Before getting into detail about gender socialization, and the many variables that affect women’s decision to participate in outdoor activities, I would first ask you to close your eyes and picture the last extreme outdoor commercial or video that you witnessed. Most likely the flashback that you just had involved men participating in some form of outdoor activity. I recently attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival at the Playhouse, which featured the best outdoor enthusiasts and environmentally conscious films from the past year, all of which lacked women’s involvement. I contribute my observation to the recent classes in gender that I have attended, which have opened my eyes to how few women there are who participate or facilitate outdoor activities.
A prime example is our local Tree-Go in Mactaquac, which includes an outdoor aerial adventure course run by males. It is not that the company only allows male employees, there is just a lack of female interest. Could it be fear, social pressures or just DNA that intimidates women from participating and leading outdoor activities? An article published in 2006, underlines studies and other written work in an attempt to explain women’s lack of desire to push their boundaries in the outdoors. The article indicates that there are technical outdoor skills that are described as “the process of manipulating equipment to accomplish a physical task in the outdoors” (Warren & Loeffler, 2006), which are intimidating to women.
It is my opinion that societal influences play a large role in how women and men perceive outdoor activities. It begins at a young age, when boys and girls are classified into two different gender groups, they are placed into activities that emphasize their differences and teach them stereotypical characteristics. A prime example of gender socialization that occurs with youth activities is the Boys and Girl Scouts Organization. In 2004 the United States provided both Scouts programs with handbooks, where gender influences can be observed on both their covers. The cover of the Boy Scouts handbook displays boys white water rafting and men mountain climbing, whereas the Girl Scouts version has a collage of feminine articles such as ballet slippers, sewing machine, clothing, art supplies and a compass.
It is these types of images and activities that influence females in believing that they are traditionally required to become domesticated. Warren and Loeffler (2006) indicate that a feminist approach to the lack of women’s participation in outdoor activities is contributed to a “historically hegemonic male-based system of outdoor adventure education”. Within society gender appropriate behaviors in children are continually praised, whereas gender inappropriate behaviors, such as female participation in male sports is socially penalized. Females are socialized as the weaker sex and when they do have the capabilities to outperform men, they are ostracized and accused of emasculating men.
Is it possible that history plays a role in where we choose to participate in physical activity? After all the outdoors has always been men’s territory, as it was their duty to hunt, build and use the great outdoors to provide for their family. My inquires regarding women and our choices for physical activity come from the development of my views on gender since I was a child. Growing up in a traditional nuclear family, which consisted of a stay-at-home mom, a working dad and a little sister, our gender roles were stereotypically defined. Both my sister and I participated in female sports, and helped mom with household duties, although we rarely had the choice or the desire to pursue more “male activities”. It was not until my late teens that outdoor activities became an interest. I have realized that there are few females who are willing to spend time outdoors, and learn physically demanding skills in order to do things without a male present.
Warren, K., & Loeffler, T. A. (2006). Factors that influence women’s technical skill development in outdoor adventure. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 6:2, 107-119. doi: 10.1080/14729670685200791