Rock Climbing, Sexism, and Women in STEM

An article in Alpinist magazine reviews famous climbing guidebooks from a feminist, intersectionalist perspective.

The critique consists of counting how many men and women are featured in each picture or on each page, and looking for gender balance in the pronouns and language used. While several of the rock climbing guidebooks come close to gender parity with their photographs, one stands out as notably biased:

Training for the New Alpinism contains only 15 photos of women climbing, compared to 148 men. The Alpinist article suggests that women don’t climb steep, icy routes in the mountains in equal numbers because of the sexist stereotypes that guidebooks create.

I’m going to offer a fairly obvious alternate explanation: the guidebook features more pictures of male alpinists because there are more male alpinists. Furthermore, there are more male alpinists because men and women have different attitudes and preferences, on average — alpinism is a kind of stupid, risky activity, the sort of thing that men are drawn to more often. A lot of men likewise think that free soloing (rock climbing without a rope) is awesome, but most women are smarter than that.

This isn’t a question about interest in endurance sports. Marathon running in the US is more or less gender balanced, some sources claim that women are now racing more often than men. Walk into an average rock climbing gym and you’ll also find a good gender mix. For specific types of climbing, though — free soloing, alpinism, mountaineering expeditions — there’s a distinct gender imbalance. These specialties involve high amounts of risk, discomfort, or isolation.

Every year, about a thousand people travel to Alaska to climb Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. The expedition lasts about three weeks and involves pleasant activities such as trudging through the snow with 50 lbs of gear on your back while dragging another 80 lbs on a sled behind you, or shoveling snow for hours to keep your tent from collapsing in a blizzard. Reaching the summit usually takes a sustained 12 hour push, the air gets very thin around 20,000 feet and temperatures may get down to -40 degrees. The views are great, the experience is sublime, but there’s a good deal of discomfort involved. There’s also a bit of risk — there tends to be 1 death on the mountain for every 200 people that summit (that is roughly equal to your lifetime risk of dying in a car crash).

90% of Denali climbers are men. Is it possible for a woman to climb in those conditions? Absolutely! The hundred or so women that show up each year are very strong, both mentally and physically. Do women on Denali, surrounded by men, encounter some sexism? Almost certainly! The question, though, is whether less women show up because of sexism, or simply because less women find this a fun and worthwhile pursuit.

I guess that people write articles like the piece in Alpinist to encourage us to think about race and gender in every context. However, it has the opposite effect on me. If I keep hearing unreasonable claims of sexism, I pay less attention to those which are reasonable and more important, like the disturbing rates of sexual assault or other violence against women. Likewise, slurring every political or ideological opponent with labels like “sexist” or “racist” makes those labels less meaningful when we get a politician who really is a sexist or racist.

II.

Alex Honnold is the most famous rock climber in the world.

If you’re not very familiar with the sport, you might expect that Honnold is famous because he’s the best rock climber in the world, but he’s not. Adam Ondra is a better sport climber. Daniel Woods is a better Boulderer. Kai Lightner beats both at gym climbing competitions.

Honnold is famous because he takes larger risks than most, climbing iconic big walls without a rope. Thousands of people are capable of climbing the same routes with proper safety equipment, but Honnold is often the only person who is willing to do these climbs with no backup plan, only the risk of certain death if he slips. Other climbers remain unknown outside their own community, while Honnold’s risky behavior awards him widespread fame, and a full length feature documentary.

Climbing is not unique in having a gender gap. There are more men than women driving in Nascar. Men outnumber women in combat sports. Men outnumber women in dangerous professions like commercial fishing.

So, why do men do risky things? It might be biological, it might be cultural, it might be both. The evolutionary explanation is that men who took more risks tended to have more children than men who did not. Women, by contrast, could usually reproduce by playing it safe. This likely left men with some innate programming to do risky things. For some it might just feel great to go rock climbing, for others it may be an overt effort to gain status and respect or sexual attention.

Honnold, on a public speaking tour, once joked that he thought that soloing a route called “Astroman” might help him get laid. The Yosemite valley climb requires making moves like this, 1000 feet above the ground.

From https://www.mountainproject.com/photo/106626733

Seriously dude, it’s not worth it, just ask that girl for her number.

Biology might make men seek risk, but culture rewards men for risk as well — Honnold is awarded more fame than other skilled climbers because he takes more risk. Young men might consider free solo rock climbing because they want to imitate Honnold’s accomplishments or reach similar renown. It’s not possible to entirely separate biology from culture, here, because both reward the same things.

