Girls in the Backcountry

Deirdre Bailey and Jocelyn Monteith
“I just feel really confident since the “all-girls” elective. I feel like I could go into the backcountry with boys or girls and do everything and feel strong. Knowing that I am capable is something I will for sure carry with me into the future.” – Grade 9 student
Landscape As our Outdoor Education programs at Connect have expanded over the past few years, our OE teaching team became increasingly concerned by consistently low participation of girls in our classes. Though our school demographic is 65% male, female numbers in Outdoor Education were significantly lower than what we would expect even accounting for this imbalance. For example, the Grade 8/9 term 2 trip last year had only one female student participant.
Upon further consultation with girls in the fall of last year, many of them expressed some hesitancy around the idea of participating in an elective that they felt was typically dominated by their male peers. Some identified barriers to participation as a lack of confidence, concerns about their ability to “keep up,” about their physical appearance in the backcountry and about being “the only girl” in a group dominated by boys. A handful of students suggested that they would be more likely to consider participating in an OE elective if there was an “all-girls” option. It was with this in mind that in term 2 this year we split the Grade 8/9 OE class into two, single gender options in an attempt to increase female participation.
With some recruitment and encouragement, we filled 26 spots in our “all-girls” term 2 Outdoor Ed elective. We ran parallel but non-overlapping programs for both groups including a day trip to Kananaskis and an overnight ski trip to Mosquito Creek in Banff National Park. At the conclusion of the term we asked students to comment on their experience. Here are some of the girls’ reflections:
“I appreciated the all girls class because I felt like there was a tighter bond between classmates. Everyone was included, and people didn’t feel judged because they were a girl. I really felt that it was a comfortable, safe environment to develop my back country skills.”
“I appreciated that it was all girls in this elective because I have never done this elective before and many of us were in the same boat. I guess I always felt that guys would all have had more experience with these things and I would look awkward for being new at it.”
“I liked being in a group with all girls because I felt that we were much more supportive of each other than a group with both boys and girls. Everyone was very comfortable and felt accepted. I feel that with the boys there would have been more competition.”
“I liked this all girls elective because it made me have more connections with other girls in the school. Mixed gender OE electives feel kind of intimidating with so many boys, they sort of bring down my confidence in myself.”
“I really appreciated that this elective was gender specific so that I could open myself up more and ask more questions. I think that it was a more “carefree” zone for a lot of people. Most girls, like me, came out of their comfort zone more than usual so the experience impacted me it a bigger way.” 
“I really appreciated the gender-specific focus of this elective because its not an everyday thing where you get to be in an all girls group and it felt really supportive. Everyone could laugh off everything.”
 “I did appreciate the gender specific focus because I found that as girls we were able to get more help and support than we would have if it was mixed gender. I also thought it was easier to try new things in girls outdoor ed, which was awesome, because I needed to try a lot of new things. Also, this way I didn’t need to worry so much about my appearance on the backpacking trip.”
“I really really appreciated the all girls elective because I am not comfortable around guys in general, and it usually limits my participation in group activities. When they made a girls elective I was really thankful because I could be more of myself and that is something that doesn’t happen all the time so I was really grateful for this experience and if they have this next year I would definitely participate.”
“Thank you for the all girls elective! Usually, this elective is an elective that mostly boys do and it pressures girl not to join. With the all girls focus it promotes girls to sign up. This was also the biggest number of girls in a outdoor ed term so that shows that the girls appreciated it too.”
“When I was in mixed OE, the group dynamic was a lot different. There were so many more boys, and they dominated pretty much everything. This term everybody was a lot closer and I think it was a lot easier to be ourselves. Both the mixed and gender-specific groups have their pros and cons, but the girls-only was a really valuable experience for me.”
The “all-boys” elective also really enjoyed their experience, but none of them indicated that they noticed any difference in their experience between the mixed and “all-boys” groups. One of them commented that there were so many boys in the mixed electives that it was really the same environment as usual.
The “all-girls” Outdoor Ed option this year ultimately resulted in an increased number of female students at Connect that were willing to try new and challenging activities and students overwhelmingly felt more comfortable and confident in developing their outdoor skills. The space that was created with the “all-girls” elective was clearly one in which an increased number of female students were provided with the opportunity to gain experience and expertise and this translated into a surge in female sign-up for our Term 3 mixed electives. We are truly grateful for having been able to provide this opportunity for our students.