Gender Bias: Learning from the Women's Outdoor Leadership Course
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Gender Bias: Learning from the Women's Outdoor Leadership Course

Kate O'Brien, Project Manager

As well as celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, International Women's Day (IWD) aims to accelerate gender parity. The 2022 theme of #BreakTheBias felt like the perfect opportunity to share some of our learnings about gender bias as a result of creating and running the Women's Outdoor Leadership Course over the past couple of years.

We asked Kate O'Brien, Project Manager to share this update.


We are sitting in the woods by the lake at the beginning of what will be 10 weeks of adventures, learning, laughter and friendships in and around the Ullswater valley. Ten women, a variety of backgrounds, career journeys and aspirations. There is an air of excitement and perhaps a little apprehension at what is to come.

Each of the women describes their connection to the outdoors, the joy it brings, personal adventures they have enjoyed, the benefits to their own health and wellbeing and how they want to share this connection with others.

It's clear these women are motivated, interested in an outdoor career and would be brilliant role models for young people in the outdoors.

Recognising Gender Bias

Discussions turn to the female only space and why the women find themselves here on a Women’s Outdoor Leadership Course.

“Do you ever feel like you’re expected to be weak and that you have to prove yourself in other outdoor environments…?

The question posed by one of the group lingers in the air.

Words from the International Handbook of Women and Outdoor Learning which shares decades of research into women’s experiences in the outdoors echo in my mind;

“The source of the problem is complicated: outdoor women do not often find explicit opposition or overt prejudice. Instead, the obstacles are invisible and the covert biases that prevent women’s progress appear to be gender neutral.” Gray and Mitten, 2020

Thankfully the days when laws limited women’s lives are gone. However the implications of that history are still very much with us. Since I last wrote about gender bias, Outward Bound have launched our Women’s Outdoor Leadership Course and have heard from over 80 women who describe some of the situations which can erode confidence and stifle the development of a professional identity as an outdoor leader. It seems that in the 2020’s bias still exists as women share experiences of being talked over, mistaken for “the assistant”, sexualised, protected, over-helped, valued for their appearance over their competence, being deferred into pastoral or administrative roles despite having high levels of technical expertise or their values not being appreciated in the workplace.

One participant delves deeper into her personal reality, which mirrors a sentiment shared by many applicants,

"I seem to get held back by feeling that I’m not good enough. What if I forget something and look foolish? What if I’m just not ready? These are factors which I’d like very much to be able to push past but I’m not quite there yet."

The impact of internalised bias

Women aren't born inherently unconfident, self doubting or questioning their worth and contributions. Internalised bias manifests itself as those feelings that arise as a result of living and developing in a system that’s designed to tell you that as a woman you’re “lesser than”, less capable, less important, less valued, or “only valued if”, you play a particular (nurturing, caring) role or look a particular way. Therefore, as women we can unconsciously hold false assumptions about our own skills, available opportunities, and appropriate goals. And then blame ourselves for being a bit rubbish!

Internalised bias is what can drive those feelings of needing to be 110% ready before showing up for an assessment, what stops you putting yourself forward for that job in case you don’t meet people’s expectations, makes you sit quietly at the back during a training session rather than ask that burning question in case you appear incompetent. It’s the bias that becomes life limiting and confidence sucking if left unchecked over time. Especially if fuelled by continuing interactions that are understood to be more evidence that you’re really not good enough, not ready, not valued, or not really meant to be there. A self-defeating spiral. Such biases can be magnified for women holding multiple marginalised identities.

We know there are some great women outdoor leaders out there who don’t experience such things, or have worked through them to a more empowered sense of leadership identity. We also know that for each one of those there are countless more who would like to be leading, and pursuing outdoor qualifications but who are facing gendered challenges in doing so. It’s time to break the bias!


It is being recognised more and more that not all discrimination is equal and many women are impacted by further biases and barriers beyond gender alone. The concept of intersectionality promotes understanding of human beings as shaped by the interaction of multiple identities (eg race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability). The INclusivity OUTdoors report published by the Institute for Outdoor Learning identifies perceptions and understanding as a common theme which is important to recognise as we continue to work towards gender equality.

960x600 intersectionality diagram

The good news is that bias is learned and so can be unlearned. Moving towards gender equality requires understanding that gender operates in a complex system, that we are all part of. We can all become more conscious of our interactions and get curious about what role gender (and other aspects of identity) plays in the language we use and actions we take with different people. As women we can question our assumptions about what might be possible in our own lives, get clear about our values and goals, identify areas we might be holding ourselves back or misdirecting energy, feel the fear, get clarity and take some aligned action.

960x600 WOLC map reading
960x600 WOLC wild swim
960x600 WOLC sunset
960x600 WOLC campfire
960x600 WOLC canoe journey
960x600 WOLC hike
960x600 WOLC ridge pink sky
960x600 WOLC final group shot

Further Reading