One topic I have been opinionated about is the lack of development from women, and I wanted to touch on this a bit more, since I have received a number of emails from friends about it and I think it is a really interesting conversation.
I frequently advocate that the development of new climbs is crucial to our sport. Not only does it add to the pool of new rock, new moves, and new areas where climbing can happen, it changes our standards of what is good and bad, etc. This increase in climbing “information” is how the sport progresses. I would advocate for progression on the grounds that it opposes stagnation, and encourages productivity and creativity in a field which I have great interest, and I want to touch on several reasons why there is a gap between the number of men who develop new climbs and the number of women.
First of all, I would like to see areas developed by women simply because I think women would go about the process in a different way, and it would be interesting to see the differences. The lines they picked, the trails they built, the guidebooks they wrote, etc. It’s clear that in art, or architecture, for example, it is often difficult to infer whether or not a man or women created a work, and the same may hold true for climbing. However, there are sometimes very obvious and demonstrable splits in thinking and I would interested in how that played out. I think that women developing climbing is a new way in which climbing could progress and it is a way that hasn’t been explored with the intensity and depth with which men have explored it. An unfilled niche, if you will, the proverbial open space in Darwin’s dirt floor, awaiting the wooden wedge.
Secondly, I’d like to revisit why it is that women don’t do more developing, and to touch on some new ideas about why that is. If there are women out there developing, routes or boulders, I would love to hear about it, and in no way am I saying that women don’t or haven’t developed. They do, but there seems to be a demonstrable gap in their contributions when compared to men.
There are three main issues that are important to discuss in this regard. Firstly, there is a social expectation about how men and women approach climbing. For the men, the expectation is that they should be developing new climbing, and for many of the best and most well-known male climbers, that is what they spend their time doing. Men who don’t develop have been derogatorily referred to as “repeaters”, mostly by other men. It would be hard to argue that Fred Nicole, Dave Graham, Chris Sharma, Daniel Woods, etc don’t earn much of their recognition from the new climbs they have established. I don’t, however, see much evidence to suggest that that same expectation exists for the top women climbers today. Lynn Hill stands out as one woman who has really pushed the boundaries for everyone (with strong repeats and outstanding FAs), and she is one of the most well-respected climbers in the short history of our sport. Why is it that this gap in societal expectation exists? Or does it even exist? If it does exist, where does it come from? Does the expectation follow what happens, or does what happens follow the expectation? Are men (because they are the majority in our sport) fostering this gap, by “oppressing” women?
A second argument is that women are paid less and therefore have much less time to devote to developing. It certainly seems like more men do make more money in the climbing industry, based on my knowledge of professional climbers’ salaries. I think everyone should be paid for their value, and it’s surprising that companies don’t find more value in investing in women. I might then agree that lack of pay (given some statistical analysis on professional climbers salaries) gives women less time to climb, but the time issue itself is nonsense. There are countless examples of men who work full time and still head out the weekend to put up new problems.
Conversely, some climbers feel that the only reason men dominate the world of developing is that they feel the need to dominate, and leave a mark, literally and figuratively, and that need doesn’t exist in women. I develop because I enjoying contributing to a community that has done much for me, I like seeing new places and having the opportunity to interprate those places with in my own way, and I enjoy being first (it would be ridiculous and dishonest for me to not acknowledge that that is a motivating factor, it’s just not the only one). Are these feelings “Jamie” feelings or “man” feelings? Do women not have those same feelings? If women climbers were paid more, would they be out developing more? Is time, or money, the deciding factor as to whether or not new climbs get put up, by anyone, male or female?
Finally, perhaps it is simply the lack of relative female participation in the sport. Unfortunately there are no statistics that I am aware of out there (although it seems quite possible that the marketing divisions of any number of climbing related companies would have such information) that demonstrate that there are more men participating in the sport than women, but that certainly seems to be the case to a casual observer. Men are leading in the development of new climbing, however, it is also easy to say that there are thousands of male climbers who make no effort whatsoever to develop anything. There doesn’t seem to be anything to suggest that of the thousands of male climbers who don’t develop new climbs, there is something about them being a male that doesn’t encourage them to do FAs. Why would this be any different in women? If more women climbed, would we then see more women developers? It’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t.
This is an extremely complex issue and I feel this post barely scratches the surface of all the thoughts and ideas I have on this subject. However, I’ve left things somewhat ambiguous (as I often have in the past) in hopes to encourage and generate discussion. Discussion not just on this site, but at the crag or the gym, at dinner after climbing, or just over drinks with climber friends. I’m not sure the answer to many of these questions exists with our current knowledge of science, but it is interesting as always to think about. As always, I encourage your feedback, particularly on a subject matter as complex as this! Enjoy!