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At the intersection of gender, outdoor recreation, and environmental leadership

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

Outdoor recreation and my life in the environmental sector have always gone hand in hand. I learned to scuba dive for the primary purpose of identifying coral species and measuring the growth of a reef. I surf and eat fish, so I advocate for clean rivers and oceans and sustainable fisheries management. I vote for the protection of wild areas- not to exclude people- but to provide us access to nature because I want to spend all my weekends hiking into that peace.

So you see how recreation and environmentalism are intimately tied to each other and so are their institutions. It’s not a surprise that organizations like Trout Unlimited exist; when people are truly and deeply invested in outdoor recreation for pleasure and/or food, they often become advocates by default. It’s not a surprise that our parks agencies are called “parks AND recreation”, and they seem to want more and more people to go camping and hiking—because we know that in the long term if people use their parks they will vote to preserve them.

What I didn’t realize until recently, is how gender-blind environmental and recreation institutions and communities can be. For example, I’ve been snowboarding for 15 years, and was skiing for 10 years prior to that. I ride with my dad, my brother, my sister, her husband, my husband, my friend’s husband, my husband’s buddy- see a trend? This January was the first time I found a community of women to ride with through Girls Riders Organization. 552 women gathered for their largest event ever at Stevens Pass and we may have even set a Guinness world record that day.

So when I attended the Big Tent Rally for outdoor recreation in Washington, I was extremely disappointed to find a line up of eight white men on the speaker list. This is a representation of the historically most dominant demographic in outdoor recreation, but it’s really not providing the whole picture.

Perhaps it was an oversight that Representative Tana Senn was not on the main website advertising the event, perhaps she was added to the lineup only recently. Whatever it was, making a show of adding in her presence at the last minute appeared to be gender tokenism– when a woman is invited after an event has been planned, and/or asked to speak on behalf of all women. This is not enough. Gender parity means 50% representation of women, and that should be an immediate and achievable goal for our sector.

I’m asking one thing of men in outdoor recreation and the environmental sector today: if you are invited to an event as a speaker in a series or on a panel, tell the event planners that you will not attend unless women are legitimately represented on the stage. There’s even a pledge you can take which over 400 men have signed.

Washington is missing out because we are not sufficiently empowering women in outdoor recreation. It’s a death by a thousand cuts. When women don’t see themselves sufficiently represented at an industry gathering like Big Tent, the message is sent that we are not welcome, our interests are not important, and our spending dollars are not needed.

If I want to attend an all women’s surf camp, I’d have to go to Oregon. If I want to participate in an all women surf competition, I’d have to go to Tofino, B.C. This is not because Washington is lacking in women water athletes, it’s because we are looking for supportive communities to grow our skills, businesses, and organizations, and if we have to travel out of state for that, so be it.

The environmental sector also seems to overlook women’s market power. Women drive consumer spending in the sector- from choosing organic produce, to choosing non-toxic household cleaners and BPA free baby bottles. Where and how we spend our free time with our families is crucial to the success of the outdoor recreation industry, and so far, the male-dominated industry seem to have only figured out how to make pink camo.

There are many reasons women have to carve out their own spaces in recreation and environment, the primary one of which is because we aren’t being supported in all male spaces. That’s really unfortunate, because girls who play sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. It sounds counterintuitive at first, but if we really do want more women in tech, we need to empower girls to get outdoors.

And if you were wondering whether this oversight of the environmental movement is also about race, ethnicity, and income, of course it is. Because gender intersects with these other parts of our identity and how we are treated by society, so you can’t untangle them from each other. For example, Latinas face discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, and gender. You may have heard that the gender wage gap is 78%. Except that statistic is for white women. Latina women fare the worst in the gender wage gap at 46%, and an average annual income of $28,000 in Washington State. In addition, young Latinas have the highest birth rate at 2.4 children per woman. Can you raise two or three children on $28,000? So when we talk about the environmental movement of tomorrow and the need to get youth involved, we have to address multiple disparities. I’d suggest that Latinas and their children be a priority for the sector.

I hope EcoWomen readers today can take this opportunity to reflect on the demographics of their workplace and environmental community. I hope you can ask the men you work with to take the pledge for women, so we can take a step forward. And when you find yourself in a position of power and privilege at a table making decisions about the environment, look around, and start asking, “who isn’t here?” Remember that women are not a homogenous group, so having just one woman at the table is simply not sufficient.

Start having the conversations and make institutional changes to empower an environmental movement more representative of America today. Publicly support, volunteer for, and help fund the growing work of Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, SheJumps, Asian Outdoors, Black Surfers Collective. Submit your employer’s demographics to Green 2.0. Assign a budget to do workshops with Center for Diversity & the Environment. Empower youth through access to water recreation with direct service like Warm Current. Having an all white male dominated recreation & environment sector isn’t in our best interests. Let’s be the change.

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