There are some women that also excel at free solo rock climbing, though I get the impression that it comes less naturally for some of them — Steph Davis regularly writes humble articles on how to overcome fear through repetition and competence. I wonder if this is because she’s had to work through the process more, or if it’s because her ego isn’t as tied up into being bold and fearless.

Steph Davis free soloing the diamond, on Longs Peak

Honnold, by contrast, seems to just get psyched and then goes climbing. Brain scans suggest he might not even feel fear in the same way that most of us do. Generally speaking, it’s hard to learn things from a prodigy who can pick up a skill much more quickly than you.

Lynn Hill was widely regarded as the strongest woman climbing in the 80’s, a decade of big hair and spandex in all the best colors.

http://fierceclimbing.blogspot.com/

Lynn Hill famously climbed the nose route on El Capitan in better style than any man or woman before her. Her words after completing the climb were a famous taunt — “it goes, boys!”

From http://cruxcrush.com/2015/01/10/kj-sends-pitch-15-on-the-dawnwall/

Hill (who used a rope and trad gear for safety on these climbs) was once asked a question by french free solo climber Alain Robert, who wanted to know which of two routes on El Capitan would be better for climbing without a rope. She wisely responded, “neither, you will die”.

Getting back to the article about sexism in Alpinist magazine, it also suggests that climbing guidebooks have an ableist bias because they don’t spend enough time helping paraathletes climb.

Boulder, Colorado has some huge rock slabs that many people climb, with or without a rope.

from https://rootsrated.com/stories/15-must-boulder-adventures-2015

It’s not a particularly hard thing to do, but you need to stay calm. If you lose your balance, without a rope, you might roll a thousand feet down the slab and die (several people have died this way).

Soloing the flatirons on crutches would be possible, but exceedingly risky:

Needless to say, bringing a wheelchair seems like a really bad idea. Going out of your way to make alpinism more appealing to the disabled is perhaps not the smartest idea.

Seriously, people die climbing all the time. A big chunk of writing about climbing is done to dissuade people (mostly young men) from doing things that are too risky, or to encourage people to get as much training as possible and to take as many precautions as possible before doing risky things.

Denali isn’t considered a difficult or dangerous climb, having first been climbed over a century ago. The difficulties and the risks are much higher, for modern test pieces. K2 kills one climber for every 4 people that summit.

Even the best trained and most prepared climbers often die young. Ueli Steck, world famous for his fast free solo climbs on rock and ice, died in the Himalayas last year, at the ripe old age of 40. 23 year old Inge Perkins, a highly accomplished climber and skier, also lost her life in 2017, buried in an avalanche. Her boyfriend, 27 year old climber Hayden Kennedy, took his own life shortly thereafter. Earlier in his life, reflecting on the deaths of two of his climbing friends, Hayden had remarked that “climbing is either a beautiful gift, or a curse”.

Having lost friends in climbing accidents, I can only say that Hayden’s remarks resonate with me. I never know whether to help more people appreciate this beautiful window to the outdoors, or whether to encourage people to stay home and take less risks. I also get confused when a writer decides that society is sexist because not enough women take part in alpinism. This sounds a bit like complaining that there’s a gender divide in heroin overdoses, and more women need to try heroin, to keep up with men.

Be careful what privileges you wish for.

III.

GrrlScientist describes a study that shows gender polarization in many different scientific fields.

That study assessed the current gender balance of each field, and how fast the gender balance was changing, and extrapolated the trends to figure out when each will become 50/50. Physics is 83% male and it will take 258 years to become even, while nursing is currently 75% female and will take 320 years to become gender balanced.

As with rock climbing guidebooks, the assumption here is that any imbalance is the result of sexism, women are excluded from physics and forced, against their wishes, to become nurses. Is there a better explanation than prejudice, though?

The climbing rangers on Denali are almost all men. 100 miles away, in a much lower elevation part of Denali national park, rangers train sled dogs. Most of those rangers are women. Most marine biologists are women. Most veterinarians are women. Most psychologists are women. Medicine is about 50/50, but when you dig into the statistics for specialties, you find that male and female doctors go into different fields — men are more likely to become surgeons or radiologists or anesthesiologists, while women are more likely to become pediatricians or gynecologists or family practitioners.

A fairly simple way to explain all these trends is that women (on average) prefer to work with people or animals, and men prefer to work with abstract things. This is exactly what research suggests.

It’s not obvious whether men and women differ because of biology or culture. It certainly seems reasonable that biology has some effect — women have evolved to nurture children, that could make them more empathetic and interested in people and animals. From an early age, boys show a preference for moving toys like cars and girls show a preference for nurturing toys like dolls. Even baby monkeys show similar preferences. Women exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero show job interests and behaviors similar to men.

