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2013 Fall Issue 4 (October 18, 2013)

Climbing Through the Glass Ceiling

October 18, 2013
By Drew Higgins

While I was working at the climbing wall last night, an influx of freshman entered the bouldering cave. Out of the group, there were about eight guys and two girls. This is a typical male to female ratio in climbing. Men always seem to dominate in numbers, and as a female climber, it’s hard not to feel that mens’ bodies are superior for this sport--muscular, with more core and upper body strength, allowing them to send harder, more strenuous routes. While I can easily build my quads with consistent training, I frown when I glimpse my nonexistent arm muscles, which seems rebellious to any kind of discipline.

I’ve always been an adamant feminist, insistent that women and men are always equal, no matter the situation. Humans are individuals, and we can’t say that some of us are one way and others, another. It differs. But physical capabilities--sports--is where I draw blank. The fact remains that we’re animals, a species with certain hormones. Men have testosterone. Women have estrogen. One makes you strong and fast, the other makes you a good mother. The uncertainty about what to say with regards to these scientific facts is in my mind a barrier to constructive discussion about equality and feminism. We want to say that everyone is unique and unquantifiable, but it this so? How different are we really, and what role does nature play in our lives? It’s a question I cringe to ask, but I will: how much of our social constructions are shaped by biological disparities?

In many sports, men are thought to be faster, stronger and more aggressive. America doesn’t watch women’s field hockey or equestrian; the country watch football, baseball, soccer--almost exclusively male dominated pastimes. We’re interested in the pinnacle of what can be achieved, and unfortunately, the pinnacle in these types of sports isn’t often inhabited by women.

But that’s not because women are weak. It’s because most sports are tailored to mens’ bodies. If we accept that indeed, there are fundamental biological distinctions between men and women, then we also accept that men have general strengths that women do not and that the opposite. Many sports were created by men, to be played by men, and therefore pander to their physicality. As women enter these sports, they necessarily are at a disadvantage. There are, of course, other sports where the success of the individual sexes is less clear, such as tennis, volleyball, gymnastics, golf, skating. But those that our culture values most are clearly designed for men. It follows not surprisingly then that women struggle to excel and compete in those areas.

Climbing, however, establishes itself in a league of its own. While I may lament what I perceive to be my own muscular weakness in comparison to men in this field, surprisingly, that’s probably just my own self-pitying--strength is not the limiting factor in climbing. Good climbers do not fit one body type; the best climbers in the world, Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma, have drastically physiques: Ondra is pale and thin ( 5’11”; 128 lbs); Sharma is tan and buff (6’0”; 165 lbs). At a point, the sport is not about how strong your body is, but about how efficiently and masterfully you use, balance, and stretch your body. Dancers may excel more quickly in climbing than buff football players.

For this reason, climbing is a terrific lens through which to view feminism’s relationship to physicality, because it separates the physical from the culture. The sport is arguably the most stripped down and bare out of canon. There’s only you and your body, perhaps a rope and some gear, and it was not created to fit masculine bodies but rather, was formed in response to a natural feature: rocks.

And yet, men still dominate this sport. So if indeed women have the physical capability to be equal to men in climbing, why isn’t it so?

The fact is, elite women and men climbers aren’t extremely different. Adam Ondra can climb a 15.15c, but Sasha DiGulian can climb a 5.14d (for those of you unfamiliar with the Yosemite Decimal System, know only that a 15c is harder than a 14d, but these are both incredibly difficult routes and not worlds apart when it comes down to it), and they’re both twenty-years-old. The barrier for women in climbing isn’t physical: it’s almost entirely cultural.

Men dominate climbing because its part of the climbing culture--they hoard around Carleton’s gym and around gyms in cities; our climbing staff is primarily males with only a sprinkling of females. The dynamic, ultimately, is rooted in a male-dominated history. When climbing as a sport took shape in the 19th century, it was necessarily a man’s pastime because the cultural precepts of age necessitated that women remain in the domestic sphere. Climbing was absurdly dangerous. It was also an outdoor recreation reserved for men.

This legacy carries over into today, so that climbing is still viewed as a man’s sport--dangerous, outdoorsy, burly--despite that women are as agile and capable climbers as men. The fact that there are not as many representations of women’s climbing capabilities is only because women are not indoctrinated into the pastime with the same force that men are. 

Climbing refutes arguments of women’s inferior physicality: it’s not that we’re not as good as men, it’s that we’re not expected, cultivated or trained to be as good. This is true in all other male-dominated sports, but its more difficult to parse out because many of those sports were created in response to the male, not the female, physique. With climbing, it’s easier to recognize the complexity of cultural forces beyond physical discrepancies between the sexes.

The issue isn’t inequity between bodies, it’s pre-existing inequities in history and culture. Women climbers are dominated by men not because men are better climbers, but because hundreds of years ago, the American culture created an enduring atmosphere that allowed men to climb while women remain inside, existing their separate sphere.

Like so many issues of inequality, it’s not a matter of what is, but of what was.

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