In all things, people need role models to remind them of who they can become and what they can achieve. Having role models is essential for all professions, passions, and interests. The need to have someone to model after (and the importance of having a model who looks “like you”) makes perfect sense: It can be hard to imagine being something that you've never been able to look at. It is essential to see outdoor women represented in the media, and to have these women portrayed in a real and authentic way. As aspiring individuals, we can then see and connect to those images and messages and think, “I can do that too.”
I am privileged to be surrounded by role models in both my professional life and in my pursuits for adventure. The outdoors is where I have chosen to push myself to perform better, problem solve, and define who I am as an athlete and person. The outdoors is a special space where role models have shaped, mentored, and guided me as I find my own place in this space. I can remember a time not too long ago when I was first learning how to climb and kayak, a time when social media was not as relevant (and I was much less attached to it), at which point I did not have a strong network, friendships, connections, community nor awareness of too many other females in the outdoor industry. I can now reflect on how this time in my life influenced and shaped how I saw my own future as an adventure athlete in the outdoors and professional in the outdoor industry.
In reflection, the times in my paddling career when I had few female role models manufactured an entirely different opinion of what success looked like as a female paddler: I doubted myself more, made more excuses (I’m not as strong as the guys, not as capable, etc.), and had no real concept of what other females paddlers were capable of and had already achieved.
In a recent study, REI found that 63% of women said they could not think of an outdoor female role model and that 6 out of 10 women said that men’s interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women’s. The 63% of women that could not think of a female role model might not have been able to do so for a few reasons: women are less represented in the outdoor industry overall, and these women may not be aware of the female role models that do exist - and may have no way to connect to these role models.
In many ways, the outdoor industry suffers from many of the same observable issues that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions do. For example, people in these industries that are not a member of the majority may not be aware of what opportunities are available to them, and the perceptions, beliefs and messaging about who is accepted in the industry can be deterring. I am enthusiastic to see that the outdoor industry is making strides to focus more attention to changing the narrative of who is welcome, what they can achieve, and, in general, to show more diversity in outdoor media. The effort overall is a great step toward finding new ways to empower those who have been historically underrepresented in outdoor recreation.
As I observe these types of changes in the outdoor industry, I reflect on times when I saw someone who looked like me in a role that influenced who I am today. These women are often unknown or little-known influencers, but they have the ability to impact other women in ways that they are often unaware of. Sheroes can be a loaded word, but to me, it’s simple to define - a woman who is admired for courage, achievement and honorable qualities - someone who has earned the ability to influence others in a positive way.
Though there are exceptions, the outdoors can feel like a place to opt out of cultural pressures to conform, the “supposed to's” and “shoulds” that underpin outdated stereotypes—and this can be especially true for women. The women who have shaped me have served as a strong part of the narrative in disrupting of the status quo. Over the years, as I have become more aware and educated about my sport, I find that there have been Sheroes in whitewater kayaking all along - pushing boundaries and serving as beacons for other women to look up to and model after.
The opportunities I have had to connect with sheroes in my own sport has had a lot to do with luck, where I live, and other opportunities I have had - including working in the industry as a guide and outdoor educator. The most impactful role models have been those that I have met from friendships and maintained relationships. Conversations with these women turn into stories that are then shared, valued and communicated to other women in and outside of our social circles.
I can remember the first time a female paddler whom I held in high regard - and only knew previously from social media, magazines, and blogs - acknowledged me at a competition. I don’t even remember what was said between the two of us, but I do remember that when she said whatever it was that she did, a massive smile broke out on my face. I felt the camaraderie between us, and before I even realized it, we were sharing stories and paddling together.
It makes our communities better when we share stories of both failure and success with other women in our fields who are trying to make it in the outdoor industry. Our communities become stronger and more connected when those who are seasoned athletes, professionals, or have other positions of leadership and influence take the time to share their own narratives with those who are figuring it out for the first time and with those who are looking around for sheroes of their own.
Women in the Wild is a movement that recognizes the amazing women athletes and enthusiasts who enrich the outdoor community with their passions, inspirations, and accomplishments every day. With support from OluKai, KEEN, and Mountain Hardwear and many more organizations, Outdoor Project is proud to grow this campaign in 2018 and to be a platform for the incredible stories and photography of women throughout our community. From in-depth interviews to female-focused content from the community to phenomenal gear and travel giveaway packages, each and every article is a celebration of the fortitude, strength, and camaraderie that comes with being part of Women in the Wild.