Gender is not just a social construct. However, James Damore famously got fired for suggesting that men and women have different levels of interest in engineering. 12 years earlier, Harvard president Lawrence Summers lost his job for talking about variability ratios in male and female intelligence (basically, studies show that there are more men that are either very intelligent or very stupid, women are more likely to be a bit closer to average). Two recent authors were unable to publish a paper explaining evolutionary reasons for this effect.

So, we have an awkward situation here — I can look at the world around me and see obvious differences in gender preferences, and I can look at the news and see that it’s career suicide to mention them. I also see articles analyzing more and more aspects of life (like science careers, or climbing, but also things like children’s behavior and clothing) from a social constructivist or critical feminist perspective, and that makes me vaguely uneasy as to what simple observations about gender will become taboo next.

I’ve studied physics and worked in programming. I like to climb mountains. I’m interested in libertarian politics (which also seems to have bad gender ratios). So, that’s at least 4 fields where men are overrepresented. If sexism is what keeps women from achieving gender balance in various fields, I’m pretty much oppressing women every waking minute of my day. So, I find the typical dialogue on this topic disconcerting. I want to know what I can do to be make these fields more welcoming and accommodating, but I also want an honest discussion of why women actually choose to avoid physics or programming.

IV.

One brilliant female engineer described some of her experiences with sexism to me. After two years of work on one successful project, a male colleague took her aside and said, “I’ve learned to respect you, even though you are a woman”.

Another woman I know works as a carpenter. She regularly has colleagues remark that she’s good at the job, for a girl.

I’m sure it’s weird being a woman in a male dominated sport, like climbing or mountaineering. You might get harassed, and you’ll likely have a lot of guys hitting on you. (On the flip side, you can probably find a guy to lead any climb for you or teach you new skills — an ugly dude like me usually just has to find a marginally competent belayer and then lead the climb).

The social constructivist assumption is that these stereotypical views have created the very imbalance they describe. I think the arrow of causality goes in the opposite direction — gender preferences lead to uneven gender ratios, stereotypes form around these, and then people apply these stereotypes excessively and unfairly.

Many of us are guilty of a logical mistake called the ecological fallacy. We see average people around us and create stereotypes, and then judge individuals based on the stereotypes. These stereotypes are sometimes valid — let’s say, the average man runs faster than the average woman. If you pick any one man and woman, at random, you’ll have somewhat better odds to assume the man will win a race. But, if you actually wanted to know who was the faster runner, you’d have to let the two race. It would be rather offensive to then tell the winning woman that she “runs fast, for a girl”.

It’s likewise offensive to repeat jokes and stereotypes to women in engineering — you should assume your colleagues are qualified, because they’ve made it through the same demanding process to get the job as you have.

Major companies emphasize “unconscious bias” training, to try to help us fix our stereotypical judgements. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that this training does much to affect outcomes, like hiring and promotion rates. One thing that does seem to help correct stereotypes is having objective hiring standards. In one famous study, orchestras that held blind auditions were more likely to hire female musicians.

In a study to determine why women aren’t promoted as often as men, Google came up with some surprisingly simple results and policies. The promotion process at Google was started by self-nomination, and women weren’t nominating themselves for promotion as often as men were. One Google executive started a yearly tradition of sending out a reminder e-mail that women should nominate themselves, if they were ready, and managers should encourage competent women to nominate themselves. One year, the executive forgot to send out this annual reminder, and female promotion rates went back to their lower baseline, for that year.

I can’t say why women at Google weren’t nominating themselves. It’s possible that a sexist culture kept them feeling threatened and insecure. It’s also possible that they were just slightly more nervous than men about the process, on average. I find self promotion difficult, as well, so I’m quite sympathetic here.

The important take-away is that the fix was rather simple — a quick memo during promotion season helped reduce the gender gap. Another simple step for companies would be to make interviews and promotions based on objective criteria, as much as possible. We’re less able to let our biases affect our judgement when we set objective standards, rather than relying on personal impressions.

We may also be able to improve diversity by changing the way that people are promoted and selected for management. Some studies suggest that companies with more diversity in management are more profitable. Again, the arrow of causality here isn’t clear, but it seems plausible that diverse leaders could help create products for a wider variety of people.

Asked about work life balance, Google CEO Larry Page once said that it depends on which phase of life you’re in — if you’ve just had children, maybe you’d like to work less and be home more. On the other hand, if you’ve just been dumped, then maybe the best thing to do is to go work very hard on an important project, maybe you should transfer to work on Google+ (now a failed social network, but at the time, the biggest company priority).

