Buried Sexism

*I originally published this piece on the beautiful website She Explores.  If you have never heard of She Explores check it out, it is an amazing website that aims to highlight creative curious women that inspire.* 

“Now, I want to tell you something, and I don’t want you to think of it as a bad thing when I say it,” my boss, Dennis, told me during a performance review.

“Okay,” I said suspiciously, because really, anything that is framed as “not a bad thing” is probably a bad thing.

Dennis pressed on, “When I was calling your references back in March every single one of them described you as intense.”  

Intense.  I sat there for a second letting the word sink in.  

“I don’t think they meant it as a negative quality, and I’ve seen that intensity in you and I think it can be a really good thing.”  I continued to be silent, thinking it through. The word wasn’t immediately off-putting to me and I knew it was true, I am intense, but it also isn’t an overwhelmingly positive compliment.  Words like passionate, confident, powerful, determined would have been much more inspiring qualifiers.  Intense seemed to suggest that I am overwhelming, aggressive, intimidating, insensitive.

I looked at him and asked, “Do you think they would have used the same descriptor if I was a man?”  He just smiled sadly and sat back in his chair.   

This conversation took place last summer, near the end of my season with the King County Backcountry Trails Crew out of Seattle, and just before I left for a three month emergency hire position at Mount Rainier National Park.  Mount Rainier was (and still is) the mountain in my life.  I had climbed it in July and gotten engaged on the summit.  Then, in August, I walked around it on the 98 mile long Wonderland Trail.  Immediately after finishing that hike I started the emergency hire position.  Working at the park seemed the perfect way to end my Mount Rainier filled summer and I was excited to be helping improve access to its flanks for all the people who desire nearness and adventure.  I wouldn’t be going alone, either. My King County co-worker, Claire, who had originally heard about the positions, would be carpooling to Carbon River with me every week.  We were tasked with helping finish a forty foot, three stringer bridge on the Carbon River Road.  The plan was for the two of us to join a supervisor and finish the massive bridge in just two months.  Also working out of the Carbon River Ranger Station was another crew of three, two guys and one girl, who did more general trail maintenance.  On the first day of work, when Claire and I stepped into the office, I was delighted to see another woman.  That made three of us and three of them, what a progressive place the Park Service was!  It didn’t take long, though, for one of our supervisors to break the spell. “What a crazy year this is,” he told us, “we haven’t had a woman on the crew for probably ten years, and now there are three of you!”  And thus began my time working for the Park Service.

I have been working in the conservation and trail building world since I graduated from college. And, at times, I have experienced overwhelming sexism.  As a crew leader for a number of different conservation corps I have had male agency contacts look straight through me,searching my crew for the biggest man, someone who they think looks the part of the crew leader. I have registered the shock on their face when I introduce myself as the one in charge.  At one point, it took three days and fixing some guy’s chainsaw before a crew of sawyers from Canyon De Chelly National Monument would even speak to me. One could hardly blame me for being intense, putting on a hard tough face, and overcompensating.  These techniques are employed by so many women in male-dominated fields.  But the woman I was in the field never sat comfortably with the woman I am inside.  I am intense, but I am also sensitive, nurturing, and silly.  After hardening my heart for so many hours a day to earn the respect of my male colleagues, I would cry in my tent at night just to release some of the pressure.

 “But the woman I was in the field never sat comfortably with the woman I am inside.”

Compared to my past experiences I think my time at Mount Rainier was actually rather progressive. The men we worked with were simply products of a different time and a different set of rules. They were kind and respectful and I saw they were trying.  Early on in the project, my male supervisor was having a chat with Claire and me. Mid-sentence he stopped and said, “What would you ladies preferred to be called? I don’t want to call you guys, I know that’s inappropriate, but ladies seems a little demeaning as well…”  I was touched by the fact that he would just come right out and ask. In fact, I was impressed, which says a lot about my opinion of the typical male park employee.  There weren’t a lot of moments of blatant sexism, instead what I discovered at Mount Rainier was a tradition of masculinity that blew my mind.

The masculinity became apparent to me, at first, through the stories that were told and passed around. There were so many legends, living and dead, that I couldn’t keep track of them all. This man who risked his life felling more trees than anyone has ever felled in a day, that man who could hike from Sunrise to Carbon River in a couple of hours; masculine leaders that led by example–if you couldn’t cut it you went home. It was made clear to us, every day, over and over again, that above all else the Park Service prized toughness. Every job was a baptism by fire; you were given very little instruction and the goal was to see if you could hack it.  Even though the Park Service would never condone it, it seemed the only way you became someone was by doing something impressive and risky. If you hadn’t tossed your chainsaw  in the air while cutting through a blowdown, or dodged a careening boulder that broke free of the griphoist, you weren’t worthy of the Park Service uniform, and you definitely wouldn’t be remembered. These men were passionate, confident, powerful, and determined. These were stories passed down for generations. Anyone who has read about the beginnings of the Forest Service and Park Service knows that the portrayal of men there in the glory days were men of brawn. They were the rowdiest, wildest men: sleeping under the stars, getting in fights in the bunk houses, battling fires, and causing women to swoon. The men we worked with at Mount Rainier were always yearning for those old begotten days, when things were better, when there were less rules, when they could do what they wanted. I took all this to mean: when there weren’t any women around.

