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Telling Women’s Stories

Women are underrepresented in adventure sport, and their stories are not making it in to the media.  Do our favourite outdoor magazines have a responsibility to redress the balance?  Lucy Wallace talks outdoor media and women, in our latest article.  If you’ve got something to say, get stuck in with your comments, at the end of the article.  

It started with a Facebook rant

The TGO awards provided the spark that lit my flame. Just one woman and eight men up for the Personality of the Year Award, and whilst the sole female nominee Nicky Spinks is incredibly worthy of the accolade, is she really the only woman making a splash in the outdoors this year? After venting my feelings on social media, I fired off a terse email to TGO editor Emily Rodway, asking how the shortlist had been selected.

Emily’s reply was informative and probably warmer than I deserved. She agreed that the lack of women in the final shortlist was disappointing and explained that readers and members of the public nominate their favourite people for the the awards. It is a democratic process. Rightly or wrongly, the people had spoken and TGO would honour that. Parallels to world politics aside, I do question the democratic system in this case.  It would be wonderful if in future years TGO could have a men’s and women’s category for this award.

Only 10% Women – Elite Level

After I’d calmed down I started to apply myself to the wider question of women’s representation in the outdoor media.  Coincidentally I attended a conference at Glenmore Lodge on 13th November about women in Adventure Sports. It was an intensely positive experience and I was delighted to meet and work with dozens of amazing women who are pushing their own boundaries and encouraging others to reach their potential too. However, the information we shared was very concerning. Whilst grassroots participation in outdoor activities is growing, representation of women at the elite level is limited and not improving.   An approximate figure I see popping up time and again for participation at this level as both coaches (e.g. climbing, paddling) and performers seems to be around 10%. Whilst NGBs and National Centres have a clear mandate to grow women’s representation, I wonder whether the outdoor media also needs to get its house in order.

Disclosure time- I write kit reviews for a couple of outdoor magazines. My (male) editor is very supportive, and keen to ensure that women are well represented in our publications. But when I step outside my safe editorial bubble in to the media world I see white, middle-aged males everywhere. In essence the outdoor media is run and written by men. It’s also very likely that it is mostly read by men, although the figures are not something that publications are keen to share. Senior female journalists such as Emily Rodway exist, but they are a minority. When women do make it in to the outdoor press it’s often in a format that seems stuck on their femininity.    Even the magazines I write for sometimes describe me as their “female gear reviewer”, whilst my male colleagues are straightforward “gear reviewers”, although we all test unisex equipment as well as gender specific clothing. I’m tired of being a special case. The only girl in the room.  I’m fed up with female athletes being presented in their underwear, and I’m bored of female climbers with kids being interviewed about how they have sacrificed their families for their sport.

I’d like to see the grit and determination of women celebrated in the same way that it is for men.

So let’s get to the point. At the conference last weekend one of the key barriers to participation in adventure sport is the knotty problem of a shortage of role models. And this is where the media has a part to play. Its hard to be a trail blazer, and even more so if your achievements are not being celebrated. If women’s stories aren’t being told, aspiration doesn’t flourish.  Editors may complain that they can only work with the items that come across their desk, but the few women’s voices out there are being buried by a blizzard of press releases promoting male athletes.

I’d like to challenge each and every editor to make a point of seeking out female storytellers. A good way to do this would be to ensure that women are well represented on their writing staff, and that doesn’t mean simply having a token female journalist who reports on women’s activities.

What if that largely male readership don’t want to read about women?

I say give the lads some credit, its 2016! Nicky Spinks’ double Bob Graham round stunned everyone, regardless of gender and we all wanted to know about it. There are women doing interesting, bold and arduous things out there right now, but nobody will get to hear of them.

And what can we, the consumers of this media, do about it?

I’m probably a bore at parties, as I make a habit of calling out sexism wherever I encounter it and if our sexist world bothers you I encourage you to do the same.   I believe that the outdoor press is not deliberately sexist. The sexism is simply so normal that those who make editorial decisions just don’t see it until it is pointed out. I’ve been reading climbing and adventure magazines for twenty years and it feels like the rate of change has been glacial. We should be further along this road by now and the only way to improve things is to speak up.

We must tell editors what we want to read, share stories about women who are pushing boundaries in the outdoors and recognise the strength of our own achievements too.

Lucy Wallace

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