Rock on Ladies: Women in Climbing Rapidly Bridging the Gender Gap
When you first start climbing, it’s scary. Unlike traditional sports like football or tennis, climbing doesn’t have a rule book, but the consequences of getting it wrong can be huge for you, and your partner. Climbing has a reputation as a dangerous sport, and I wouldn't try and convince you otherwise, but this reputation can overshadow it. The right guidance is essential but you’ll learn the ropes sooner than you think (no pun intended!).
The more seasoned climbers reading this will be familiar with the term (and perhaps the practice of) ‘beta spraying.’ For those of you who are newer to climbing, or thinking of trying the sport (which you absolutely should by the way!), ‘beta spraying’ refers to when someone gives someone else advice on how to climb when it is not asked for - it is often unsolicited and unwanted. Though it is not always meant with bad or malicious intent, it can be interpreted to be patronising or undermining by those receiving it.
You may not be aware of beta spraying when you’re new to climbing and it can be hard to distinguish when you’re open to guidance in the early stages, it’s also not uncommon for women to experience this more than men. This seems a good time to mention that throughout this piece I will refer to the general perceptions of climbing culture, i.e., that it historically has and continues to be predominantly male dominated and the idea that men are stronger than women. But of course, these statements are generalisations.
A good friend of mine, and talented climber Jas Newby, has been climbing for nearly five years now, and when we spoke about societal perceptions faced by women in climbing, she said that “since we were 15 years old, we’ve been told we need to get a good ass and keep our weight down” because lifting weights and building strength isn’t perceived as “ladylike”. Initially, I felt I had to be strong enough to ‘earn my place’ [at the climbing wall]” as a woman, with the sport generally perceived as male dominated.
However, luckily for us, climbing is one of the few sports where women are almost able to level the playing field. Our height to weight ratio is typically more favourable than men’s, and although men tend to be generally taller than women at 5’9”, and women at 5’3” (according to the Office for National Statistics), we are able to bridge the gap in terms of technique where we may lack in reach.
Flash Foxy, a US based organisation created with a mission to ‘provide welcoming spaces in climbing for women and genderqueer folk’ conducted a study and found that women experienced microaggressions two and a half times more often than men, with 65% feeling uncomfortable due to unwanted staring, unsolicited advice or feeling embarrassed. “I have felt very patronised whilst climbing with blokes, they refer to me as a ‘girl’ or presume I’m someone’s girlfriend,” says Jas.
Physically men are built differently to women, they have greater muscle mass and less body fat, “they often start off in an advantageous position and while we’ve been doing cardio, they’ve probably been lifting weights” says Jas, but there are many factors in climbing where muscle isn’t the main advantage. “As the grades get harder, strength isn’t enough and that’s where women begin to overtake the guys, we’ve always been working more on technique, so we turn our disadvantage into an advantage” she adds.
When I spoke to Adriana Brownlee, she was at home in London, readying herself for her next season in the Himalayas. By the age of 22, she is hoping to be the youngest alpinist to summit all 14 8,000 metre peaks, with 10 summits already under her belt. She believes that although she isn’t personally affected by gender stereotypes of women in high altitude climbing: “it’s a mental barrier, I think we’re underestimated by the male population and going through so many years of adversity in the world of sport, it gives women that extra drive to prove to others that they are capable. It’s a subconscious thing.”
High Adventure Expeditions tour company published that as of January 2023, a total of 6,338 people had summited Everest, with only 741 being women. But between 2006 and 2019, 14.6% more women attempted the feat compared to only 9.1% beginning in 1990 according to a study by Michelle Ma (2020). “From what I’ve seen in the mountains, I think women are mentally stronger than the guys. Our mental drive is way deeper. We may not [always] be as physically strong, but we keep going and it sets us apart from the men” says Adriana.
In his paper Female Excellence in Rock Climbing Likely has an Evolutionary Origin (2021), Collin Carroll hypothesised there are multiple biological elements allowing women to climb equally as well as men, and even favour them. “There are certain adaptations that may help us climb, like large back muscles, grip strength relative to body weight that bridges the natural gap that exists between men and women,” says Collin. He refers to these as “sex blind musculoskeletal adaptations” and “regardless of gender, the human body is well equipped to climb” he says.
Despite also being gifted biologically in terms of climbing ability, it’s also been proven that ‘confidence among females is especially likely to be low’ largely because climbing is perceived to be ‘sex-role inappropriate, self-evaluative or competitive’ as proven by Charles Corbin in Clinics in Sports Medicine (1984). Which means the main issue we face at the crag and climbing wall is overcoming the societal hurdles that have been long established, rather than our physical capabilities.
Climbing is unique as there is an extremely narrow performance gap between men and women, and as author of Fitness by Darwin (2021), Collin Carroll also says: “it all comes down to evolution, if early humans had to be good at something to survive, both men and women had to be able to do it.” Therefore climbing, unlike any other sports, allows women to excel in ways that they may not be able to in other sports, “the expectation may be for men to naturally have a greater advantage with certain movements but that’s not always the case” he says. For example the ‘finger pulley system’ within the human hand studied by Schöffl and colleagues (2009) was theorised to have evolved to create the adequate level friction needed to prevent falls during climbing. This is not a gender specific system, further contributing to the idea that gender doesn't necessarily dictate climbing ability.
Women are quickly rising in the ranks in terms of climbing ability level and grades, with indisputable evidence that they will soon match men in equal measure. The main challenge being that there are simply more men in the sport, Your Movement Matters survey (2022), found that of those who responded to the survey who climb outdoors, the ratio of men to women is 6:4 respectively.
So although we may feel at times we don’t belong at the wall, or are outnumbered by the guys, climbing is in our DNA, and as Lynn Hill famously said after making the first free ascent of El Capitan, “It goes, boys!”
By Imogen Campion (she/her)
A huge thank you to Jas Newby for her comments within the piece and for being a mentor to me and others during our initial experiences in rock climbing!
Caroll, C. (2021) Female excellence in rock climbing likely has an evolutionary origin. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2665944121000043
Carroll, C. (2021) Fitness by Darwin: How Three Evolutionary Movements Will Help You Look Better, Get Stronger, and Avoid Injury.
Corbin, C. B. (1984) Self- confidence of females in sports and Physical Activity. Vol 4 Issue 3 Clinics in Sport Medicine. Science Direct.
Ankers, E. Bond, S. Kay, C. (2020) Your Movement Matters, Mountain Activities. Leeds Becket University.
Schöffl, I. Oppelt, K. Jüngert, J. Schweier, A. Bayer, T. Neuhuber, W. Schöffl, V. (2009) The influence of concentric and eccentric loading on the the finger pulley system. Science Direct.
Flash Foxy (2016) Gender in the gym
BBC (2010) Statistics reveal Britain's ‘Mr and Mrs Average’
Ma, Michelle (2020) Mount Everest summit success rates double, death rate stays the same over last 30 years. University of Washington.
High Adventure expeditions (2023) List of women who have climbed Mount Everest
High Adventure expeditions (2023) How many people have climbed Mount Everest
About Imogen Campion
As Lynne Hill once said ‘climbing is a metaphor for life’ it empowers us, we keep pushing ourselves, and just like caving and mountaineering, it is much more than just a sport! As a freelance journalist I have a particular interest in the experiences of women and the LGBTQIA+ community within these sports and I’m always looking for new stories, so please feel free to get in touch with any ideas!