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Ladies: How to make a climbing gym more welcoming


Original Post
Kari V · · Alamosa, CO · Joined Feb 2018 · Points: 0

Hello all! I am looking for opinions and feedback from women on how to make the climbing gym I work at feel more inclusive, welcoming, and less intimidating.

I work at a climbing gym at a university where the vast majority of the staff is male. Nearly all the routes are set by men, and nearly all the advanced climbers/lead climbers seen regularly at the wall are men. Some women (students and community members), especially those new to climbing, have told me this is intimidating for them. I am trying to do my part by becoming a more regular presence at the wall, beginning to set routes, and reaching out to women.

Part of my job is to attract more women to the climbing wall and to our adventure program. I would like to begin some kind of "Ladies' Night" for female climbers, but I am also concerned about causing too much separation or offering a financial incentive that's not available to men.

I'm curious to hear other women's thoughts on this. How could I best advocate for female climbers in this context? Does anyone have personal experience with this?

Old lady H · · Boise, ID · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 873
Kari V wrote: Hello all! I am looking for opinions and feedback from women on how to make the climbing gym I work at feel more inclusive, welcoming, and less intimidating.

I work at a climbing gym at a university where the vast majority of the staff is male. Nearly all the routes are set by men, and nearly all the advanced climbers/lead climbers seen regularly at the wall are men. Some women (students and community members), especially those new to climbing, have told me this is intimidating for them. I am trying to do my part by becoming a more regular presence at the wall, beginning to set routes, and reaching out to women.

Part of my job is to attract more women to the climbing wall and to our adventure program. I would like to begin some kind of "Ladies' Night" for female climbers, but I am also concerned about causing too much separation or offering a financial incentive that's not available to men.

I'm curious to hear other women's thoughts on this. How could I best advocate for female climbers in this context? Does anyone have personal experience with this?

Your gym needs to look at their practices and hiring. College age, there seems to be plenty of lady climbers. The male/female ratio is shifting. Does the gym allow voluntary setters? If so, start recruiting. If not, start advocating. Are outside climbers allowed? Invite the ladies you know. Just being visible puts the idea in the head of others that, "hey, maybe I can do that!" Do the orientation tours include the climbing wall? Try to be there when that happens. 

I don't think a "ladies night" is a bad thing, but it also is probably not the best idea. Ladies groups are better, IMO, when you get to a certain skill level, like ready to go into gear, or try ice climbing. At a university? It can also send the message, again just my opinion, that women need "more" somehow, or are less capable.

Now, a routesetting clinic that addresses the fact ​of women climbers? Yes! Also all the other users the university should be aiming to entice into the gym. This isn't like a commercial operation, a university should be aiming to be as welcoming as possible, and yes, give people at least a few routes so easy, they can be attempted by anyone, even in street shoes. Without being condescending, boring, jug ladders.

Best, OLH
Troy F · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2017 · Points: 0

I saw the post and my girlfriend really seems to enjoy the Ladies' Night where it is half price at a local gym. In the same night they also have a Yoga session included.

Kari V · · Alamosa, CO · Joined Feb 2018 · Points: 0

OLH, thank you for your thoughts. My boss is well aware of the lack of female employees at the wall. We are a small university, and it seems that unless female students are already into rock climbing when they come here, it's hard to get them to try it more than once. I definitely agree that we need to entice students into climbing. We do set a variety of routes, with a few aimed at completely new climbers, but I do think we need more beginner routes.

I would love to have a route setting clinic addressing female climbers. Being a small school with a very limited budget makes this a little more difficult. I wish I were qualified to teach these programs myself but I don't yet have the experience.

Thank you for the ideas!

Fan Zhang · · Washington, DC · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 1,152

Kari, maybe you could put a post on Partner Finder in your area seeking experienced females climbers who are interested in teaching a clinic at your gym with a focus on either movement, route setting, or even just backpacking tips for females?

Candice Bautista-Biddle · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2017 · Points: 0

I wouldn't call it "ladies' night" - maybe "women's group" or something like that. "Ladies' night" sounds too much like a cheap bar tactic. Definitely bring in all the lady crushers you know. Maybe a free TR class for women? Make it easier to get involved and learn in a controlled environment. I also find that more frequently women take classes and are focused on safety. Being more educated helps with psyche.

