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An Introspection of the State of Gender Equality in Climbing

An Introspection of the State of Gender Equality in Climbing

HoldBreaker Team |

A disclaimer: There are numerous flourishing and diverse climbing communities that exist across the world, but most communities seem to mirror sexist behaviours. Clearly, my experiences do not reflect the experience of all individuals, and pertain to the communities of which I have been a part.


I walked with anticipation towards the mezzanine, inhaling the dust-covered mist shrouding every surface in sight. As I turned left into the room, multiple men turned around in synchrony, curious as to whom would be joining them, some appearing puzzled. It felt all too familiar, almost unsuitably comforting, stepping into another male dominated domain. I had just begun my PhD in Computer Science, having been familiar with male-dominated fields (one with an abysmal 15% female participation at that) and the intimidation, emotional labour, and consequences associated with them; I thought, how much worse could a community of nature- and rock-loving enthusiasts really be? Surprisingly, the answer to this question was indeed more complex than I had anticipated.

On its surface, the community paints an image of a utopia in which rock-climbing is a centrefold, and in which neither occupation, age, sex, gender, race, nor class are of importance or value. The lack of diversity in the sport was a sure counterexample to this facade, and its mantra too closely mimicked the falsehoods of meritocracy (1. Meritocracy: the great delusion that ingrains inequality). It was clear that, like in many other fields, those with better abilities were granted more respect and adoration. Furthermore, the opportunity of climbing is something that's not afforded to many, and those in pursuit of the sport are often in a privileged position (2. Feeling guilt and shame while enjoying the outdoors). But I digress, and shamelessly confess that as a novice, I was so intimately in love with climbing that I gave the community the benefit of the doubt and approached it with optimism.

Despite noticing the blaring lack of diversity, and the occasional remark from a man that I was “half-decent”, my years as a novice went by without further introspection. But as I began to climb more skilfully, with increased training and higher grade achievements, I immediately noticed a troublesome pattern: increased expertise being faced with increased hostility, a pattern often displayed in other male-dominated fields (and particularly in my experiences within Computer Science). In hindsight, there were many more experiences that revealed the sexism ingrained within our community, but when I was a novice, it was often difficult to distinguish patronising behaviours from guidance offered. As I progressed, hostility increased from both men and women, and unsettling sexist behaviours unravelled themselves before me at the climbing centre daily, including:

1) When succeeding on a climb that others were unable to complete, being told that it's my weight, height, finger size, flexibility, anything BUT my climbing ability, that had allowed me to complete it.
2) When male climbers shadow my every move, and persist to attempt to climb every route I touch, whether or not it was within their abilities (a pattern which I have jokingly dubbed “the mensquito effect”).
3) When speaking to others about beta, routes, or even small talk, and being purposely ignored as if to invalidate my presence (surprisingly occurring with more women than men).
4) When attempting a more difficult climb and being politely directed to “easier” climbs, as if I were unaware of grade levels.
5) Whenever my climbing abilities are praised followed by the phrase “for a woman”.

Heidi climbing

The list can surely go on. Although unsurprised by the way many men behaved, I was particularly taken aback by women exhibiting said hostile behaviour. In many settings that I've been a part of, a nagging presence of competitive tension between women lingered, with a lack of camaraderie and support system among many. Although sexism is prevalent in all aspects of society, and is perpetuated by both men and women, I had difficulty understanding why the behaviour of many women startled me. Was it un-feminist of me to hold women to a higher regard? Was their behaviour truly a side-effect of sexism?

One event last year that allowed me to resolve my confusion, and indeed revealed that my experiences were not an anomaly, but in fact a systemic issue prevalent within the climbing community, was the Women’s Climbing Symposium. The WCS is an event which “aims to positively impact people’s climbing with activities that connect, develop and inspire”. In fact, in 2016 WCS was recognised by the Women's SportTrust awards “for raising the visibility and increasing the impact of women’s sport”. Yet ironically, this event oozed of sexist behaviour and language, often promoting negative stereotypes regarding women. I wrote about the sexist language and themes that undermined the messages of the event in an Instagram post (3. Link to Instagram post) and was surprised by the enormous feedback from other women climbers who passionately agreed. Despite the fact that the speakers simply made jokes about “hating” other women, this language implicitly promoted the idea that it’s perfectly natural to resent other women who may threaten one’s position. Being competitive in, well, a competition is quite natural, but note that the same hostile language and undertones would not be present in men's conversation under the same circumstances. Whether or not intended, the language of the most influential female figures in our community certainly perpetuates sexism further.