Most people think that Google+ failed to catch on because Facebook was already too large and entrenched. I think maybe the problem was that it was also designed by a bunch of bitter geeks who’d just been dumped. And that real names policy? Maybe just a way to stalk their ex’s? (I’m kidding — real names are encouraged because companies want to market products to real people, especially women)

Perhaps a more diverse management team could have helped Google+ appeal to more people.

We’ve touched on why less women than men work in engineering — there are subtle differences in aptitude and significant differences in what men and women are interested in. Why are there less women in tech management, though? Women are sometimes seen as better than men at communication, or multitasking, or creative thinking. Diversity of leadership seems to benefit an organization. Why doesn’t a big tech company, like Google, have a better gender balance of managers or executives?

I’d argue this is, in part, because promotion to tech management is done primarily from the ranks of engineers. To climb to the top of the hierarchy, you need to compete with other engineers at many levels. A general management theory, The Peter Principle, says that we promote people to the next level only if they are good at their current job. People continue to be promoted until they find a job they can not perform as well and then they stay there — “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence”. An amusing corollary is that the best way to make a company more efficient would be to just demote everyone one level down the hierarchy.

At various tech jobs, I’ve worked under managers who were hired for their management background and also people promoted from engineering. Generally speaking, the more technical managers were obsessive micro-managers, who spent most of meeting time asking about details and trying to solve code problems for the people working underneath them. Less technical managers would focus on timelines and resources, manage human relationships, set contingency plans, or work on other big picture ideas.

Let’s suppose that there’s some trend where the best engineers don’t also have the best skills dealing with other people (I don’t know if this an empirical trend, but we all know the stereotypes and, as we’ve discussed, stereotypes usually have a kernel of truth to them). In that case, the promotion process in tech companies likely filters out good management candidates (many of them women) long before they get to the ranks where their better interpersonal skills would shine.

V.

“So you’re saying girls should just go play with marine mammals and leave programming to the boys?”

It might seem defeatist to suggest that women are just less interested in engineering, and relegate them to more human oriented jobs in education or medicine or biology or other fields. For some reason, there’s a lot of momentum around the idea that we definitely need more women in programming. I don’t entirely understand the motivation here — there are gender gaps throughout society, but this particular one gets some of the most attention, maybe because tech jobs are increasingly seen as an easy way to make a lot of money.

Supposing we want to change culture and get those numbers up, where should we best focus our efforts?

Note that this discrepancy doesn’t start in the work place or in college. Women are just as poorly represented in programming in high school, where only 20% of students in AP computer science classes are girls. That ratio stays the same for college CS programs, and is about the same as the gender balance in the tech industry. A straightforward approach here would be to make programming a mandatory class in high school. More women would be exposed to the subject, early on, and there’s a greater chance that some would discover they really like it. And, for that matter, men of all races would get the same exposure, tech companies could gain more diversity that way, and underprivileged minorities would have a better chance at making good money. Learning better computer skills also seems like it could be valuable for most Americans, moving forward (it’s certainly more relevant to modern jobs than, say, British literature).

I’ve already suggested a few other solutions — do a better job at treating people as individuals instead of gender stereotypes, hire people based on objective standards, give out promotions based on merit rather than ambition, select managers based on management skills rather than simply based on technical ability. But, if we want a nation of programming geeks, I think the biggest thing is to get us all started programming young.

As one last suggestion, though, I’d ask you to consider the stereotypes we have of men in engineering. When we think of doctors in fiction, we have characters like this:

When we think of engineers, our characters are more like this:

This essay has mostly advanced the position that people aren’t all the same, and stereotypes are often based on these differences. Suppose, for a minute, that I’m wrong. Suppose that women avoid alpinism or programming because stereotypes tell them that women aren’t welcome in these pursuits. By the same logic, I’d have to think that stereotypes of programmers as obnoxious nerds must turn male engineers into obnoxious nerds. Maybe women would be more inclined to go into engineering if they weren’t repeatedly warned that they’d be surrounded by socially awkward men.

I suppose it’s possible to have a view in between — maybe programming draws some introverted, socially inept people, but the stereotypes permit these people to avoid any effort to improve their social skills.

If you’d like to see male engineers behave better and stop scaring women away from the field, I have a simple request for you — stop perpetuating these stereotypes. Stop shaming engineers as antisocial geeks. Stop watching TV shows and movies that portray these men as socially inept. Let’s find a way to make engineering seem like a really cool job that people are attracted towards doing. Before long, you might see more women and more socially competent men joining the field. Maybe men will even start writing code to gain status and impress women, instead of feeling compelled to free climb vertical rock walls for attention.