I want to talk about a phenomenon that just won’t go away.
Because I am a woman, I am invisible around men.
My voice isn’t heard, my advice isn’t heeded, and my knowledge is dismissed. I’m a woman, what can I possibly tell men about climbing, about skiing, about riding motorcycles? What do I know about cars, about anchor systems, about search and rescue? What can I possibly have to contribute about gear?
Nothing, if one goes by the behavior of some men. I’ll try hard to make this article something more than just endless examples of being shunted to the side simply because I’m female, but after a few days around climbers, I’m seething.
You see, I’m sick and tired of the assumption that I’m just the tagalong portion of the mixed gender climbing, biking, or skiing group, that if they want to know something, they should ask the male part of the partnership. I’m sick of any and all variations on the following theme:
1. Male or males approach my group.
2. They ask a question.
3. I answer the question.
4. Male or males appear to not have heard my answer, for they ask again, looking at the male I’m with.
5. Male in my group answers question in same manner as I did just seconds before.
6. Male or males approaching group seem satisfied with the male-issued answer. They ask a clarifying question.
7. I answer it.
8. Male or males appear not to have heard my answer, for they ask again, directing the inquiry to the person of male persuasion.
9. And on and on and on and on.
Last week in Ouray my partner (male) and I were finishing up and packing up for the day when a pair of male climbers walked by. They struck up a conversation with my partner, who found that the climbers were looking for an open anchor on this very busy day at the ice park. I heard my partner tell them that they should check out a climb called Pick o’ the Vic – one we had done the day before which was a highlight of my trip. The climbers seemed interested as they got the beta from my partner. He was describing where it was and telling them that if they gave him a few minutes he could show them the location, when I interjectd that I was heading back to the car right then so I could show them where it was.
And they ACTED LIKE I HADN’T SAID A WORD. They pretended not to hear me. I mean they pretended HARD. I believe they even asked my partner another question at that point about where the climb was. In disbelief I heaved my pack on and said again I’d show them where the climb was, just to see what would happen, and they seemed to realize they couldn’t refuse to follow me without being complete d-bags, so they grudgingly shuffled along after me, trailing about 30 feet behind. It was very clear that they wanted someone with a penis to be leading the way. Luckily for me I was spared the company of these guys for long, for they peeled off at the first open belay, seemingly relieved at being out from under the onus of a female guide.
Just an hour before, we’d gotten into a bit of a discussion with a pompous guide, who accused my partner of climbing above his clients and exposing them to icefall. He wouldn’t even so much as look my way when I pointed out that our route was 25 feet to the right of his clients’ rope and around a corner, no less, so as long as he didn’t continue to purposefully stand in the path of any ice chunks, he’d be fine. He just kept directing his complaints to my partner, as if there weren’t two of us on that rope. As if the snow I’d kicked down on his personal space a few minutes earlier was the responsibility of my partner, the
man belayer, instead of me, the woman climber.
This, on top of the dozens of other times men have exhibited similar behavior, made me vow to write this article. After all, it’s been on my mind for a while, especially since in recent years I’ve become a more avid mountain biker, and the sexism in that sport rivals that in climbing by a pretty close margin. I can’t even count the number of times my male partner and I struck up a conversation with a male biker, only to have the stranger completely, and I mean COMPLETELY ignore everything I said. It was like I wasn’t even there. It was kind of like, “excuse us little girl, the Humans With Penises are talking!” Seriously, they’d ask trail directions and ignore what I said until my male partner said it. They’d ask about one of our bikes and not react to my input until my male partner said the same thing. Sometimes they won’t even look at me. It’s just aggravating.
I decided to do a little research before writing this article and I came upon the term “mansplain” which refers to the habit of some men of pontificating on any given topic as if the person, usually female, in front of him has no knowledge or expertise of her own. This brought to mind the time my own dad painstakingly explained the difference between a magistrate and a judge – to my friend who is an attorney. Other examples of mansplaining are equally cringeworthy and hilarious – the professor who described in great detail to a younger woman a very important new book, without processing that he was speaking to the author of that book; the guy who took it upon himself to explain neurotransmitters to a female neurosurgeon, the men in my training classes who constantly interrupt to explain how the FEMA Incident Command System works, even though they’re taking the class from me because they don’t know the system. I can’t help but think that this “wait until the one with a penis says it” game is somehow related to mansplaining.
The mansplainers are somewhat easier to shoot down than the ignorers though. Some of the ignorers are so good at it that I really start to think that maybe they honestly didn’t hear me, even though they have no trouble hearing the man standing three feet behind me. One of these days I’m just going to snap and call someone out on it. Come to think of it, why haven’t I done that already? Just go ahead and say “excuse me, did you not hear me? Hello? Is there a reason you are pretending I’m not here? Do you want the man to just repeat what I say so you can believe it?” The only reason I can think that I haven’t done that is just simple disbelief. Every time one of these ignorers strikes, I’m left kind of startled and shocked, and trying to understand why they seemingly don’t hear me. I think for a second maybe they really DIDN’T hear me, so I try again. They ignore again. And every time, I’m so stunned that I don’t call them out on it. I believe it is time for that, at least, to change.
I’ll wager there’s not a man out there who will own up to this behavior, but there are a lot of them who do it. The stories are endless – the mountain biker who dismissed me in mid-sentence as I was explaining a new product to him that would solve the problem he was describing; stating that he knew of several other products that were exactly the same. But the thing was, he was wrong and this product would have been great for him, but there was really no telling him that. My two male friends who, in one fell swoop, dismissed everything I’d learned in my motorcycle track racing classes and clinics about braking. Another male friend who had never ridden a mountain bike in his life but found it reasonable to tell me, fresh from Crankworx, all about how downhill racing works. The men in my avalanche level 1 class who shut down everything I said even though they were clearly in over their heads and I’m an experienced backcountry traveler (hint: Don’t put yourself in the ‘expert’ class if you’ve never been on a tele setup in your life, dudes).
I don’t really get it. With all the whining about how hard it is to find women who do these sports, you’d think that guys would be thrilled to chat with a woman about their shared sports passions. But the macho know-it-all gene wins out every time with these dudes. They see a woman, they assume she knows nothing and is just tagging along with her boyfriend, who is clearly the expert in every situation. When she speaks up and proves their assumption wrong, they are still incapable of acknowledging that a gap in their own knowledge was just filled by a woman. They need the reassuring presence of a man’s voice to tell them it’s OK not to know, that now they know what other Men know, and they know at least as much as that woman over there.
Or so they think.