Josh · · Golden, CO · Joined Jan 2006 · Points: 965

Kari, you said a potentially important thing in your reply to OLH:  your perception (likely correct?) that most women climbers at your school arrive with some prior experience and therefore don't tend to come into the gym more than once or twice.  I think the needs of experienced outdoor climbers using a gym for their own purposes are different than the needs of newer climbers looking to become exposed to the sport through a gym.  If there is a silent constituency of women new to climbing who COULD become interested if they felt more welcome to try it out at the gym, then tapping into them probably looks different than convincing experienced climbers to use the gym more often.  But serving the experienced climbers could also serve your ultimate goal of getting more new female climbers in the door (by virtue of that thing OLH was saying about the power of simply seeing more women in the gym more often).  Maybe you would need a two-step approach, where you offer some things that the established climbers want (like good training systems and easy ways to hook up with partners) in order to capture some women who could then serve as ambassadors and leaders and visual proof to the new women who come in?  Like Fan's idea about getting the experienced women to offer some clinics, or OLH's ideas about getting some volunteer female route setters?  Seems to me like a worthy thing you're trying to pull off, so thanks for thinking proactively about it.

Lauren Wilson · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2017 · Points: 58

We have a gym in the area that does a once-a-month "ladies night" but calls it "She Sends" instead. They all climb, have a yoga class, and then do different courses where they work on pull-up technique, or basic strength training. It's been a huge hit here. 

Dakota R · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 0

My university adventures program hosted events that attempted to reach out to other groups on campus (residents, various clubs, etc.) by hosting a movie night which often times featured female athletes out there crushing it. I think hosting events that everyone enjoys (pool parties, movie nights, picnics) which include slacklines, mountain biking, rock climbing helps bring in new people who wouldn't have otherwise tried out rock climbing. Then also creating a friendly welcoming community always helps. Requiring people to wear shirts, shoes, not yell extremely loud may remove some of the intimidation factor. And also have a staff that quickly recognizes and discourages any negative comments/feedback and encourages positive feedback and is super pro at compliment sandwiches especially when teaching early skills like belaying. Also making sure new climbers are in control of the experience  (lowering when they ask to be lowered etc.)

Kari V · · Alamosa, CO · Joined Feb 2018 · Points: 0

Thank you all so much for the ideas!

Josh: There are certainly a few experienced female climbers at our gym, and perhaps there are more in the community I don't know of, who could informally serve as representatives of the gym. My focus has been to draw students and other people in the town who are new to climbing.

I think Dakota, your ideas would help drawing in those people. I completely agree about fostering a climate of respect and positivity for new climbers is key!

Lauren: I also really like this idea. I agree that "Ladies Night" doesn't quite strike the same chord that I'm going for.

Fan: This is another great idea. I will reach out to people in my area and see if anyone is willing to help out!

Old lady H · · Boise, ID · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 873

So, lots of good ideas here. The problem is getting brand new people to try out the gym. My University gym (I'm a setter,!) they haul the resident freshman through the rec building, with an active​ tour. The staff is there to belay, and everyone is encouraged to give it a shot. Hence my setting routes that are absolutely doable, in Birkenstocks, lol!

Putting together a class is a great idea, and I'm betting some folks can help with ideas along those lines. Yes, you need how to climb classes, but something far broader, perhaps?? The socializing is also an important function, especially at a university.

EDIT to add: be thinking fun! Climbing is way more fun than being athletic, lol!

Best, Helen

SeƱor Arroz · · LA, CA · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10

Is this your gym? https://www.adams.edu/student_life/adventure-programs/climbing_wall.php

The key to diversity and inclusion is to hire a bunch of women employees. Even if they're not great climbers YET the employees of a place set the tone and they will also be a foundation for more women to begin climbing there.

And since it's a university, clearly, there must be someone there tasked with Title IX compliance. Talk to them. There might be resources available that you don't know about. 

Tradiban · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2004 · Points: 11,460

Heads up, you can be sued for having a ladies night that gives a discount only to women.

J W · · Las Vegas, NV · Joined Feb 2004 · Points: 1,535
Tradiban wrote: Heads up, you can be sued for having a ladies night that gives a discount only to women.

This is true in certain municipalities, so it is probably a good idea to check with your local codes to see whether its okay 

I run a gym that has a significant female presence in all aspects- half of our setting team is female, my management team is majority female, as is my staff and instructor pool. This has all contributed, imho, to a more friendly, welcoming, and inclusive environment. While men continue to be the majority of my customers, they're not the vast majority of them- I'd guess *maybe* 60/40, or even 55/45.

