For many women in the outdoors, it’s the small things. The comments. The looks. The unsolicited advice, stupid jokes and expectations of incompetence.
Of course, there is overt sexual harassment. But more often than not, said veteran raft guide Leah Hillbrand, it’s more “subtle.”
“You’re trying to get them down a class V rapid and at the same time deal with their advances,” she said of guiding customers in West Virginia.
It’s that culture that a film festival coming to Eastern Washington University hopes to highlight and incrementally change. On Friday, 13 films will be shown at EWU’s Riverpoint Campus as part of the “No Man’s Land” touring film festival. The all-female adventure films aim to connect and highlight women in the outdoors. The films will be followed by a panel discussion.
The timing of the festival couldn’t be more appropriate, said Madison Ellington, the outdoor program coordinator at EPIC and a member of the planning team that brought the festival to Cheney.
“I just think it’s something that is already being talked about,” she said. “There are a lot of issues with sexual harassment in the media right now.”
Hillbrand, who is now the program coordinator for EPIC Adventures at EWU is one of the five panelists.
“Anything we can do to further promote women in the outdoors and get people involved is something we’re … passionate about,” Hillbrand said.
She added, “It tends to be a white male dominated industry.”
And while outdoor pursuits may be stereotyped as a male dominated domain, that’s hardly the case. In fact, Summer Hess argues that was never the case.
“For a long time the outdoors wasn’t necessarily about recreation,” Hess said. “It was either a religious experience or it was about farming and surviving. But in those two ways women actively participated.”
She added, “I think more than anything we’ve inherited this narrative that women haven’t been active in the outdoors.”
According to the 2017 Outdoor Participation Report 54 percent of outdoor participants six years and older were men. 46 percent were female.
Hess, the managing editor of Out There Outdoors also helped bring the touring film festival to Spokane. She will moderate the panel discussion, too.
“My experiences are largely positive,” she said. “I think most men are very very supportive and attempt to treat women as equals but the thing about it is we all have implicit biases.”
By having a panel discussion after the film, Hess hopes to “equip women with strategies for if, or when, they find themselves in the position of being judged less competent.” Additionally she hopes men reflect on the way they interact with women in the outdoors.
“It takes all of us showing up and having difficult and really rich conversations,” she said.
As part of that conversation Hess invited a father-daughter duo, Ivy and Arden Pete. Both are rock climbers. Arden, who started climbing in 1995, said from the very beginning he noticed that the gender dynamic in climbing was different than in other sports. In fact, at the time the strongest climber in the world was Lynn Hill, a woman.
“When I first got into climbing I really noticed how equal it was,” he said. “I could spend time alone with a female without (any expectation of) hitting on her. It was really freeing that I could double my friend base.”
Ivy, Arden’s daughter, has had similar experiences. She’s been climbing since she was born (she’s 14) and appreciates how inclusive the sport is. And how men and women compete alongside each other.
“I always feel really welcome because it’s not just a strength thing or a gender thing,” she said.
The difference is particularly stark when compared to other sports. Lacrosse, for example, is a very gender separated activity, one that is “sanitized” for girls, she said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. It’s especially important for men to consider how they interact with women and whether or not they’re excluding, Arden said. That’s something he hopes to keep working on.
Holly Weiler, another panelist, said she hopes Friday’s event connects women and allows them to compare notes and learn from others because “we’re all experiencing it.” Weiler is the Washington Trails Association’s Eastern Washington coordinator and a hiking leader for the Spokane Mountaineers.
When she started in the outdoors she hesitated to go on solo trips. Partly that was a skill and experience issue. But also at play was the stereotype that women can’t, and shouldn’t, go on solo trips.
“I have a feeling that men don’t get, ‘Aren’t you scared’ quite as much as women do,” she said. “When a lot of society is telling you that this is a dangerous thing to do, at some point you start to buy in to it.”
She’s overcome that and is confident in her ability and outdoor skills.
But that doesn’t stop the comments and assumptions. Recently, she said, she was trying to summit Mount Spokane’s eight peaks in a weekend. She had a large backpack full of extra clothes, food and supplies for the winter expedition. As she was leaving the CC Cabin after eating lunch a man approached her.
“A guy behind me said, ‘Whatcha got there, your makeup bag?’ ” Weiler said. “I wanted to hit him with it. It’s just this idea that if a woman has a large backpack it must mean she over packed.”
Weiler ended up just shaking her head and leaving.
But, she believes those comments add up and discourage women from getting involved in the outdoors. Weiler hopes the stories on Friday help dispel the myth and empower women to get outside.
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