The paradox had indeed revealed itself: Climbing is arguably one of the most feminist acts a woman can take on, breaking the barrier of physical prowess and gender stereotypes, but even the most talented women leaders in our community perpetuate the competitive stereotypes among women and utilise unintentionally sexist and harmful language. Although men have an equal (and arguably greater) liability in addressing sexism, women in our community should not be absolved from this responsibility. In many other male-dominated fields, support structures have been constructed to educate, reform, and promote gender equality, often begetting social change and movement (4. Stop Driving Women out of Computing). Yet the same movements have clearly been lacking in the climbing community, despite evident sexist behaviours from men and women.

Indeed, it is surprising that such an empowering sport has yet to address sexism and inequality on a systemic scale, as eradicating sexist behaviours and beliefs reaches beyond the mitigation of unsavoury comments I and other hobbyists experience. It would also allow for breaching the gender disparity present for women with careers and livelihoods in our community through addressing socio-economic inequalities that stem from side effects of sexism. Although this may seem like a daunting and abstract task, even understanding the most basic feminist terminology can provide one with novel ways to articulate, address, and discuss the sexism prevalent in all levels of our community.


Sexism, Feminism, and micro-what?

What is sexism? And what is feminism, anyhow? There are numerous resources (and disinformation) that exist about this particular topic, as the discussion of feminism and sexism has often been highly controversial. Given my involvement with many organisations promoting gender equality in Computer Science, and prior education in the theory of feminism through my second degree in Philosophy, I gathered some foundational feminist terminology that I believe is essential to define and understand in order to move forward with this conversation:

Sexism: Generally, the term sexism refers to discrimination against a person or a group of persons based on their sexual features. However, the term is most commonly used to address discrimination against women based on her sexual features in the context of an unequal and discriminatory society. As although sexism towards men is possible, it is usually women who are marginalised. It’s crucial to note that is it not men alone that can be sexist; internalised sexism refers to the sexist stereotypes of or behaviour towards women from other women.

Feminism: The belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. Yes, it is as simple and sensible as that. The Feminist movement is greatly misconstrued in not only mainstream media, but also modern society. Generally speaking, feminists can be compared to political theorists in the sense that there are many movements and ideologies aimed at empowering demographics that are disenfranchised, and too often many associate Feminism with female supremacy (when it certainly isn’t). Feminism is not a monolithic ideology, and what constitutes equality and how it can be established is often disagreed and debated over. Here (5. Schools of Feminist Thought.) is an excellent article giving a brief summary of each of these differing schools of thought. If you’re interested in a more comprehensive reading, I highly recommend Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction by Rosemarie Tong. There are many reasons why the term “Feminism” is used rather than “Egalitarianism”. I gave an example of one in my post here (6. Link to instagram post).

Micro-aggressions are small, subtle, often subconscious actions that marginalise people in oppressed groups (e.g., women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ etc.). These actions are “statements, or incidents regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group such as a racial or ethnic minority.” Micro-aggressions often seem insignificant when each instance is considered in isolation, however, the cumulative effect of their daily occurrence against people in marginalised groups amounts to an unmistakeable environment of discrimination. They convey a distinct message that one is not "normal"; that you are lesser-than or do not belong. The comments I’ve received on a daily basis in my climbing centre are an example of micro-aggressions. In general, it’s difficult for marginalised groups to explain the significance of micro-aggressions, as it is difficult to convey their relative frequency compared to the experiences of privileged people. It is usually the case that privileged people (see below) come up with plausible alternative explanations for any one micro-aggression, and although well-intentioned, dismisses and diminishes the experiences of those marginalised.

Privilege: Describes a set of advantages, or a lack of disadvantages, enjoyed by a majority group, who are usually unaware of the privilege they possess. A privileged person is not necessarily prejudiced as an individual, but their lack of awareness regarding the struggle of marginalised groups may lead them to perpetuate sexism or micro-aggressions. All humans possess various extents of privilege, with men in general being more privileged than women. A useful guide on privilege and how it can be utilised to promote those in marginalised groups can be found here (7. Check my what?).

Intersectional feminism: Wikipedia accurately defines it as “an analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalised in society. Intersectionality considers that various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, creed, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are interwoven together.” Although I’ve largely targeted sexism thus far, I’ve previously noted that the climbing community lacks diversity in all respects (race, gender, class, etc.). We thus must be aware of “intersectionality”, and although beyond the scope of this post (but do check out (8. Link to Instagram post) on thoughtful commentary regarding this subject), we as a community should additionally consider the lack of representation and participation of other marginalised groups in climbing, as after all, these very inequalities often arise from the same roots from which sexism stems.