There had been women, too.  The women they had worked with in the past, especially those who had supervised them–well–there was very little good that could be said about them. They never lasted, they always moved on, they were hard to work with, and they just weren’t right. A man’s wife was a different story, I heard many tales of the sweetest women, so supportive and wonderful, but they were rarely women that worked for Mount Rainier, and they certainly weren’t women that were in charge of men. While the male legends were passionate, confident, powerful, and determined, these past women were too… what’s the word? Intense.        

Mount Rainier National Park, as an entity, struggles with efficiency, a struggle it seems to be losing to bureaucracy. It functions, but often by such convoluted means, that outcomes are slow and frustrating.  Did you know that for the whole month of October no one in the park can purchase anything because the accounting office shuts down to do that year’s books? Or, that you have to log so many hours a month training in order to participate in search and rescue, or help out with a helicopter drop? Which makes sense, except that the trainings are four hours away, on the other side of the mountain, and if one attended all of them they would get very little actual work done. In the morning, our crew would often have to wait two hours before we could start working because someone had an online assessment, or seminar, they had to complete before we could begin. Having only worked at Mount Rainier I can only speak to what I saw there, but I have heard similar stories from other parks and from people who have worked for the Forest Service.  Much to my dismay I have read a couple of arguments that the cause of all this inefficiency is women. The argument that stands out is a book written by Christopher Burchfield called The Tinder Box: How Politically Correct Ideology Destroyed the Forest Service. His basic theory is that as equal opportunity laws began forcing the Forest Service to employ women in the 1980s, the Forest Service became more concerned with sexual harassment trainings and egalitarian quotas than the land it was supposed to be stewarding and managing.  Basically, everything went downhill from there, not to mention the fact that, according to him, women just suck at manual labor.   

As a woman who has worked manual labor jobs for the past couple of years now I will happily concede that I am not always as strong as my male cohorts. But I have yet to find myself in a situation where I couldn’t accomplish my job. On top of that, I am thoroughly convinced that, while my male counterparts are able to muscle through situations that would break my back, I am often uniquely positioned to reassess and come up with a better plan. We are always saying work smarter, not harder, but in my experience it is actually women who are living this mantra.  This is not just conjecture, I have worked with a lot of women.  When I was working in Arizona a woman ran the chainsaw shop and, right after I left, one of my best female friends was promoted to join her. When we were divvying up crews at Earthcorps it became clear that one crew would be majority female, which I immediately volunteered to lead . Almost all of my supervisors at Earthcorps were incredible women, full of tenacity and spunk, pulling goals from a land of dreams and forcing them into reality. The women I have had on my crews never settle for the status quo, they are always thinking of new ways to accomplish, push harder, move forward.  They are empathetic, frustrated by inefficiency, thirsty for progress. Claire, who I went to Mount Rainier with, is the most open, thoughtful, inquisitive, caring person I have ever met. She is a leader of epic proportions, not because she forces herself into that role but because people gladly step into line behind her. These are the women I have worked with and they are not pining for the past, because in the past things were not great for women.  These women are looking to the future.

“These are the women I have worked with and they are not pining for the past, because in the past things were not great for women.”

When it comes to the inefficiencies I saw at Mount Rainier National Park I don’t think the solution is to go back to the way things once were but to move forward.  I can’t help but think that what is needed is new blood, creative minds, growth, change, and innovation.  But working up the ladder from within seems to be the only way to get anywhere in the Park Service and that process can take years.  And those who have worked there before, or spent years working for other governmental sectors, have massive amounts of privilege and preference. Veterans, for example, receive some of the highest preferential treatment when it comes to hiring, supporting my theory that the Park Service prefers employees that are unimaginably hardy and also used to toeing the line. Combine all those years required for upward mobility with the “Are you tough enough to hack it?” attitude and I can see why very few people who approach problems differently, and have different theories about leadership, stick around.  They flee to nonprofits and startups, companies and organizations that are inherently progressive, and they use their talents for good.  But don’t our National Parks deserve the best?

