About a week ago I received a tweet from @WildlifeSamus, with a link to her blog post, questioning the validity of women’s clubs and it gave me food for thought. Why do we have women’s clubs? Here are my thoughts // by Emily Pitts:
Women’s clubs do not mean we climb in a vacuum. You don’t have to sign up for life, in blood, and you don’t have to take part – it’s voluntary – if you don’t like the idea, don’t go. This article will focus on how and why women’s clubs are important for ‘some’ women. Some women want, enjoy and need women’s clubs, and some women don’t. I’m in no way suggesting that climbing should be segregated, simply that there are reasons why women’s clubs exist and that they have value for some women. It is very unlikely that you will climb in isolation at a women’s club – there are always men nearby in the climbing centre or at the crag. I do not hate men and I don’t hate climbing with men; in fact I really quite enjoy climbing with men. The relevance of women’s clubs is about the real life practicalities for all sorts of different women and the function that women’s clubs can have in meeting those women’s needs. Women’s clubs can provide training and support that is tailored to a women’s strengths and they can provide an environment where women feel safe, supported and not in a minority.
I feel that it’s important to question the assertions in the article above that women’s clubs are there because women are weaker than men at climbing and that women-only climbing clubs perpetuate a victim mentality. Girls in the UK outperform boys when they are educated separately. Currently the most successful UK competition climbers are women and the under 18’s are leaning that way too. Is there any reason why women climbers cannot outperform male climbers in the single sex environment created by a women’s club? From my experience at the Manchester Climbing Centre Women’s Club the idea of a ‘victim mentality’ or ‘sorority of weakness’ could not be further from the truth. I have met some of the most inspiring, focused, determined women at the women’s club, with whom I have forged the most remarkable friendships (check out this one if you want a taster). Beth from Womenclimb, who I met through the women’s club, went from leading HVS to leading E3 last summer.
As women we are socially conditioned to be weak and small. Think of all the fad-diet speak…. Lose weight fast, slim down, drop a dress size. There are many fewer mentions of getting strong & building muscle to feel fit and healthy. As a result of this and a whole host of other factors girls do not build muscles, so women aren’t always able to muscle up routes like men do. One widely held belief among women and men is that in order to counteract our relative shortness of stature and relative muscular weakness, women acquire better technique and skills in climbing, enabling us to eclipse men once we do develop the strength and dynamism to overcome any of our other physical shortcomings. Coaching tailored to the biomechanics of a woman’s body will naturally enable us to improve more quickly.
Women climbers are in a minority
The UK population consists of 51% women. The climbing community consists of somewhere in the region of 25% women. Women are generally in a minority of 3:1 when they are at the climbing wall. Despite climbing being what I perceive as a progressive sport with role models like Shauna Coxsey, Fran Brown, Leah Crane, Molly Thompson Smith and Mina Leslie-Wyjastyk featuring much more heavily in the media than their male counterparts, this presence has nevertheless had little effect on equalling out the participation of women in climbing on a day to day basis. It’s natural to feel self-conscious in a room where you’re in a minority, so a women’s club can help mediate the feeling of self-consciousness.
Women can assert themselves
I don’t feel comfortable going to a new climbing wall and asserting myself in a group of men. If that sounds sad, well, yes it is. It is sad that, on the whole, a lot of women do not feel able to assert themselves if they are on their own, possibly in a new environment, within a group of men, for example a bouldering room. Amongst a larger group of women it’s often easier for women to assert themselves and in doing so gain the confidence to assert themselves in other situations in the future.
Women don’t want to be judged
People make judgments about women more often than men based on how they look. A well-known TV presenter wore the same blue suit on TV every day for a year & no one batted an eyelid. His co-host however didn’t get the same treatment, instead receiving ongoing comments and letters about her clothing, her hair and her ‘style’. We are judged. Where this sits in the context of climbing is that sometimes we don’t want to be judged, but perceive that we will be, so going to a women’s club where there will hopefully be less chance of a ‘fat arse’ comment or a ‘nice tits’ comment might be the first step that introduces a woman to the climbing community, so she gets to know that comments like this are very rare at the climbing wall or crag, enabling her to feel some ownership of the space and more comfortable to boulder alone.
Being part of a group enables you to hide if you want to. Sometimes staring is unwanted attention, but people might stare at women for a lot of reasons, for example because our bodies look good – fit, healthy, strong, sweaty, powerful, because our bodies are wobbling, because we’ve got a rip in the bottom area of our trousers (this happened to me at Stanage Edge!). Also part of climbing is looking at each other – watching for ‘beta’, learning new ways of doing things. Staring isn’t all negative, but sometimes it can feel uncomfortable, so a women’s club can help to counteract that by providing a safe space.
I like spending time with women
It stands to reason that I might want to take up a pastime where I get to spend time with and meet other women and to do that a women’s club is helpful. It might be that the people who go to a women’s club will have a bit more in common with me than just finding a random bloke to climb with off UKC.
On the subject of UKC…
UKC, the current go-to website/ online community for climbers in the UK, fulfills an important function for the climbing community. However there is no denying it is absolutely jam packed full of men – with pictures, posts and forums being dominated by men. UKC management have made effort, by taking on Emma Twyford to do some editorials, for example, but it’s still not always a comfortable place to go for climbing information if you’re a woman. For me, going to a women’s club can offer an alternative. It means that I get to meet other women and ask them which cams they prefer or their preferred crag and so on.
An article I wrote for the BMC about setting up a women’s club lists one of the benefits as improving one’s non-climbing skills. While it’s very true that men could also benefit, they are far less likely to need to find ways to evidence their skills because institutional and societal sexism falls in their favour (men don’t take extended periods of time out of work to have children and they are not paid a whole whack less than women for doing exactly the same job). This single benefit is unlikely to be the one thing that makes a woman attend or set up a women’s club, but it might be a positive by product, which surely can’t be negative.
Empirical evidence of women’s views backs up that women want women’s only services. In an August 2007 poll of 1000 commissioned by WRC almost a third of women thought it was important to have the option of women-only sports coaching. 56% of women would choose a women-only gym in contrast to only 28% who would choose a mixed gym and 16% who didn’t know. These are telling figures. Extrapolated to the full population of over 20 million women aged 16-64, that would give six million women who want the option of women-only sports coaching. Other sources of research provide very clear evidence that there are ‘some significant gender differences in the importance of certain sources of sport confidence’, with social support being a more important factor for women than for men. This evidence, I believe, is borne out in the attendance figures at women’s clubs.
On the basis of these points I think that women’s clubs are needed.
Women want them. Women attend them. Women improve at them.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
 In 2006, seven out of the top ten best performing secondary schools were single sex girl’s schools.
 Taken from Jessica Tang’s notes and discussion at Women’s Climbing Symposiumm 2014.
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