by Kate Johnston

This article is intended as a thought piece for anyone who wants to learn how to better support the women in their organisations and daily lives. The title mentions the Experiential Education industry, but the reality is that it’s applicable to any industry. Regardless of whether you identify as male, female, or other, the thoughts in this article are for everyone – the goal being to make the Experiential Learning Community, and the world, a better place. 

[Image credit: Kate Johnston, with Female Icons created by Jhonatan from the Noun Project]

Firstly I would like to highlight that what I am about to say is based solely on my experiences. I can only speak my own truth, but guarantee that some of these experiences will have been shared by others who identify as female. 

Secondly, I am able to voice my opinion and say some of these things because I come from a position of great privilege thanks to my race and socioeconomic status. Sure, it’s hard and scary for me to say some of these things out loud, and I may get trolled and criticised, but I will survive. I can only begin to imagine how much harder, and scarier it is for fellow women whose society, ethnicity, religion, or status does not lean in their favour, and who are still viewed as second-class citizens. So, I am choosing to speak my truth, because others may not be able to.

Ok, I’m done with the caveats, let’s get down to business. There is a lot to unpack here and so many experiences that I could share, but I will keep it brief, because you’re reading a blog post and not a book. I have distilled some of my experiences into three separate sections intended to provoke thought and awareness. Included in these sections are little pieces of advice for how we can all work to change our behaviour and make life a more pleasant experience for everyone.

[Image credit: Kate Johnston with Question Icon created by Adrien Coquet from the Noun Project]

1. Questioning Us:

Questioning an individual’s knowledge, confidence, and understanding of the outdoor education field is far more likely to happen to women than it is to men, and many times as a woman in a leadership position I have had my decisions questioned in the following way:

Me: “The camp is this way”

Colleague: “Are you sure?”

(Yes, I was sure, until you asked me that 3 times. Now I feel uncertain of myself and am more likely to defer to a male counterpart who can back up the choice I wanted to make, which defeats the point of me being in a position of authority.)

Me: “This is what happened”

Colleague: “Are you sure?”

Me: “I think this is the most appropriate way to do things based on my previous experience”

Colleague: “Are you sure?”

It may seem harmless, and you may think it’s actually an important part of the “collaborative” process, which granted it could be. But questioning us like this is a way of undermining our decisions, and therefore our power and authority. If you would like to have a conversation about my choices, let’s do so in a more constructive manner – if you’re not sure about what I’ve said then tell me:

“Camp could be that way, but I’m actually the one who’s not sure.”

“Could you elaborate on X, as I’m unsure about how it relates to what happened.”

“That sounds like a great way to do X. Here is an alternative based on my own experience too in case you wanted another option.”

And most importantly, before saying, “are you sure?” out loud, please think to yourself “would I ask a male colleague the same thing?” Because every time you question this, I can guarantee you I’ve asked myself the same thing a thousand times.

[Image credit: Kate Johnston with Talking  Icon created by Cantasia from the Noun Project]

2. The Language We Use:

These are a few examples of how the  language you use to describe the women around you has the ability to lift them up and empower them, or undermine and break them down in the eyes of all your colleagues.

“Wow, she’s so bossy…” said a female colleague quietly to me about a student who was directing her fellow classmates in how to clean up a campsite.

“Ugh, she’s a b*!ch.” said a female colleague about the female in charge.

“Oh you look sexy with…[insert any piece of equipment here]” said various male colleagues to me in front of a large group of co-workers on several different occasions.

“Bossy” and “B*!ch” have long been used in a patriarchal system to belittle a woman’s authority. They are derisive and associated with negative connotations, therefore undermining the authority of the person you are describing. We need to understand that calling a woman “bossy” is code for “demonstrates leadership skills that we are intimidated by because she’s a woman and female power scares us.” And if we do feel intimidated, or that something is wrong, we should ask ourselves why? Is there a genuine problem with the way this woman in power is doing something or have we just been conditioned to react with discomfort in situations like this? You can disagree with what she’s saying, but you don’t have to undermine the person because you are intimidated by how she’s saying it.

Again, in this situation you could ask yourself, would you say the same thing about a male colleague? Or would you say he was “authoritative”, or he’s just being a “leader.”

“Sexy” objectifies a woman and, again, undermines her power. But this is a confusing situation, because we are often trained to think of it as a compliment, when in reality, it symbolises that the female body is an object for desire. Using that language publicly acknowledges that symbol and therefore makes women aware of their vulnerability.

If you are attracted to the person, great! Keep the comment to yourself and tell them on a personal level later. Please do not highlight this to the entire team.

Wait a moment, two of the above scenarios involve women saying negative things about other women?! Yes, you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve heard female colleagues talk this way about each other. We have been equally influenced by the patriarchy as men have, and we are both equally responsible for breaking it down.

So to the male and female readers, please observe how you interact with fellow colleagues; watch your language; build each other up; and break these stereotypes down together.

[Image credit: Kate Johnston with Men  Icon created by Guilherme Furtado and Woman Icon created by Simon Child  from the Noun Project]

3. Put Us in Positions of Responsibility:

Once, I was taken off a job because someone had expressed discomfort with the fact that I was a woman. The individual was uncertain whether I would be as effective in the role as a man; could I even light a fire, or use a knife; could I control a group? 

The Program Manager looked at me and said “Sorry, you’re not working this program anymore [for the above reasons], and I didn’t know what to do, so I gave the job to your male colleague.”

After my initial shock, I thought to myself, the way you solve the problem is by putting me on the job. Then I can show said individual that women are capable, and they wouldn’t question our capability again in future.

Do you want to know the most unfortunate part of this whole story? (I’m probably going to lose a lot of points in the Experiential Ed. world for admitting this…) I am now insecure about my fire lighting capability… Yes, that’s right. I will now defer the responsibility of lighting a fire to someone else in case it goes out because I would rather not try, than be seen as failing and living up to that person’s version of me as an “incompetent woman.” I know that I can light a fire. And I know that I should light as many fires as possible to continue proving that person wrong. But that’s what’s so insidious and dangerous about the way we describe each other – the way we talk about and describe someone’s gender, race, or age, shapes the reality they face. So, be careful and shape it wisely.

What can we do to help shape a better reality for the women in our organisations? You can put them in positions of Responsibility and Power. Trust us. Believe in us. Give us the opportunities. And understand that if we fail at these things it is because we are human, and not because we are women.

The only reason I can share my experiences is because of all the women who came before me and helped change the world one story at a time. So, to all the women out there who read this, please be brave enough to share your stories, speak your truth, encourage these conversations, and help change the world for the next generation.

To all others please listen without judgement, without preparing counter-arguments, without feeling attacked. Create safe spaces for people to talk about their realities and ask them how you can help (it’s different in every culture, and for every person).

We all make mistakes and we are all learning, but let’s do it together to make this community a more inclusive space. 

Further Reading/Listening:

Book – Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (or you can watch her TedTalk here)

Article – Bossy: What’s Gender Got to Do with It?  – Research conducted by the Centre for Creative Leadership

Article – Who Are You Calling a Bitch? – Short Article by Feminist Author Kate Figes

Article – Harvard Business Review – The Different Words We Use to Describe Male and Female Leaders 

Podcast – If you are looking for a new Podcast to listen to on your commute to work, I can highly recommend The Guilty Feminist – Feminism, but with a funny an realistic spin.
Podcast – Harvard Business Review – Sorry, Not Sorry Podcast

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