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Embrace Equity

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that's diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women's equality - International Women's Day Team

Today is International Women's Day and the theme is 'Embrace Equity'. So we are asking, 'Why aren't equal opportunities enough?'

At Girls on Hills we're often asked (passive aggressively) whether there are other 'sexist' groups like us, that offer courses for men-only. We answer that, as far as we know, there aren't any such groups* - and here's why.

Research shows that compared to men, women experience many 'soft barriers' to access when it comes to mountain recreation. These subtle obstacles stem from historical (and often very physical) barriers which prevented women from engaging in sport, racing, hill-walking, exploration or mountaineering (for example), on account of being regarded the 'fairer' and weaker sex. Today these same barriers have all but disappeared but we are still left with a less obvious cultural bias and a number of inequities that make it more difficult for women to engage with these same activities today. Examples of these include;

  • Concern about personal safety due to being the only woman, alone or out in the dark (i.e. at risk of harrassment)

  • Concern about pace, fitness, ability and 'holding others back'

  • Concern about getting lost (worries about poor navigation skills)

  • Toiletting in the outdoors (in a group setting and 'how to go outside')

  • Managing periods in the outdoors

  • The right clothing and sports-bra (fit, comfort, sweating and body image)

  • Time availability (childcare and caring responsibilities)

  • Financial freedom (equal pay and financial independence) and transport (access to a vehicle, driving long distances and travelling alone).

  • A lack of diversity and inclusivity (not 'looking like' everyone else), aka. representation.

  • Role models and mentors (low numbers of female instructors and male-dominated clubs/events), aka. representation.

  • Low levels of female participation in certain event types and mountain sports (e.g. ultrarunning, mountaineering or winter climbing), aka. representation.

  • Expectations of physical ability (women have less strength, weight, power and endurance in most cases than men, with a performance gap of approximately 15-10%).

  • Low engagement/low confidence in young girls in sport/exercise (often also reduced opportunities), which results in negative early experiences

Sharing a peaceful moment in nature can do wonders for your wellbeing

In the UK at least, women today have the same opportunities as men (very few clubs, societies or events are closed to women), although surprisingly in some instances, this has not long been the case. Creating women-only 'safe spaces' to encourage and support women is not the same as a club or society from which women are banned on account of negative gender stereotypes. The latter is sexism, the former is not. The reason behind why we see still see a significant gender gap in mountain sports is because of the 'soft barriers' above - not opportunity. The gender gap in participation is an irrefutable one - one demonstrated by lots of data! It's not something that can be argued away or denied on the basis of personal experience/observation. To close this gender gap and eliminate the 'soft barriers' is to achieve equity; giving women the same access to opportunities as men.

But how can we achieve this and where to start?

'News reports about women’s prospects seem at the moment to be unendingly bleak: we’ve heard over the last few days that it will take 300 years for women to see gender equality, and that women starting jobs today, will not see pay equality in their working lives. That these stories have broken in Women’s History Month, and just before International Women’s Day, is particularly disappointing' says Kerri Andrews, Principal Investigator of Women In The Hills (an AHRC-funded networking project) and author of Wanderers, A history of Women Walking.

Some of the many faces of the Women in the Hills residential in Glencoe last weekend, hosted by Girls on Hills and full-funded for all participants by the WITH research network.

The Women in the Hills (WITH) research network was launched in 2020, bringing together academics from the University of Newcastle, University of Manchester and Edge Hill University with practitioners and stakeholders to capture and document the factors that have shaped women's experiences in the mountains from the early 1800s to the present day, working to produce a series of guidelines aimed at improving women's access to upland recreation.

The project involved a number of workshops, networking exercises and reports over a 3 year period and culminated in a two day, fully-funded retreat for women from underrepresented backgrounds and those for whom the cost of accessing the hills would otherwise be a barrier. This residential event took place last weekend and was more successful than the project could have hoped! The ladies were provided with diaries and a guestbook to record their experiences by hand throughout the weekend, and participated in a workshop run by author Kerri Andrews. The group also heard from elite veteran athlete Nicky Spinks, who spoke about her humble beginnings as a farmer and her unexpected and gradual progression to international acclaim in the world of mountain running.

Making sense of a new and inspiring landscape with Girls on Hills guide, Nancy

During the day, the women were guided by our female Mountain Leaders at Girls on Hills. We split the group according to experience and aspirations, and delivered three hikes in the stunning Glencoe area - showing the ladies they were capable of more than they had expected and whetting their appetites for more mountain adventures!

In our all-female environment, the conversation on the trail naturally turned to topics like managing periods and toileting in the outdoors, to sports bras and body image. These everyday issues should not feel taboo! It is still so rewarding for our team (who have now been guiding all-female groups for 5 years) to be empowering women with new knowledge, inspiration and motivation, while normalising conversations about our bodies and addressing barriers to access in the mountains.

The WITH weekend has been 'one of the most profound joys of my working life, to be involved in a project seeking to make practical interventions to improve women's chances to enjoy all that the outdoors, the hills and the mountains, have to offer' says project lead Kerri Andrews.

Heading to the hills on the WITH project residential weekend, Glencoe

The project outcomes are yet to be reported but initial feedback has been overwhelming (diaries are still being written and some translated). Here are some lovely examples;

"I felt part of a lovely, supportive group of women. It highlighted the importance of surrounding yourself with like-minded people, who have similar goals to you ; ie. a lovely social walk with a destination pre-agree, ideally with some views. Stopping as and when required" - Maggie

"One barrier for me was my assumptions about my physical capabilities and how limited I thought they were. I loved that this weekend proved me wrong! I have a much higher appraisal of my physical strength and confidence when it comes to moving now. A huge helping factor was the lovely group. I kept thinking to myself that these women all have different age groups, different lifestyles and different experience levels, so if they can do it, I can do it too" - Shams

We look forward to further demonstrating how powerful these kinds of opportunities can be for empowering women and ultimately changing lives through embracing equity outdoors.

*there are a number of men-only charities/communities for dealing with despression and other such male-focused issues, and this is of course entirely appropriate; not 'sexist' in any way.

CREDITS: All photography by Beth Chalmers

Keri Wallace


Girls on Hills

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