Spanning the Gender Gap

A Different Dynamic
By Abby Watkins

I first met Vera Wong in a climbing gym in Melbourne, Australia. We began climbing together, and after a while I knew I'd met a woman with strengths and aspirations similar to my own. Unlike my climbing partnerships with men, ours was truly equal—and not because my male climbing partners were stronger than Vera or me. (Vera's one of the most accomplished and determined climbers of either gender.) The dynamic was just different. My male partners tended to expect to take more of the leads, or at least the crux, no matter if they were stronger or not. Vera and I shared the leads, the planning, the cruxes; we used our individual strengths to create a whole greater than the individual parts.

I have noticed a difference in the way women and men approach climbing and other physically and mentally demanding sports. Men tend to hurl themselves at the obstacle, regardless of whether they are ready for it or not. I have seen this on El Capitan, when two young men dragged themselves onto the top after eight epic days on a route. They just went for it, ready or not, and probably gained a healthy respect for the Capitan along the way. Women tend to stay off a route until they feel ready to complete it in a comfortable way in good time.

Women are often intimidated to try something new in the presence of men, because men have a tendency to take over, often with genuine intentions of helping out. This trait leads to a fear of failure when women climb in mixed groups. If a woman waivers when she is climbing with a man, his tendency is often to take the lead—"Okay, I'll do it"—rather than offer the encouragement she needs at that moment—"Come on, I know you're capable of this. Dig deep!" This automatic assumption of incompetence, whether from onlookers or the woman herself, manifests itself like a self-fulfilling prophecy; she will probably fail without a base of confidence from which to reach. Somehow, this dynamic changes in the presence of women. A woman loses her fear of failure because she will only fail in front of other women, who do not have the preconceived notion that she is incapable.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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