehi is an Advanced Open Water Scuba Diver and aspiring Freediver. She comes from a family that was always hiking, camping, or into motorsports. Afraid of water her entire life, Vydehi found a group of fellow divers 4 years ago who encouraged her to face those fears – and the rest is history.

Vrinda Bhageria

Co-founder of the climbing center called BoulderBox in Delhi, Vrinda has been climbing for 10 years since first trying the sport during her undergrad, making a profession from her passion. She’s an active member of the crew at CLAW, an annual event hosted to introduce women to the sport of climbing.

Sushmita Hatte

Sushmita recently found a new sports community on a slackline, that was the encouraging environment she was missing. At weekend slacklining meetups in the park, and giving slacklining’s cousin, highlining, a try – she continues to experiment with the sport, connect with its community, and see where her new skills take her.

Cambria Sawyer

Host of the discussion. From Texas, Cam has found a new home in the Himalayas. The thought of a 9 to 5 job never felt right, but a pair of hiking boots did. An avid hiker, and beginner paragliding pilot – her next adventure became co-founding Playground’s co-living spaces to give others that freedom in the outdoors.

So, first thing first…

Is There a Problem?

What we see in statistics vs. media vs. real people’s stories is always a little different , so it might be best to look at it through a combined lens of all three.

Starting with the first of the three – there’s no doubt something is off. Right from the beginning of our experiences, our chances of going outside are statistically separated depending on our gender, according to an REI study showing that boys are significantly more likely than girls to be brought outside to play during childhood. In India specifically, men are 13% more likely to be involved in a sport than women.

“Social and cultural conditioning from a young age and how you’ve been brought up make a big difference,” noted Vrinda on this point, “safety being one of them. The outdoorsy-type family in India is still in the minority – and the expectations for girls and what’s normal for them to be doing is different from the expectations of boys.”

Resonating with this observation, Sushmita pointed out that when this is the experience of most girls from their childhood, “women start later, and it feels discouraging to be among stronger people who have been practicing longer than you. The first step is really intimidating.”

“And you can see the effects of this just by observing children playing with each other,” continues Vrinda, noting that the difference in confidence levels is noticeable between the boys and girls, with the boys seemingly much more assured of their abilities and therefore more confident in experimenting further in play and the outdoors.

Media

Does this translate to what we see in the media also? Well the answer is – “sort of.”

On one hand, there is an obvious gap between sports coverage for women and men – with women receiving a whopping (read: sarcasm) 5% of total sports media coverage, and 42% of the respondents in a recent BBC study felt that women’s sports in India were not as “entertaining” as men’s. In the same study, one third of those surveyed pointed out sports such as wrestling, boxing, kabaddi and weightlifting were “unsuitable” for women.

What all this means is that we’re looking at a problem of perception that directly translates into real issues of representation, so much so that 63% of women can’t name a female sports role model.

“Not so much in the slacklining get togethers, but in highlining there’s almost always a group of guys with one girl, and I’ve definitely been the only girl in the group many times,” said Sushmita, “but the group has always been encouraging.”

The same was true in one form or another for everyone in the discussion.

“Huntington Beach Open, California” by szeke

“In motorsports there were two of us and 50 men,” added Vydehi, “but in Scuba there are actually a good number of women, but still more men.”

Along the same lines, Vrinda mentioned that most of her climbing mates were men starting out, but that it never occurred to her because they were so supportive that it was not something that hindered her desire to pursue it or push it further.

Cam has also been the only female on more Himalayan treks than she can count, and was one of two women in her paragliding batch of 12 people.

It was at this point that we stumbled upon a very weird but very real side-effect of this: the over-sensationalization of women in sports, and some ideas on how to tackle this.

What We Can Do About It

“I actually didn’t know our representation was low,” started Vydehi, commenting on her brief involvement with motorsports, “to me it felt like all the press attention was on me because I was the girl amongst guys.”

“This is a perfect example of the problem,” Sushmita responded, “there’s the underlying assumption that to see men doing these things is normal, and for women it’s something sensational. Reporters flock to cover women in sport because it’s unusual, but it shouldn’t be. It’s not a fad – it’s normal.”

Vrinda, to everyone’s agreement, said what feel like might be the magic words, “We just need to normalize women in the outdoors – the more women see it happening, the more will join. Exposure is required for it to turn from extraordinary to normal.”

“It’s just like when I started driving my first car,” said Vydehi, “my car was as big as a truck – and I was the only woman around driving anything that looked like that. I would get chased and harassed on the road, until more women started driving similar cars and also driving in general. Normalizing the whole thing made the problem disappear.”

How Do We Normalize?

Knowing that normalizing the idea of women in the outdoors is a huge step to changing perceptions, meaningful representation, and statistics is helpful only as long as we actually do something about it.

To this, Vydehi called accessibility key to the process of normalization, “We need to be reaching out to younger generations, and do it in small steps. Give them a nudge, not a push, to initiate that confidence and take it from there.”

What does a nudge and not a push mean?

“More women-centric events are essential,” says Vrinda, “we host the events called She Climbs at BoulderBox, and women seem to feel more comfortable taking that first step into the sport. It’s less intimidating, and you don’t feel the need to prove yourself so much, just to initiate exposure.”

This resonated with Cam, adding that “your first taste of an outdoor sport can and probably should be close to home. A slacklining meetup in the neighbourhood park like Sushmita’s is a perfect example. I obviously didn’t fly to India and take a bus straight to the Himalayas for my first trek. I went hiking with a group of friends from school on a trail near our town. From there, I was obsessed, and the confidence began to grow.”

“And finding a community that supports you is key,” adds Sushmita, “We need to be lifting each other up, like I see in the slacklining community. It’s a group and community in a safe space where men and women are learning together.”

“Climbing” by mathiasbaert

So there we have it. A soup of stats, media representation, and real-life stories from the women affected, and affecting.

We’ve got a lot of work left to do, but with conversations like these, and actions to normalize women in the outdoors and create accessible opportunities for them to take the first step – we can only go up from here.

We’ll leave you with some parting words from the chat, when we asked what they had to say for any girls or women out there needing that first nudge:

Vydehi – “My first few dives were awful, but I didn’t want to give up. I gave the sport and community a chance – and you should too. It might change your life.”

Sushmita –  “Just try it out. It might not happen in one go, but find the people who will support you. Anyone who’s ever told you that you’re not strong enough has lied – don’t listen to them. Strength is not something you have, it’s something you build.”

Vrinda –  “It’s just a matter of trying it out. You might hate it, or you might love it and see your entire lifestyle change around it. It’s just an experience – there’s nothing to lose, only something to gain.”

Many thanks to Vrinda, Sushmita, and Vydehi for being awesome and joining this conversation!

Missed the Live chat? You can find it here.

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