It seems like in the past three or four weeks we have been inundated with some amazing stories of women absolutely crushing it in the rock climbing world. We were only just starting to promote Margo Hayes for her Reel Rock feature on climbing 9a, when she sent her first 9a+. Then only about a week later Angy Eiter sends 9b! Last week we heard of Andrea Hah sending Freerider on El Cap ground up. Which got me to thinking: Do we as climbers have a sport where performance can be truly gender neutral?
Physiologically women and men are different. Bone structure, bone mass and muscle mass are some obvious differences (J Bone, 2005). The Journal of Applied Physiology reports that out of a study comparing skeletal muscle mass, adult men had an average of 33kg while women had 21kg. The distribution between upper and lower body muscle also comes into play for climbers with the average man having 42.9% of their total muscle in their upper body and women having 39.7% (Ian Janssen, Steven B. Heymsfield, ZiMian Wang, Robert Ross, 2000). Now I do note that these are ‘normal’ people and not climbers and we could probably safely assume that in a comparable sample of climbers, we would see higher muscles mass, and a higher proportion in the upper body, but the physiological gender differences remain.
In some sports these physiological differences can make a huge difference. When comparing similar divisions in weight lifting, for example, current men's clean and jerk records for the 62kg division is at 177kg, while the women's 63kg division is 147kg, a difference of around 17%. And in the largest open weight divisions the gender gap increases to nearly 30%.
In a totally different sport, with a completely different set of physical and mental demands, the Ironman competition recently hosted in Hawaii at Kona included a 3.7km swim, a 180km ride and a 42km run. The fastest time set by the pro men's division was 8hrs 1min, while the women's was 8hrs 50mins. Approximately a 9% difference.
In climbing on the other hand, particularly sport climbing, we have Adam Ondra currently having one send of a 9c (or converted into the superior grading system, a 39). Angy Eiter has one send of a 9b, or 37, a difference of 5% in performance. And, yeah, I know climbing grading is arbitrary and opinion-based but let's just go with this. If we look closer to home, at Australian climbers. Tom O'Halloran has climbed a grade 35 while Monique Forestier has ticked a 34. Like Ondra and Eiter, I believe each has ticked one route at their limit (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here).
In the alpine mixed climbing world we already have Sarah Hueniken repeating the hardest routes in the world, and let’s not forget Lynn Hill, who made the first free ascent of El Cap's Nose well before any dude rose to the challenge.
Psychologically there may be differences between the genders too, in terms of risk taking behaviour, ‘perceived’ versus ‘actual’ ability and the pressures to conform to societal ‘norms’. The likes of Lynn Hill, Hazel Findlay and our own Andrea Hah are proving however that barriers are being broken in the hard, trad world, too. Sarah Hueniken, a fantastic mixed climber in the States who has ticked the hardest mixed climbs there, did a Q&A with Outdoor Research about climbing with men. In that she says: “Typically in society, we’ve been brought up to not really compete against the men. You do as well as you can, and you don’t have to compare yourself to the guys. They’re always going to be better, and that’s where we comfortably sit. But sometimes that doesn’t push everyone. Maybe Lynn wouldn’t have pushed herself that way if she hadn’t looked at it that way—if she was always on the side, comfortable coming in second to all the guys. It’s a mentality we’re not fully breaking through—clearly some women are super strong and can climb harder than most men.” - Outdoor Research Blog Q&A, Climbing with Guys
So does climbing represent the holy grail of a truly gender neutral, physically and mentally demanding sport? At the very least there is a real fast closing of the gap unlike anything I have seen in other sports.
There are probably a couple of factors I can quickly think of which contribute to the closing of the gender gap. The first is the fact that we are lifting only our bodies. So, unlike weightlifters, being lighter, even if it means less muscle mass, can work in a climber’s favour and the (on average) smaller muscle mass of women (Janssen, 2000) is balanced by a lighter frame
Another is the fact that technique and flexibility play such a huge role at the more difficult end of our grading system. Climbing is just so much more varied in its technique and range of movement than running, riding or weight lifting. Just as guys can choose climbs that play to their strengths, so can women. In fact, forgetting about gender differences completely, I’m a 166cm guy who weighs 57kg and the boulder problems and sport routes that work for me are usually quite different to my 180cm plus friends; or sometimes we might think the crux is a completely different part of the climb.
Some people may argue that plethora of male 9b ascents compared to women in order to debunk the idea that the gender gap is closing. However they should keep in mind the relative gender split in overall numbers of climbers, which is still very much skewed towards men. I would like also to emphasise the rate of progression made in the last year by women, from 8c+ through to 9b. In comparison, Wolfgang Güllich first climbed 9a back in 1991 and Chris Sharma didn't tick a 9b until 2008. Women have done it in a year. So, with that threshold being overcome, I'm very keen to see what happens over the next few years. Having that barrier lifted will, I think, pave the way for a lot more exciting progress.
These recent events in international and local climbing has got me so excited about our sport and just how good it is. We're in an awesome space at the elite level where there isn't really any gender gap and we can all just be bundled into one big group together. I'm hopeful given current trends, that it won't be long until it is completely level. Just another reason why rock climbing, rocks!
- Nieves, J., Formica, C., Ruffing, J., Zion, M., Garrett, P., Lindsay, R. and Cosman, F. (2004). Males Have Larger Skeletal Size and Bone Mass Than Females, Despite Comparable Body Size. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 20(3), pp.529-535.
- Janssen, I., Heymsfield, S., Wang, Z. and Ross, R. (2000) Skeletal muscle mass and distribution in 468 men and women aged 18–88 yr. Journal of Applied Physiology, Vol. 89 no. 1, 81-88