For my last week of work at Mount Rainier we headed into the backcountry to dig out drains and brush the trail corridor. The bridge was finished at that point, strong enough to support the excavator we drove over it multiple times, and we had completed the project with a beautiful hand-split railing. Out in the backcountry that last week the views were gorgeous enough to overshadow the stories that rained down on me of all the strong men that had come before. We took a break from trail work one day to hike cross-country up to Curtis Ridge, where we sat quietly under Willis Wall, the creaking of the glacier finally silencing the steady stream of nostalgia. I love that mountain. I want it to have the most amazing Park Service it can have, the most forward-thinking, efficient, hardworking, free, wild, appreciative, nurturing Park Service possible.  That is why, as we move forward into the future–and we are moving forward–I think we should remember everything that came before.  We should listen to their stories, both as inspiration and cautionary tales, and then we should begin to write our own.

*Once again I just want to thank She Explores for hosting this piece on her website and encourage all of you to check it out!  I also want to thank my brother, Nelson Falkenburg for carefully editing this post.  What would I do without you, you grammar genius?* 

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

14 thoughts on “Buried Sexism

  1. Thanks for sharing this story! I (Ellen) have sometimes felt something similar in the sailing world, although fortunately it’s becoming rarer (or maybe I just care less than I used to). I’ll be checking out She Explores! Thanks!

  2. Just finally got around to reading this. You are absolutely and entirely inspiring. As a young woman in the outdoorsy world, I have already experienced so much sexism regarding my solo thru-hikes, hitchhiking, bike maintenance knowledge, etc. My mother just told me the other day, “don’t go to the hot springs because people have been stabbed there and because of what happened to you (indicating my childhood rapes), you’ll be more susceptible to it.” Like what? I told her I could take care of myself, and she told me I was a woman and men are stronger. Never mind that I have some great knives and self defense training, hardcore bear spray, and a stubborn will. Your article inspired me to shrug all of these things off, and move forward with hope for the future. Women are the future of the trail. We are the future of the outdoors.

  3. Thanks Lindsey. Well said.
    Let’s hope the male/female working relationships continue to get better. I’m hopeful.

    Trail maintenance and bridge building require muscle and endurance. True. Climbing mountains requires muscle and endurance. True. But, are physical muscles the end all be all? Absolutely not.

    First and foremost, any task requires good female/male decision making, teamwork, and common goals–whether it’s working efficiently together to get to the summit of a mountain or working efficiently together to get the bridge built, we need teamwork and a common goal.

    Let’s hope our park service, our land managers (under the guidance of the Department of Interior and given the proper funding), don’t lose sight of the common goals–to fairly, efficiently, and safely manage our precious lands and waters.

    And, head muscles should beat “Popeye” muscles. Hands down.

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. Thanks Lindsey. Well said.

    Let’s hope the male/female working relationships continue to get better. I’m hopeful.

    Trail maintenance and bridge building require muscle and endurance. True. Climbing mountains requires muscle and endurance. True. But, are physical muscles the end all be all? Absolutely not.

    First and foremost, any task requires good female/male decision making, teamwork, and common goals–whether it’s working efficiently together to get to the summit of a mountain or working efficiently together to get the bridge built, we need teamwork and a common goal.

    Let’s hope our park service, our land managers (under the guidance of the Department of Interior and given the proper funding), don’t lose sight of the common goals–to fairly, efficiently, and safely manage our precious lands and waters.

    And, head muscles should beat “Popeye” muscles. Hands down.

    Keep writing.

    Sent from my iPhone

  5. Thank you for sharing. Intense is a word I hear often when someone is describing me. I work in a male dominated tech industry, and still after 2 years in the same company, as a top performer in my department, I have to prove myself over and over again.

    Also last summer when we rented kayaks, I was given the most extensive instructions. I’ve kayaked since I was 11. I know perfectly well how to get in and out from the kayak.

    These kind of things are the things that force us to be “intense”.

    1. I really was treated pretty well at the Mount rainier! And I hope that’s pretty clear here. What I am trying to say here is that there is an underlying tradition of masculinity that some people might have missed but it certainly impacted me. Some of the their places I have worked I have experienced pretty overwhelming sexism… It varies 🙂 but thank you for your concern! It’s all about recognizing it when it happens and speaking up!

  6. HerRay! for you. Thank-you for choosing to lead other girls and women and the young men who will see you for your brilliance and vision. Keep on keeping on. Mother Nature will reward your leadership greatly. Could you help me learn how to operate a chain saw?
    Yodels.

  7. Kudos to you, you spunky, tenacious, passionate woman! When I look back at my life, I can remember so many times in my twenties and thirties that my (male) bosses would start a conversation with “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you a) might was to soften the edges a bit, b) come on a bit strong, or c) are pretty intense.” (!). The sad thing is, I believed them, and I spent way too much time figuring out ways to make myself seem more accommodating and less “intense.” It never occurred to me in those days (30-40 years ago) to ask someone if they would say that to me if I were a man. As you so wisely see, the sexism might be less overt these days (sometimes), but the message gets across just the same. And, thanks for the link to She Explores. I’ve subscribed.

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