The LICENSED, EXPERIENCED, FEMALE GUIDE Question
“Do you know any licensed, experienced, professional women guides who need work this summer?”
I’ve been having this conversation a lot this winter, which in a lot of ways I love. I mean, YES. Let’s get more women in professional roles in the outdoors. If you’ve asked me this question, please don’t worry - you aren’t alone in this ask, and I also know it comes from a good place. I’m genuinely glad you’re asking the question.
If you’re thinking, “Wait why do we want more women in guiding, they just create drama?!” this is probably not the article for you and I hope you’ll start this journey elsewhere. Like far, far, far away.
I digress - many outfitters are starting to see the shift in expectations for gender equity in workplaces, and are trying to hire more women. They see the benefits a gender-balanced (or hell, gender-fluid) crew can bring to a river workplace, both for guests and guides. It feels great to be a nexus of that information, where I can connect the women guides I know with well-paid, meaningful work with respected outfitters.
But there’s also a problem with this question. The problem being that my answer to this question of if I know any female guides is often, “Uh, no. Everyone I know that matches that description has work.”
And to be honest, on my saltier days, the answer in my head sounds more like this: “Oh gee yes one second let me check out the professional, experienced, licensed women guide factory! Funny, they seem to be out of stock…”
Here’s the kicker. It takes five plus years to become a licensed, experienced, professional multiday river guide in Idaho. So if we’re trying to figure out where all the women are to hire, we shouldn’t be looking our current landscape of outfitting and guiding, we need to be looking at what was happening in the early 2010s. This is pre-nationwide-MeToo Movement, pre #5050onthewater, pre REI and Outside Magazine “Let’s show women outdoors” campaigns. Women were entering outdoor professions solely because they loved the work, the sport and the places, not because of any signal of opportunity or explicit invitation.
What was it like to be a female guide in Idaho then? What was the experience of entering the outdoor professions as a woman in 2009? How many women burned out after a few seasons of daily guiding or never made it past the training trip because, you know, they were getting low-key harassed daily? These questions I can certainly tell you the answer to, I am not being rhetorical.
This gets complicated too, because I haven’t met an Idaho guide yet who is excited to be hired because she is a woman. We want to be hired as equals. We want to be hired as crew members, with our skills as medics, chefs, interpreters, mechanics, musicians and boaters at the front. As soon as a woman is seen as a “diversity hire”, she has to prove herself twice as hard with her crew for the rest of the season, regardless of the skill set she holds coming into the job. I’ve sat through plenty of casual, on-boat conversations that start with, “Well she can’t even row, but they hired her because she’s cute...” which not only spirals ME into imposter syndrome (Wait - why was I hired? Am I pulling my weight? Do people think I’m just here because of my gender?) but also undermines the development and training this woman deserves before she is expected to guide at the level of someone with more experience.
I can already hear many of you (male and female) saying, “If you want to be hired as a boater, not a woman, quit it with all this lady-empowerment shit. Refuse to see gender. I don’t even see gender, I just see humans.”
First off - I really encourage you to spend some time with that, which is a different article. But even if that could be true, haven’t we been trying gender-blindness as a community for the last decade? Most outfitters aren’t against hiring women it’s just well… where are the women to hire? And why don’t they stick around?
On an all-women-guide private trip last week we talked at length about the expectations of perfection from ourselves, from our crew members, from our guests and from our outfitters. We discussed the weight and the self-doubt that creates, especially when partnered with guests, crew and bosses who make it clear they don’t really trust your skills. We found strength for another season in community with each other.
Women recognize all the barriers that exist for us entering this work but we also don’t want your pity hire or worse, to be hired when we’re not ready just to fill some sort of quota. Can you help us find a middle ground?
If you’re wanting to hire more women and that want comes from a genuine place (not just the desire to make your website appear more welcoming to the moms that drive most vacation spending...) we need you to do this work with us.
Where do you start with that work?
I don’t know, read a damn book! Oops sorry, there’s salty Emerald again. I know I promised I’d help you out there, let me try to be more constructive. How about this:
1) When appropriate (for example, NOT when you’re all on the river about to put dinner out and everyone’s working their ass off), ask your existing female crew members, “When have you felt supported on this crew? What have you had to ignore/overcome? What shitty comments do you get weekly from guests? How do you think I could support you better and how can I support incoming women? Is this a safe space for female guides, especially new ones?”
Believe what they tell you even if you haven’t seen/experienced it yourself, and then COMPENSATE them in some way for their time and the emotional labor it will take to educate you.
2) At the national conferences you attend, seek out sessions about supporting different identities in the workplace. Be wary of “diversity” sessions that include six white male panelists. Find a mentor who seems to be doing a good job attracting a wide range of guides and ask them how they have been successful.
3) Teach your senior crew how to treat junior and incoming guides in a respectful, positive way.
4) Make sure your gear isn’t just made for 6’5” ex-Lacrosse players. This is going to help small bodies of all genders.
5) Find ways to put your money or time into mentoring and preparing incoming female guides or guides currently at daily companies.
6) ETC. There are probably about 1,000 other ideas that you’re crew, peers or the internet can help you with, if you take the time to ask.
Women are tough as hell, and as evidenced by shifting demographics, we’re finding ways into the river profession just fine on our own. But if you’d like a pool to hire from that reflects the demographics of your guests before 2049, you can certainly help us move this along.
Like I said before, I know and trust that your interest in hiring more women comes from a good place. I see how much you’re already doing to help this shift. I also know that good intention doesn’t always protect against harm.
I’m no tourism statistician, but I’m going to take a guess that the era of outdoor adventure as a “white heterosexual male” vacation is over. Hiring more white women as guides is only the start (and a limited, imperfect one at that) of a conversation about what meaningful diversity looks like in our outdoor workplaces and about how to reflect the values and identities of your guests. And I think it’s good business to be at the front, not lagging behind, in this conversation.