As numbers of climbers increase across the UK the demographics of the sport are slowly changing, with a steady shift towards a greater proportion of women climbers. Back in 2006 a British Mountaineering Council survey stated the number of female members increased from 16% to 25% over the four previous years. In 2019 an Association of British Climbing Walls report suggested women now made up 33% of those who regularly climb, up from 29% in 2017.
Despite encouraging signs, there are plenty of statistics that look less promising. Women in Sport found that earlier this decade, women only made up a total of 0.4% of sports sponsorships and just 7% of total sports coverage. Only 30% of the boards of national sporting governing bodies are women. The issue of a lack of women in senior positions can be found in climbing, too.
Emily Pitts is the founder of Womenclimb, the UK’s largest female climbing community, which aims to “provide an inclusive, welcoming, sharing community which helps women find climbing partners, improve skills and boost their confidence”.
“It’s not just about going out and climbing,” says Emily. “It’s about empowering women to step up as leaders. The leadership aspect in the industry, if you move up the awards, when you get to the top level of award, the Winter Mountaineering and Climbing instructor award, only 6% of award holders are women, so it’s really hard to get women to do that work.”
To help tackle this, the group subsidises the cost of some members’ training courses. Across climbing, other groups are trying to get more women into areas they are underrepresented. Climbers Evie Cotrulia and Emma Twyford set up Creative Climbing to get more women into routesetting positions at climbing gyms across the UK. Cotrulia is the head setter across three centres, and back in 2018 she was organising 55 setter slots, and usually about 5 of those were women. By offering women setting workshops, Creative Climbing hopes to get a more representative number of women into the setting industry.
Women in climbing media
Emily noticed a lack of women in climbing media, too. “What I recognised when I first started climbing is that there weren’t many things that were written by women about rock climbing. I couldn’t find any information about the things that were important to me. There were hardly any gear reviews for women’s gear.”
A quick look at the list of climbers featured in the trailer for the award winning documentary The Big Bang: The Emma Twyford Story, which follows Twyford as she becomes the first British woman to climb 9a, shows an impressive but male focused selection. Besides Emma herself, only one other woman is included, with the other six being men.
“That happens a lot, doesn’t it?” says Emily. “A woman has an achievement and the experts are all guys. Often I wonder whether it’s about lending credibility to that woman. We have to have a famous man associated with it to have the same amount of credibility.”
Some may argue that climbing media’s label of First Female Ascent plays somewhat into this. Emily Downing, the managing editor for Outdoor Women’s Alliance, wrote in an article that “it’s not often a term can both denote achievement and belittle it at the same time but First Female Ascent somehow does. It begs the question: When Tommy Caldwell climbed the Nose in a day, why didn’t we call it a First Male Ascent? Lynn Hill has the first and second free ascents on it. And would that have made his climb any less remarkable?”
Something that Womenclimb believes in is getting more women in climbing films and in the climbing media. “I linked up with the BMC to start the Women in Adventure Film Competition,” says Emily. “The aim of that is to get women on the screen, behind the camera and in the crew, charting women’s adventures of all different types and providing a platform for them to be promoted and give women a voice. We have really diverse people entering and really diverse stories.”
As women’s participation in the sport continues to steadily grow, some have pointed to the popularity of bouldering as a discipline as a possible reason. In an article for UKClimbing, Paul Twoney, Director of The Climbing Academy chain stated he believed “the social nature of bouldering can help foster a more inclusive environment”.
Women and the rise of bouldering
“I wonder if it’s about women being socialised culturally to be more sociable, from a young age anyway, so that’s naturally how we behave and what we look for,” says Emily when asked if the social aspect of bouldering may have an impact. “I don’t think it’s an innate thing, it’s a cultural phenomenon if anything.
“Our meetups are very social, but the sociability is ultimately about trust and who connects with me so I’m willing to let them hold my life on a rope! If you’re exposed to an empowering and supportive group, male or female, that will build your resilience in that field.“
Despite venues seeing a greater proportion of women using their facilities, there are still issues women face when climbing. A study of men and women that Emily did for Womenclimb found that “women basically were more likely to say they had a problem” when climbing.
“It’s more of a problem for women than men in the following: experiencing comments that put them off, worrying about going into the climbing centre on their own, worrying that people may judge them on their weight, body shape or appearance, and wanting other people to climb with but not being able to find them”.
By offering a friendly space for women to climb in, specifically with other women, Womenclimb aims to allow female climbers to experience the sport in a more comfortable environment.
“I think there’s a couple of different things women like about climbing with women,” says Emily. “The comments are that it’s very supportive, there’s less pressure.”
It also helps women step into leading roles within their climbing. “If you look at other groups: cyclists, runners, quite often the guys will be there at the front,” says Emily. “It’s the same in climbing, trad climbing particularly, quite often the women will defer to the men. But in a single gender group, there is no difference. It makes people step up.”