Be what you want to attract. Our staff is a diverse, awesome selection of men and women from all walks of life- and as a result, our customer base reflects that. Good luck!
Stagg54 Taggart · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2006 · Points: 10

Just a thought but why not have a clinic and have some local woman guide come and teach it. Or maybe just have some famous woman come and do a slide show.  It wouldn't necessary have to be someone famous, just some local female climber.  Make it open to everyone.

Pavel Burov · · Russia · Joined May 2013 · Points: 50
Kari V wrote: Hello all! I am looking for opinions and feedback from women on how to make the climbing gym I work at feel more inclusive, welcoming, and less intimidating.
I will tell you what. Any and every person in a gym being there for training for climbing purpose is respected equally no matter which gender they are.

People call it climbing gym 'cause it is about climbing and about gym. No gender related shit. Just check in and work hard. That's it.
Kari V · · Alamosa, CO · Joined Feb 2018 · Points: 0
Señor Arroz wrote: Is this your gym? https://www.adams.edu/student_life/adventure-programs/climbing_wall.php

The key to diversity and inclusion is to hire a bunch of women employees. 

Yes, that is the gym.

It's a little more complicated than that. We have an adventure leadership minor that a student is required to take to be part of the climbing wall staff. So another issue is that not enough women (at this moment, it has been more even in the past) are signing up for the minor.
Kari V · · Alamosa, CO · Joined Feb 2018 · Points: 0
Pavel Burov wrote: I will tell you what. Any and every person in a gym being there for training for climbing purpose is respected equally no matter which gender they are.

People call it climbing gym 'cause it is about climbing and about gym. No gender related shit. Just check in and work hard. That's it.

I disagree. If men are regularly represented and seen climbing and working far more than women, it is less comfortable for women than men at the gym. You haven't had this experience as a male, so please don't try to weigh in on the gender issues involved. 

phylp · · Upland · Joined May 2015 · Points: 622
Kari V wrote: 

I work at a climbing gym at a university where the vast majority of the staff is male. Nearly all the routes are set by men, and nearly all the advanced climbers/lead climbers seen regularly at the wall are men. Some women (students and community members), especially those new to climbing, have told me this is intimidating for them.

Kari, here's my personal experience as an old feminist climber, who started climbing at a time before gyms existed and when most other climbers were men:

The men who went out of their way to mentor me when I first started were welcoming and friendly and treated me as an (inexperienced) equal.  They never made me feel intimidated.  So the first place the management of your gym could start is to make sure that all the staff is welcoming and friendly and respectful and attentive to whomever walks in the door.  Even if the staff of the gym is 100% SWyoungM, if they have the right attitude, any woman, or old person, or gay person, or non-white person will feel welcome.  If the staff is scornful of beginners with a shirtless dude/bro mentality, lots of new climbers could be put off.

Having all the routes set by men is problematic if they are not aware of the differing strength of new women climbers.  Reachy, juggy, thugy, bouldery routes can be frustrating to newer women climbers.  And inexperienced route setters for gyms with shorter walls tend to set more of these kinds of routes to achieve harder grades with limited height to work with.  I first met the great Valley climber Barry Bates when he was setting routes for the REI Sunnyvale wall (all of about 20 feet high?) back in the 80s.  He was able to set routes on that wall that were equally challenging to men and women. Raise awareness and skill in your routesetters.  

Ladies nights are a great idea, as are Beginners nights.  You don't have to offer any discounts, and you don't have to close off the gym to other people.  If it's marketed as a way to meet other people as potential future partners, that should be enough to attract people.  And inviting in well known and experienced climbers to do clinics for beginners would be a great thing to offer. That you certainly could charge a fee for.   It's not like there is any shortage of great climbers in Colorado.
Best wishes, Phyl
Kari V · · Alamosa, CO · Joined Feb 2018 · Points: 0

Stagg54 and Phyl: Thank you both! I love the idea of inviting an experienced female climber for a clinic, slideshow, or presentation. Great suggestion.

Phyl, you were able to articulate something that I was having trouble putting into words. For the most part, the wall has a welcoming atmosphere but I have definitely noticed some problematic behavior and things you mentioned. Thank you. Reading that was very helpful for me-- good points about the route setting and the beginners/ladies nights. 

Pavel Burov · · Russia · Joined May 2013 · Points: 50
Kari V wrote:

I disagree. If men are regularly represented and seen climbing and working far more than women, it is less comfortable for women than men at the gym. You haven't had this experience as a male, so please don't try to weigh in on the gender issues involved. 

C'mon. In climbing world the only thing that matters is how hard are you. Just check in and work hard. That's it.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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