In a world that’s traditionally been dominated by men, Westminster College acts as a refuge for women in the world of outdoor recreation and showcases how quickly the field is changing.
“Professionally, I find myself working with very few women,” said Tiana White, director of Westminster’s Outdoor Recreation Program. “I think Westminster is actually a really cool exception, and we have a lot of women instructors in our program—a lot of female trip leaders and staff. At Westminster, we’re in a little bit of a bubble. It feels really awesome to be a woman involved in the outdoors.”
White said this could be because so many students are drawn to Westminster due to the outdoor recreation opportunities Utah provides, but she said that gender equity isn’t the case everywhere.
“I know that when I travel to national conferences, I find myself typically sitting around the table with a group of guys,” White said. “That can be really challenging.”
The percentage of female participants in outdoor recreation activities declines as women age, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Report. Although most women participate in recreational activities indoors, women’s participation in outdoor recreation has been growing nationally, with statistics from 2014 showing the highest participation rates among girls and women since 2006.
The next frontier for outdoor recreation is engaging people across all races, according to the Outdoor Participation Report. In 2013, 70 percent of outdoor participants were caucasian, with African American populations making up the lowest levels of participation, according to data from the report.
Although the outdoor rec world still has many diversity problems, women are breaking new ground into the field—especially at Westminster.
“Women are out there for sure, and they’re doing things that are just as badass as the guys are,” White said. “There are just as many women pushing limits and boundaries and doing just as many epic things. I think the perception that women aren’t out there is maybe old. The nature of what they’re doing is the next frontier. Women are engaging in really challenging things and pioneering certain areas of outdoor sports.”
One of these so-called pioneers is Westminster student Alex Frol, sophomore biology major. Frol said she came to Westminster not only for the education but also with the dream of someday participating in the Paralympics.
Frol said her disability has made her a better skier because with one prosthetic leg she was forced to find easier and more efficient ways to participate in the sport.
“My disability gave me an outlet to be better,” Frol said. “My disability gave me an option that I don’t think people who aren’t disabled could completely comprehend. I think a lot of people do things the same way because they have to—because that’s what they’re taught—but I was never taught to do things the same way as my brother because it didn’t work for me.”
Frol is a three trekker, meaning that although she learned to ski with poles, she now skis with two outriggers, which are like crutches with skis on the end.
Frol said that finding a community of other outdoor women with disabilities helped her reach her full potential as a skier.
“I’m with the stand-up women, and it’s just been a great experience because you see other people with disabilities, which you might not necessarily see when you’re younger,” Frol said. “You get around people who have had similar experiences and different ones and they teach you and you grow even more.”
Mariah Hartle, a junior from Colorado who leads trips for the outdoor program, said the Westminster community is supportive of women in the outdoors and that she doesn’t think gender issues are a concern out in the field.
“No matter who I’m leading with, I feel like we build on each other,” Hartle said. “The gender doesn’t matter. I’ve never felt it here in the community at Westminster.”
However, she said she sometimes feels a need to prove herself because she is a woman.
“I think a lot of time men don’t really believe girls can do it,” she said. “I wish it wasn’t like that and there would be no expectation at all, but I feel like you have to prove yourself to be one of the boys. I feel that less and less—especially at Westminster.”
Frohl and Hartle aren’t the only Westminster women who were drawn to the college because of the unique outdoor opportunities and environment the college has to offer.
Maria Nappi, sophomore environmental science major, came to Utah from Maine to push her passion of outdoor recreation with Telemark skiing—an uncommon crossover of Alpine and Nordic skiing where the heel is free.
Nappi said that although she’s not a serious competitor, she loves to be involved in the world of outdoor recreation to meet other people and have fun. Although she’s confident on the slopes now, Nappi said it’s easy to feel nervous as a beginner.
“It’s kind of intimidating if you’re worrying that you’re the only girl,” she said. “That’s just a mental barrier we all have to overcome because anyone will respect you for doing your best. Just overcome the barrier and do your best.”
Nappi said that the biggest problem she sees outdoor women face is finding suitable gear.
“It’s a really hard thing to find quality gear because there’s a gap between where female gear is at and where male gear is,” Nappi said. “It took me over a month to find a coat and a pair of snow pants that were rain proof and windproof and had vents.”
Overall, Nappi said it’s important for women to get involved in the outdoors to break down gender stereotypes of what women can and can’t do.
“I think it’s important for females to participate because females are just as good of athletes as males, and we all have the capabilities to do things just as well,” Nappi said. “Don’t get scared off by the boys doing things that are crazy. People should do it for the experience—not for being the best on the mountain or wall or wherever you are.”
Overall, the women agreed that Westminster is a supportive place to be a female in outdoor recreation, and that the climate at the college is representative of larger trends of involvement and acceptance throughout the country.
“I think the perception [of women in the outdoors] is shifting,” said White, director of the outdoor program. “The whole field was dominated by men for the longest time, so there’s bound to be some sort of transition.”