(Photo courtesy of cyclingfans.com)

WOMEN IN THE OUTDOORS

A revised version of this article was featured in the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition monthly newsletter — February 2013. 

Polar Bottle Water Bottle Supports Women in the outdoors

In July, a team of six amateur riders in the legendary Tour de France bike race stole a little of the spotlight from some of the most recognized pro cyclists in the industry. The reason for all the hype: as they crossed the finish line of the 2,162-mile race after three weeks in the saddle, the riders had on sports bras under their race jerseys.

The Reve Tours 2012 team, made up of some of the top female cyclists from around the country, set out on the tour a day ahead of the pros. It is believed that it was the first women’s team to ride the entire Tour de France route in the race’s 109-year history.

In a blog posted the night before the women rode the final leg of the tour into Paris, team member Heidi Swift wrote,

“Tonight at dinner some of the girls and I discussed all of the people who’d told us that we couldn’t or wouldn’t make it. There were a lot. Some were well intentioned and some were not. And for all those who had the guts to actually say it to our faces, there were even more who implied or hinted at it.”

Proving their critics wrong and completing the tour was one of many feats that female athletes like Swift and her teammates have achieved in the past decade to encourage all women to stay active and healthy through sports and outdoor recreation.

As interest in sports and the outdoors grow, asserting women’s presence in these male-dominated industries is more important than ever. Thankfully, there are some female pioneers working tirelessly to make this happen.

When Georgena Terry broke into the cycling market with her custom female road bikes in the early 1980s she says no one believed women would ever be passionate enough about the sport to spend thousands of dollars on a bicycle.

“A woman’s bike when I started was the traditional girls bike,” Terry said, describing a frilly pink little girl’s bicycle.

According to Terry, for decades distributors have resisted designing bikes to fit a woman’s frame. Instead, she said, women were just being sold smaller versions of men’s bikes.

“No one thought of making two parallel options — one for men one women,” Terry said.

Ignoring the industry standards, Terry began using her engineering background to design bicycles and saddles specifically for women, with smaller front wheels and custom sized frames. She founded her company Terry Precision Cycling in 1985, soon establishing a niche in the bike market with female customers willing to pay upwards of $5,000 for a custom steel bicycle. Today, nearly 30 years later, Terry continues to run a thriving business, proving every day that women are an undeniable force in the cycling industry.

For life coach Amy Christensen, expanding women’s presence in the outdoor industry is about more than encouraging a healthy lifestyle. For her clients at her Boulder, Colorado based practice Expand Outdoors, Christensen says getting outside impacts their entire lives.

“Whatever you do in the outdoors is a metaphor for what we do in our daily lives,” Christensen said. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”

Like many of her clients, Christensen’s love for the outdoors came later in life when she moved to Colorado from Maryland and suddenly felt a pull toward sports, running especially.

She started slowly, running a half a mile, then a mile, then 10 or 20.

“The trails just spoke to me,” said Christensen, who has since completed some of the most extreme races in the state, including the Pikes Peak Marathon.

For Christensen, successfully overcoming her fears and taking risks in the outdoors made her more confident in herself, which translated into significant positive changes in her personal and professional life. She decided she wanted to share this with other women.

“I wanted to see more women in the outdoors,” she said. “I wanted to see women empowered.”

In June 2010, Christensen founded Expand Outdoors, offering women from around the country the guidance and support to get outside, which for some women might present more of a hurdle than it is for their male peers.

According to Christensen, because of social pressure — as well as physiological differences — men and women often have conflicting relationships to the outdoors, fitness and taking risks.

Studies indicate that physically, men and women react differently to risky situations. For men, taking risks is more likely to produce feelings of exhilaration, focus and elation.

For women, however, potentially dangerous situations are more likely to lead to feelings of fear, nervousness and discomfort, which means they might need more support and encouragement before taking risks.

Along with the physical differences, women also experience unique social pressures that could discourage them from taking risks in the outdoors — whether that means running a marathon or scaling their first rock wall.

For example, women often take failure more personally than men, Christensen says, meaning that they might give up more easily after a bad run or big fall.

Throughout their lives, women are also traditionally put in fewer situations that test them physically, Christensen said. However, experts say that this is beginning to shift and more girls at a young age are participating alongside the boys in sports and other physical activities.

Despite progress, however, there is still work to be done.

According to the Women’s Sport Foundation, the Title XI initiative passed in 1972 that banned sex discrimination in schools has led to more women participating in athletics. In the past five years, however, the foundation says the gap between male and female athletic participation has actually grown. Girls sport programs continue to receive less funding, worse equipment and yield fewer scholarship opportunities than their male counterparts.

In the larger context, the numbers show similar trends.

Women make up 50 percent of the U.S. population. According to the League of American Bicyclists, however, the most recent data from 2009 indicated that women made only 24 percent of all bike trips in the United States. In terms of advocacy work, women only make up a fraction of state bicycle advisory committees. And in Washington D.C., female political leaders remain far out numbered by their male peers, meaning they have less of a voice on issues like transportation policy and environmental conservation.

Judy Amabile, president of Boulder-based Product Architects Inc. — the manufacturer of the Polar Bottle insulated water bottle — agrees that industry leaders still have a lot of work ahead of them.

Since she started her business in 1994, however, Amabile says she has witnessed a lot of progress for women and female business owners in the outdoor and sports industries.

With enough work, she is optimistic that this will continue.

“We have more of a voice,” she said. “Now, more than ever, it’s important that we use it.”