How men can help to empower women in outdoor adventures

women outdoors

I met my husband nine years ago. He was traveling in my home country of Australia and invited me to travel with him. I went. A few days later we found ourselves north of Perth. After breakfast he stood up creating a stir among the flies surrounding him and said “ I am going for a hike”. I asked if I could go with him. He said “ Only if you keep up”. I went and I did. From that day on we became adventure partners. A few years ago we hiked a couple of 14,000 foot peaks together. Not only did I keep up but this time I also got ahead which was rare, John is the stronger hiker. Both times he was altitude sick and when I noticed him falling behind I stopped to wait. He caught up and said “don't wait for me, beat me up the mountain”. I don't have much of a competitive spirit but I appreciated his sentiment, so I went ahead and watched him literally crawl toward me as I basked in the sun on the peak.

I wasn't really raised to be adventurous. When I met John I was only just becoming aware of that side of myself. It was with his unwavering encouragement that I went on to fully realize my adventurous spirit. But it is easy for things to go badly in this sort of relationship. It is easy to be blinded by the desire to see others succeed and get them in over their heads in the process. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Let women set their own goals

There are so many different ways to be adventurous. I always tell my sister that she is more adventurous than me because she has had three kids. In terms of being adventurous in outdoor activities, there are plenty of men and women out there who are happy walking on a paved trail and don't want to go beyond that. Not only is that okay, it is awesome, because they know what they like.

woman climbing

Just like men, women get to say “I like it here and I don't want to go do that”. Pushing someone into doing something is completely opposite to empowerment because it takes their free will out of the equation. I have seen this happen many times, usually because a guy really believes his girlfriend “can” do it. I once witnessed a woman crying halfway up a difficult lead climbing route because her boyfriend who was belaying her refused to let her down. He believed she could do it. Of course she CAN do it, but does she want to? That is something only she can answer and the answer should be respected whether you like it or not.

The difference

If a woman wants to do something but is experiencing a lack of confidence it is important to understand where that lack of confidence often comes from. Many women have gone through their lives with it being implied and/or blatantly stated that they shouldn't or can't do certain activities. As a whitewater raft guide I experience this all the time. I was told I wouldn't be hired by a particular rafting outfitter because he believes that women can not guide. Another time when I was pulling my fully loaded boat off some rocks that I had parked on, a female guest in my boat remarked to her husband how strong I was. He responded by saying that it wasn't as hard as it looks. Because I could do it, it couldn't be that hard, he thought. I experience this sort of discounting of my skills regularly and it can really dig deep into my confidence. I have also developed a thick skin because of it, but I see the negative effects of this attitude in women daily.

woman rafting

Often women and girls who show up to go rafting are really nervous, the irony is that they use that fear and self doubt to paddle as hard as they can and often end up doing a better job than a lot of muscle bound guys. But this self-doubt can also manifest in really self-limiting ways, and women seem to be far less likely to step up and say “I can do that”. Making a mistake or failing can be nerve racking when it feels like others are expecting one to fail because of some pre-determined factor - like being a woman. Positive reinforcement is a great way to combat a life time of can nots, will nots and should nots. The men I raft with are incredibly good at this, even if I am not doing things at the level they can, they celebrate my achievements relative to my experience and comfort level.

Be honest

Celebrating victories is really important to building up self-confidence but this shouldn't come at the cost of a realistic evaluation of someone's skill level. By down playing a woman's mistakes or failures you are really short changing her in the long run. I see this happen in the rafting industry. Sometimes whitewater guide trainers, both male and female, are really excited about getting more women on their staff and as a result they can tend to wash over the mistakes of female trainee guides. If you would tell your male trainee that they messed up you should tell your female trainee the same thing so they too can learn from their mistakes.

At best being dishonest about her capabilities is going to lead to false confidence. At worst it could lead to her getting in over her head and having a really bad experience that ultimately wipes out any true confidence she had.

Empower don't push

woman on a mountain

The more women and girls who participate and succeed in outdoor activities and sports the less footing those confidence eroding stereotypes will have in the minds of budding female outdoor enthusiasts. But it needs to be acknowledged that those stereotypes are still out there. A couple of times when I have told someone that I run a rafting outfitting company with my husband they have asked something along the lines of "so you do the food and your husband guides the boat?".

Men who want to see their female friends, colleagues, employees and partners thrive in what ever activity they choose to take on, can do a lot to help empower those women but it is important to know the difference between empowering and pushing.

Sarah Vardaro

Vice President

River Runners Inc.