Kate O’Brien: Equality the goal for outdoor opportunities in leadership

Outward Bound Trust Women's Outdoor Leadership course
Outward Bound Trust Women's Outdoor Leadership course
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Created in 1941, it took until the mid-1960s for women to be able to access Outward Bound. In the US, a female-specific course was created, and in the UK, Rhownair school was set up to ­provide outdoor education for girls.

Today, Outward Bound has as many young women as men participating in their courses – however, just 20 per cent of its outdoor instructors are female. The figure is even lower for mountain training and British Canoeing’s higher level leadership qualifications (10 per cent and 8 per cent respectively).

We strongly believe that change is needed to ensure young people have more female role models ­leading courses for them. The aim of the brand new, innovative Women’s Outdoor Leadership course is to encourage women working in the outdoors to step up to the next level and become more confident in ­taking on the technical qualifications required to work in the more ­challenging ­environments which Outward Bound operates.

This course has been developed ­following extensive research. Over the last year at Outward Bound, we have been exploring the reasons behind our lack of diversity. We consulted with national governing bodies, higher education and other employers, and engaged with the findings from within the corporate, public, charity and education sectors.

Certain population groups are clearly underrepresented in our workforce and in the outdoor ­sector more generally and we believe that this must change. We are committed to creating an instructional team that more closely represents the ­backgrounds of the young people we work with. Encouraging women to join our operational workforce and assume leadership positions is an important first step.

Eight participants were selected to take part in the Women’s ­Outdoor Leadership course at our ­Ullswater centre, which combines personal adventure and skills development with opportunities to work with groups of young people alongside experienced instructors. As well as technical skills around summer mountain leadership, rock climbing instruction and paddlesports ­leadership, the psychology around personal development and the unlocking of potential is an integral part of the training and mentoring process.

We had the support of two of ­Scotland’s top female adventurers on this journey – world record-breaking cyclist Jenny Graham and elite mountain biker Lee Craigie have ­supported the project and been an inspiration to the women involved.

Jenny is famous for breaking the women’s round-the-world cycling record, riding 18,000 miles across 16 countries unsupported in just 124 days. Meanwhile, Lee is a former British Mountain Bike champion for Team GB and Scotland. She is currently Scotland’s official Active Nation Commissioner.

Both continue to ride their bikes incredible distances each year and facilitate bikepacking expeditions for young women. This challenges the notion that women are less ­capable than men to experience adventure and undertake expeditions in the great outdoors. Jenny and Lee are both inspirational leaders and we are delighted they were keen to help us enthuse potential new female leaders in the outdoors.

Research has shown that a lack of female role models can be a limiting factor for some women. This is something male instructors do not experience; their norm is to be trained by men. It is therefore very important to us to have inspiring females support the course and the opportunity for women to be trained and mentored alongside other women.

Women have identified a number of factors contributing to lower representation within the sector – a lack of female mentors, the deeply entrenched gender bias within the industry, flexibility when it comes to family commitments and their own self-limiting beliefs.

We need to help overcome these real and perceived challenges to develop well-rounded, aspiring female instructors with the readiness and desire to work in the outdoors, in order to positively impact on the potential of the next generation of girls. So, as this first course comes to an end, we realise the journey has only just begun. This is new for ­Outward Bound and like any true adventure we don’t yet know what will happen. We are confident however that it will influence the stories of eight women and equip them to lead and inspire the girls they will be working with in the future. Ultimately, we aspire to learn, improve our practices and drive future actions towards equality.

As we go into a new decade, we will be running another Women’s Outdoor Leadership course in 2020, so if you are interested in taking part or finding out more, go to www.outwardbound.org.uk/diversity-in-the-outdoors

Kate O’Brien, project manager at The Outward Bound Trust