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Are we telling enough women’s stories?

Written by Fiona

January 03 2017

Lucy Wallace has written about Telling Women’s Stories. She feels there needs to be more media coverage of women adventurers. I agree with some of her points, but not with others. I wanted to add my thoughts to the debate. I have also added a few photos of great female adventurers and outdoors athletes to this article.

Lucy writes about what she sees as the under-representation of women in adventure sport, especially at elite level, and coverage of their stories in the media. I think these are two distinct areas. First, the actual number of women at high levels in adventure sports and, second, the telling of their stories.

I am not sure about the facts and figures of the first point. I have certainly seen a huge rise in the numbers of women participating in sport in general over the last decade, including walking, cycling, running, ultra running, climbing, kayaking, open water swimming, triathlon, skiing and snow boarding etc.

Lucy agrees, saying that “grassroots participation in outdoor activities is growing”. But she believes the “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%”.

Lesley McKenna is one of Scotland’s most celebrated snowsports professionals. She now helps to inspire youngsters through snowboard coaching at elite level.

An apparent lack of growth at more elite level would mean that there are few role models for girls and other women to follow in the outdoors. I am not convinced this is true, however.

In my work, I see many more women participating at higher levels in a wide range of adventure sports, including ultra running, climbing, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, BMX biking and road and track cycling. (As I will point out further on in this article, I have also seen more coverage of these women in various places, especially in recent years.)

I have interviewed, met and written about many women who are doing extraordinary things in outdoors pursuits and adventure. I know the balance is not yet equal between men and women but, over the last decade, it has become far less of a gender gap.

I think there are many more female mountain guides, coaches, instructors and professionals, too, compared to previous decades.

I doubt that it’s only me that is writing about these women adventurers and leaders although I do take the point that some of the more mainstream titles do not feature as many women as they could. (See below for a few possible reasons.)

High achieving climber, Nat Berry.

The TGO awards list

Lucy has chosen the example of the TGO magazine (The Great Outdoors Magazine) and, in particular, a list of nominees for Personality of the Year, which was very male focused. It was – and that is disappointing, given that other awards lists feature many women.

I wonder if this is most likely a reflection of the TGO readership, rather than an example of the widespread under-representation of adventurous women at elite level?

I expect the readership is male dominated. Also, because TGO focuses mainly on walking, it’s likely the nominees are more restricted in terms of pursuits.

In the outdoors these days, there is so much more going on across so many pursuits. There are many fabulous women and many fabulous men doing all kinds of pursuits, and not just walking. There are still more men than women enjoying time outdoors, that’s true, but this is changing rapidly.

I am sure these numbers will continue to grow but we started from a very male dominated tradition and that means it will take time.  I believe it will follow that there will be an increasing number of women taking their sports to higher levels, too.

Top mountain biker and one of the founders of the Adventure Syndicate, Lee Craigie.

Of course, there is another big concern (in my mind) and that focuses on financial support of these elite sports people. This is true for both men and women today and if there is a lack of funding and sponsorship, regardless of gender, it will prove difficult for adventurers to pursue their sports and dreams.

I know this to be true of many outdoors sports people, both male and female, because I am frequently told about it by them.

Press coverage of female adventurers

Lucy has also questioned the coverage of female adventurers in the media, including, I presume newspapers, magazines and on-line.

In general, I would agree that many elite adventurers find it tough to gain media coverage. I know this because I have talked to these people many times and they are often grateful for even the smallest blog or a mention in the press.

But is it true that the balance of stories is weighted firmly against females? I am not sure about this.

I worked as a commissioning editor on a national newspaper for many years and I now write about and commission many stories about male and female athletes. I would say there has been a considerable growth in the number of female stories being written in the media.

There are many new outlets as well, such as clothing brand blogs, news feeds and communities, women’s magazines and websites, that are growing their coverage of adventurous and outdoors women.

Karen Darke MBE boasts an impressive adventuring CV and is a British paralympic cyclist, paratriathlete and author.

I know there are still many more men than women participating in adventure sports so it’s obvious there will still be more stories about men so perhaps that is why there is, as Lucy writes, “a blizzard of press releases” promoting male athletes.

