Women-Only Expedition Behaviour

Laurenne Desterre | December 12, 2015

There are a great number of stereotypes and behavioural expectations that our culture bulldozes into our brains, dictating how women should act in society. These pressures come from all sorts of directions, including our friends and family, leaders and teachers, traditional media and increasingly from social media.

Even if we are unaware of it, these sources can have a massive influence on us and society as a whole and we might not even realize it. All relationships and material possessions in our lives influence how we think about ourselves, and often makes being true to yourself very difficult. This pursuit of self actualization, to be the person you truly want to be, is a difficult enough task without the constant input from external forces.

I believe we can create places or institutions that promote the freedom to separate ourselves from stereotypes and old-fashioned gender roles. One powerful tool for creating such a space are all-women expeditions.

What is so special about the Outdoors?

As a student at Lakehead University studying Outdoor Recreation, I have been exposed to the outdoors in a way I have never been before. I have had the opportunity to learn about group dynamics and leadership, and to observe the subtleties of people interacting in the outdoors and on trip. Its no secret to anyone who has ventured into the wild spaces of our country that being on trip with a group of people is an experience like no other.

During my time as a student I noticed an unmistakable lack of information specifically with women. The outdoors is still seen as a male-dominated field in the educational system, so I wanted to find what women have contributed to the outdoors and began to independently conduct research on the topic of expedition behaviour and compare all-women and coed expeditions. At first, expedition behaviour appears to be a simple and self-explanatory concept, but it should not be overlooked. It is one of the key factors that determines an expedition’s success! National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a pioneering outdoor education school introduced expedition behaviour and has helped define what makes an expedition successful with the following key themes:

  • Be as concerned for others as you are for yourself.
  • Treat everyone with dignity and respect.
  • Support leadership and growth in everyone.
  • Respect the cultures you contact.
  • Be kind and open-hearted.
  • Do your share and stay organized.
  • Help others, but don’t routinely do their work.
  • Model integrity by being honest and accountable.
  • Admit and correct your mistakes.

The above are great guidelines, and keeping these in mind to follow individually and addressing them as a group will allow for a much more positive group dynamic.

From the scattered existing literature that centers on or touches upon the topic of women’s expedition behaviour there are a few ideas that emerge as significant. Particularly, women commonly have a more group orientated approach to leadership. When everyone has bonded and acts as a cohesive group, decisions are made as a group with all member’s wellness in mind. All-women expeditions tend to be great at adhering to the NOLS guidelines because there is a much more open atmosphere, where individuals feel able to speak freely and communicate problems or concerns to other group members. Why is this? I reached out to a few women to pick their brains on the topic and to draw from their wealth of experience on both coed and all-women trips.

I had the pleasure of interviewing four inspiring women with varying degrees of expeditionary experience, from the seasoned professional to budding young outdoor enthusiasts. Patterns and common themes emerged from all of the women’s stories, but there were also very surprising differences too. They had opposing opinions  from each other and from the academic literature, all of which stemmed from drastically different personal experiences. In general though, the common ground expressed by these women and the established literature are as follows:

  • Females feeling stepped on by the males in their groups.
  • Women are comfortable with their mistakes and failing when on an all-women expedition.
  • Group roles were chosen from personal choices, not gender stereotypes on all-women trips.
  • Comfortability expressing themselves and saying what they were wanting or thinking was easier on all-women expeditions, unless on a two-woman expedition.
  • There are expectations of gender and it is easier for women to adapt to men’s tendencies because it is what women have to do in society as well.
  • All-women trips were not competitive, unless on a two-woman expedition.
  • Women feel the need to prove themselves physically when men are on the expedition.

It was exciting to see that the research that other people have conducted about the topic of expedition behaviour on all-women and coed expeditions can be seen in the results from my interviews and other types of literature that I have read. Majority of the problems or concerns from that the women had answered interviews were purely perceived from assumptions of gender stereotypes that they have learned from their upbringing or influenced simultaneously from other influences in their lives. Becoming aware of leading away from gender stereotypes is so important. There have been many women in history who have made a huge lead for women in the outdoor community.

A Time of Change For Women In The Outdoors

Women’s standing in society has come a long way. Canada is often a leader in social issues and as a whole strives to become a more equitable nation. Women can openly love women, women are able to play competitive and extreme sports professionally, and also be recognised as leaders and professionals in all fields. That is not to say that there are no issues, the struggle is still real and evident, but there is obvious progress. The arguments against the presence of women on expeditions stems from the ancient and long ingrained idea that women, as the “weaker sex”, could not endure the physical or emotional requirements to successfully complete an expedition.