And finally…

Patriarchal society, a.k.a., the Patriarchy: Describes the general societal structure in which men have power over women. Note that power is related to privilege, thus a patriarchal society consists of a male-dominated power structure witnessed throughout organised society and in individual relationships. In a system in which men have more power than women, men have some level of privilege to which women are not entitled, leading to widespread sexism and the social, economic, and political inequality of women.

Consolidating the gender disparity in professional climbing

If you are merely a climbing hobbyist, like I am, discussing an arduous topic such as sexism and feminism may seem fairly unfit for a sport most do for leisure. But for those women pursuing professional careers in our community, more is as stake than ever before. The recent explosive participation in climbing (9. Climbing has gone from niche sport to worldwide sensation. What is its dizzying appeal?), and it being in the limelight of the 2020 Olympics, entails an expansion of career opportunities and profit (10. Peak profits: The business of rock climbing). Yet the infamous pay gap persists for women in the outdoors industry (11. 8 Top Women Athletes on the Pay Gap in Action Sports) and no, the general gender pay gap is absolutely not a myth, see (12. Don't Believe These 5 Myths About the Gender Pay Gap)(13. No, the Gender Pay Gap Is Not a Feminist Myth). Furthermore, the lack of female leadership presence is not only concerning, but mirrors the gender imbalance present in all fields. Whether a male- or female-dominated field, those in leadership positions are consistently male, and numerous demographics demonstrate that the available spaces which women can occupy are significantly limited (14. Women still underrepresented in Fortune 500 leadership roles). Climbing, of course, does not deviate from this trend.

Beyond dollar signs themselves, the reputations and even the capabilities of women have been endlessly questioned and scrutinised, both on a hobbyist and professional level. As in most male-dominated fields, the success and capabilities of women in climbing have been unceasingly undermined by prejudice, despite the incessant adoration displayed for their male counterparts. As discussed in (15. Can't Keep Her Down: A Consolidated History of Women’s Climbing Achievements), the achievements of women have consistently been described with dismissive undertones, seeking the erasure of their conquests from the historical narrative of climbing. Lynn Hill herself has detailed (16. Link to Lynn Hill post) the extent to which she’s experienced sexism. Despite being a fundamental figure in our community, her famous free ascent of the nose was dismissed by many as a mere success “apparently hinged on midget hands”.

More recently, the debate regarding first female ascents has taken the forefront of this discussion, as rock climbing is one of the few sports in which men and women participate on an equal footing. As stated in this article (17. The Curse of the First Female Ascent) “the First Female Ascent is a paradox—it’s at once pushing women forward and simultaneously holding them back”. To add to the complexity of this issue, grade benchmarking and rating standards have been explicitly developed according to the morphology of men. In “Dude Grades: A Look at Sexism in Climbing Grades” (18. Dude Grades: A Look at Sexism in Climbing Grades), Moore dives into a detailed view of how the grading systems favour the participation and physiology of men, often belittling abilities or climbs that would favour a woman’s physiology. Despite this, women have climbed nearly as hard as men, merely two grades below the hardest routes achieved by fewer than a handful. There is no doubt that women are as good, if not better (imagine a female-dictated grade system!), yet our abilities are questioned whether it be through micro-aggressions experienced in the climbing centre, or through an FFA. And although complex, one thing is clear regarding these issues: it is the reputation of women that is at stake as they are consistently measured against a male standard, and never the contrary.

Indeed, rock-climbing is not the utopia that I had envisioned it to be, but the feminist act of merely participating in a male-dominated sport is simply not enough. Professional women need to be provided with: equal opportunity and pay to their male counterparts, access to and participation in lucrative businesses arising from the rapid expansion of our community, and equal recognition and respect. Despite some female climbers recognising these issues as real and visceral, there is a lack of action to address the present inequality, not to mention the perpetuation of sexism that harms women in our community. Contrarily, if we provide an active and supportive thriving environment for women, in which we see others’ success as a gate to our own, then not only will we eliminate pesky sexist comments from our local centre, but also allow for female professionals to reach their fullest potential. Being aware of feminism and its terminology is a first step to combatting sexism, but organising events, communities, and support structures that reinforce the empowerment and equality of women is the key to providing equal opportunity for all. The time to begin is now.


Women's Bouldering Festival - Photo by Andy Day

Women's Bouldering Festival


Name: Heidy Khlaaf
Location: London, UK
Instagram: @hak90
Twitter: @heidykhlaaf
Website: heidyk.com

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