To me, when judging the value of a story, I consider not whether it’s male or female but whether it’s a story that inspires, excites and reveals something new and exciting.

Personally, through a blizzard of press releases, I do not find it difficult to weed out the good stories from the poor ones. I look for quality rather than frequency. I think that is true of most of the journalists and editors I know and work with.

The state of the mainstream press

In my opinion, the problem is not a bias by editors but the lack of freelance budgets on most mainstream publications. And this focuses on the second point that Lucy writes about: “The telling of the stories about women adventurers.”

Lack of freelance budgets means that all kinds of great stories, both in the outdoors and other subject areas, are regularly overlooked for cheaper, easily written items.

The staff journalists do their best on the whole but they are strapped for time. And without the eyes and ears of freelancers, it’s hard to cover the wide diversification of stories that the newspapers would really like to do.

So, this means there is inevitably a poorer coverage of women adventurers and great outdoors women, just like there is poorer coverage of all kinds of topics.

Di Gilbert (@digilbertclimbs) is an in-demand mountaineering guide and climbing instructor; has climbed the world’s seven highest summits; and launched the SkiMo series in Scotland.

Lucy suggests some of the problem is to do with there being, in her opinion, too many male editors. She writes: “… in the media world I see white, middle-aged males everywhere”. And: “In essence, the outdoor media is run and written by men.” She adds: “Senior female journalists such as Emily Rodway exist, but they are a minority.”

It’s true, I think, that there are more males than females working in the media. Although I have no hard facts for this statement. It could be that, in fact, the plethora of women’s magazines means there are more women than men overall. I am not sure.

However, in my experience, I have not found the gender of the commissioning editor to be a problem. Most male commissioning editors are open to a great story rather than specifically a great male story.

As a woman I regularly write in a variety of publications, both outdoors focused and mainstream, and I have been commissioned many times to write about amazing outdoors women.

In my experience, too, I have worked with lots of female commissioning editors, even if they are not in charge overall of the publication. Although, there does appear to be a growth in the number of female editors and journalists, as well as women-only sports and fitness magazines.

I’m not saying it’s as good as it should be but I have rarely encountered an editor, male or female, who has judged a story on gender rather than quality and newsworthiness.

Actually, in my career in the newspapers, there have been more women than men in commissioning positions. The problem, I think, is more to do with a lack of freelance budgets.

The coverage of most outdoors stuff is lacking in the press anyway – and has been for a long time. However, here and there, this is changing – and for the better. The Scottish press now covers the outdoors to a greater extent.

I have had an outdoors column in the Sunday Mail, Scotland’s biggest selling newspaper, for many years and write about inspiring people, both men and women.

The Scotsman and Herald both have dedicated outdoors sections. The Scots Magazine launched an outdoors section a couple of years ago.

Male cycling mags frustrations

Lucy’s point about male editors and bias has happened to me in one specific area of the media, however: Cycling magazines. Two editors have annoyed me in recent years when they told me they do not include as many articles portraying women, or women in photos, or female gear reviews because the men wouldn’t like it. They said their readership is mainly men so why would they want to upset their readers?

I think this is ridiculous for many reasons, including the fact that if there was a better balance of male and female coverage in cycling, more female readers might want to read the magazine. Would it really put off the men?

I also agree with Lucy when she writes: “I say, give the lads some credit, it’s 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.”

However, who knows? Perhaps this has allowed for a growth of female specific sports magazines and that is a good thing?

Indeed, I have seen a good quality female specific cycling magazine launch recently and I did wonder if this was due to the male bias in other cycling mags.

I have to say I prefer publications that offer both male and female stories but maybe other readers don’t.

Also, in a tough market for magazines it seems obvious that editors will stick to the tried and tested if they have decent readership. It’s a sad truth but if they are trying to keep owners happy they will do what they know works rather than trying something they are not sure about. I think that quite often the editor’s hands are tied, rather than it being a lack of imagination.

A question of femininity

I am not sure that I agree that most of the stories about female adventurers are “stuck on their femininity”, as Lucy writes. She states: “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.”