Emotional breakdowns, fighting or nagging, and sexual promiscuity were all assumed risks of including women on what were male dominated expeditions. Even behaviours that are considered positive in men can be viewed as inappropriate in  women, such as a strong, take-charge leader quickly turns into the bossy “bitch” when the genders are reversed. Women might be expected to be a mother figure who provides solace and comfort, or an attractive showpiece. Some may not find these roles offensive or unsavoury, but they make it difficult for women to break away from these shallow standards. It especially makes it difficult to become a strong female leader without people judging us for what we are or what we are not.

Famous female explorers such as Ann Bancroft and Arlene Blum have made inspiring contributions to breaking the stereotypes pressed upon women in the outdoor community. For someone like myself, young and surrounded by a modern or liberal university community,  the stories of blatant sexism and undisguised misogyny recounted by Arlene Blum earlier in her career are appalling, but they also seem distant. Like a time in history that we have moved beyond. Yet, then I am starkly reminded that when Ann was contacting major companies about sponsoring her expedition to cross Antarctica in 2001 with Liv Arnesen, they were ridiculed and dismissed for being women! She and her partner were told many times that they were not capable or strong enough, that they needed a man on the team before being considered by sponsors.

At one point a CEO of a potential sponsor actually reached across a conference table, squeezed Ann’s biceps and said he did not think she looked strong enough to pull a 250 pound sled across Antarctica for almost 100 days. The costs of remote expeditions are staggering, and acquiring the financial backing for such an endeavor is a difficult enough hurdle without the additional difficulty of sexism. Ann Bancroft had to persevere through hard times, especially when nobody believed in her dream to cross the Antarctic continent. To push back against this trend, Ann Bancroft started a non-for-profit organization, Ann Bancroft Foundation, that provides support and funding for girls to achieve their dreams. The goal is to reduce barriers and allow young women to aspire to do something they might not have thought possible, as well as gaining experience and confidence from their endeavour.

It is “in our brains, this gender stuff”, as one of the women said during their interview. Our upbringing has a major influence on how we perceive and expect each gender to act, but being a part of an outdoor active, progressive community full of open-minded people can change those assumptions and expectations. How many times have you asked a man to help you fix something because you assumed that he could help you because you thought he would know more. Turns out he didn’t and you could have done the job yourself! Improving self-confidence through all-female expeditions and gaining experiences in the outdoors may help women be who they are and do what they truly want on future expeditions and in their lives.

The term “gender blind” was used in one of the interviews to describe how certain individuals do not automatically assign roles based on gender while on expeditions – no men or women, just unique individuals. With a category as broad as gender, many people have numerous experiences with individuals that defy assumed gender roles. One woman recounted an expedition in which the traditional roles were almost entirely reversed. She had an expedition where there were emotional and reserved men who went with the flow, and strong and very confident take-charge, task-driven women. Studying history, it is clear that leaps and bounds have been made in terms of equal opportunity for women━even if the effort is not entirely complete. The opposition and resistance that the likes of Arlene Blum and other pioneering women faced in the 60’s in the outdoor community, and the world at large, can be shocking to someone living in a more progressive and equal world. We are very lucky to live as Canadian women!

Even the most repressed woman has a secret life, with secret thoughts and secret feelings which are lush and wild, that is natural. Even the most captured woman guards the place of the wildish self, for she knows intuitively that someday there will be a loophole, an aperture, a chance and she will hightail it to escape.~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Outdoor expeditions where girls and women are free of the constraints and pressures of society can be a powerful experience that can influence and change lives. Women can undertake tasks and roles without the fear of judgement, or embarrassment. A journey such as this can help us better understand ourselves. If you’ve ever felt bound by feelings of judgement or self-consciousness, go outdoors, surround yourself with people you are comfortable with and explore.

Try your hand at a task you’ve never done alone, maybe you don’t really need help. Try something that was never really “your thing”, you may surprise yourself! Sometimes our greatest limiting factor is that voice in your head, the one that tells you “They know more than me, I’ll wait for help”, “I can’t carry as much as he can, I shouldn’t be here”, “I’ll just cook again tonight instead of set up camp”. That voice is fed by a lifetime of being surrounded by ideas that are not your own, it is the TV show in the background, the advertisement in the periphery of your computer screen and the idle, seemingly harmless conversation of your peers.

Starve that voice by stepping outside into nature, but also outside of society’s idea of right and normal. When everything else is silenced you will discover yourself for yourself.


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