Tell Gender Bias to Take a Hike

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My whole life, I have wanted to spend as much time outdoors as possible.  When I was a kid, that meant riding my bike, playing sports, climbing trees, or just exploring in the Texas Hill Country behind my childhood home.  The only gender stereotype I remember growing up was wishing that dirt bikes that did cool tricks came in a sparkly purple color. Later, when we moved to Montana, my parents took us backpacking as often as they could in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, an adventure that requires every person, no matter their gender, doing their part to keep the group safe, fed, and sheltered (though I do remember my dad secretly taking weight from my mom’s pack and my mom secretly putting it right back). Thanks to my parents, I didn’t start off my love of the outdoors with any notion that it was a boys’ club.


Since then, I’ve been through a few careers, in science, diplomacy, global development, and now the outdoor community.  In every one, I’ve collected my share of #metoo stories. Women and the non-cis-gendered still comprise the minority in high-powered meetings, behind podiums, and in marketing images. Recently, a male representative of an outdoor equipment supplier explained their simplified new catalog to me in these terms -- “even your mom could easily find the right tent stakes.” The bile that rises up from even small incidents like that adds up over time and can eat away at your insides. As anyone close to a baby girl can tell you, these encounters start incredibly early. Shopping for our 9-month-old, all of the adventure-related toys are marketed to boys. Even the boys’ clothes bear words like “roar, climb, adventure,” with images of tents, dinosaurs, and tigers, while the girls are limited to “sweet” kittens and rainbows.  

Here’s the thing about getting outside though.  I have never experienced anything more equalizing than everyone carrying their own weight in their pack or holding their climbing partner’s safety in their belay device.  And there is nothing more empowering or healing than setting out on a difficult trail and making it back to the trailhead bone-tired, sore, and a little blistered. To me, hiking is the perfect way to build up the strength I need to not let all the #metoo moments get the best of me.  If you’ve never spent much time outdoors, hiking is a great place to start -- all it requires is a pair of sneakers and your closest urban footpath.


As a new mother to a daughter and as a female head of an outdoor nonprofit, I feel a tremendous responsibility to help lead the way in eliminating gender biases in the outdoor community, and I am still learning how to do that.  Small things can help -- like making sure that women aren’t interrupted in board meetings or buying the rocket-themed onesie from the boys' section for our daughter. #HikeLikeaGirl2018 isn’t one of the small things -- it’s a big thing.  It encourages girls of all backgrounds to discover and show their own power through hiking. Breathing through winding uphill switchbacks, navigating rocky scrambles, and sharing celebratory selfies at the trailhead teach our girls persistence, teamwork, risk management, and countless other critical life skills.  I could not be more proud to be some small part of it, and I can’t wait to take our daughter on a hike on May 5-6. Gender stereotyping doesn’t have to be the only thing that starts early -- in fact, let’s end that early and instead get out there with the girls in our life and hike just like them.

"#HikeLikeaGirl2018 isn’t one of the small things -- it’s a big thing. " 


Article by Kate Van Waes, Executive Director at American Hiking Society