Lou Reynolds is a highly regarded mountain leader and ski instructor.

I do still see this kind of coverage in the (mostly tabloid) press, too, but I think it’s much decreased. The people who write the stories are far more balanced in their gender approach I think. This is the 21st century after all!

As a journalist, I would never, for example, ask a women and not a man about the impact of their sport on their family life. It’s not just about being a mum, but also about being a dad. The question is valid in some cases though.

I have seen women in their underwear in magazines, but also lots of guys, too! I don’t agree with either but I don’t think it’s all about the sexiness of women because handsome men also gain coverage as well.

If it’s female kit that is being reviewed it’s usually pretty obvious by the shape and colours (let’s not get on to the pinkifying of kit topic here!) but I don’t see much harm in being labelled female kit or male kit.

Lucy does have a point that she is called the female gear reviewer but only if you read it as such. You could think: Lucy is the reviewer of female gear. Then again, it’s probably not necessary to label it.

In fact, perhaps I could be accused by the men of writing too much about female kit and using my own femininity to sell my blog and its stories. I’d argue, however, that I am a woman and it’s fairly obvious that I’ll be testing gender specific clothing.

Many women do come to me with their adventure stories, perhaps because I’m a female journalist, but many men want me to write their stories, too.

I do not consider gender to matter as an editor or writer. It’s always about a good story.

The general state of the outdoors media

Overall, I think that many of the good quality outdoors mags do a pretty good job, to be honest. The editors, in the main, are smart, considered and print stories based on merit rather than gender appeal. It’s my experience that they are as likely to consider a great female focused adventure story as a male one, and they are also as willing to publish my by-line as a man’s by-line.

I have seen a rising quality of outdoors blogging in general and an increased coverage of women in the outdoors.

I would prefer that women are not being reported on simply to balance the male-female coverage. A good story should be based on merit and quality and not whether it gives a bit more coverage to women.

The question of whether we should highlight women as women in the great outdoors will depend on the story. For example, women breaking records that men have held for decades is a story that requires the female line to be highlighted. There is no problem in doing this in my opinion. It’s to be celebrated I think.

For example, when Debbie Martin Consani won an ultra race overall, beating all men and women, I don’t think we should shy away from saying a woman won. Because, until then, the men had always been winners. This is just an example and, obviously, women being described as blonde bombshells or long-legged lovelies should be left in the less enlightened past.

As I have hinted already, I think that where things have changed so much is on-line. There is a fast growing arena of female adventure and outdoors bloggers and websites – and I think this is brilliant.

Take a look at many blogging award nominee lists and there are many, many more women than even a few years ago.

I have also seen a huge increase in the number and range of blogs and articles about women adventurers blogging.

Most of my readers will know that I have been running my blog for around a decade and I do write a lot about women in the great outdoors on my blog and in other publications. I celebrate women where I can but not exclusively and I also include great stories about men.

When I write about things to do in the outdoors I think not of women only or men only but of “people”. It’s about the story, the adventure, the inspiration, the personality etc.

Hugely inspiring ultra runner Debbie Martin Consani.

In conclusion, Lucy’s article made me think afresh and while I do not agree with all of her points, I like that it has made me reconsider the media coverage of women.

I am sure there are still some men in the media who believe that stories about the guys are a better read than those about women. And I imagine there are male readers who prefer not to read about the women, especially if they are biting at their heels in terms of speed or sporting ability!

But I don’t think it’s as bleak as Lucy has suggested. Then again, it’s her opinion and experience and it’s good to hear what fellow colleagues think.

And while the traditional media outlets might be lacking resources and constrained in terms of imagination and diversification of stories, I think that the on-line world of blogging, outdoors websites, digital magazines and the rising profile of sponsored female athletes (via brand-led on-line communities) is fast changing the coverage of women adventurers. I think it’s really rather fabulous actually and I hope it continues to flourish.

Note: This is all my opinion and from my experience. I have not intended to offend Lucy by replying negatively in this blog, merely to report on how it has been for me over the past decade of running Fiona Outdoors. I thank Lucy for inspiring me to write about this topic.

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