Women Always Have to Work Harder to Win—Even at the Gym

The first time I stepped foot into my local rock climbing gym with my husband, my immediate thought was screw this. I watched my six foot tall husband easily reach and grab moves that seemed downright impossible for me. With his full arm span, he had a full two feet of reach that I (at 5’1”) would never have. His hands were strong and calloused and so much bigger than mine. His abs were tightly knit where mine would forever be separated by the hernia I was left with after giving birth three times. His natural advantages seemed insurmountable. The whole gym was full of men with long arms and legs and biceps that defied logic. My husband looked like he belonged there, simply by virtue of his build and manhood. I did not.

It was an infuriating and familiar sensation, because it so starkly and physically resembled the world as I had always known it. Men walked in this space with ease because they knew it was built for them (literally, by a team of male route setters). It was obvious that I would have to be twice as good to climb half as far. And damn did it make me want to prove myself. So instead of throwing up my hands and sitting in the loft to read (which was tempting, trust me), I threw myself into rock climbing with the singular goal of out-climbing my husband. No, not for my own personal growth, nor the satisfaction of learning a new skill—I just wanted to beat the men.

I knew the road ahead of me was going to be long and frustrating, so I sought out all the support I could. I watched the female climbers at my gym and learned from their body movements. I stayed up late watching YouTube videos to teach me footwork. I attended every climbing workshop the gym offered. I joined all-female rock climbing groups, and researched training regimens. I fell hard. A lot.

The falls themselves weren’t the worst part—it was the dudes watching. Men would swoop in with their advice for my hand placement and sequence. There were those who would wait for me to ask when I was truly stuck on a move, or who would at least ask if I wanted advice (those are the men I still climb with today), but many would rush in before I had even brushed off from the fall, assuming they knew the potential and limitations of my body better than me. Or perhaps more aptly, they wouldn’t consider my body at all, assuming that their experience was universal, that if only I would try to climb like a man I would succeed.

I knew, of course, that success would never be that easy for me. In the gym, as in life, things were not built with women in mind. We were allowed of course, but our place had to be earned and at a much higher price. Technique was paramount. Lazy climbing wasn’t an option. You had to be more flexible, hit holds with greater precision, stretch yourself to more stringent limits, jump harder and higher in proportion to your build. And that was just to get on equal footing with men. To be better? That required learning to climb like a girl.

While the gym was saturated with men, there were women I began seeing time and again during my training. Their movements were mesmerizing, and much of the gym would stop to watch them as they ascended some of the highest grade routes on the wall. No one dared to spew advice at them when they fell. They were fearsome and inspirational, cocky and confident because they had earned their place in a way no one else had. They showed me exactly the kind of climber I aspired to someday be.

Early on in my quest to outclimb the dudes, I sat at the base of the bouldering wall, grumbling about my husband’s long arms, when one of those female climbers leaned over and whispered the prediction that kept me coming back for weeks and months afterwards: you’re going to have to work harder, but you’re going to be a better climber. I held her words inside me like a prophecy, willing myself to live up to them when I wanted to quit. Work harder. Be better.

Ultimately, it came true. Although I had few natural advantages, my climbing improved swiftly, because I committed to working harder from the start. I advanced in difficulty moving from the easier grade V2 and V3 route into the V5, V6, and eventually V7 range while my husband was still working in a similar zone to when we first started. Now I'm not just out-climbing him, but most of the men in the gym. I entered my first bouldering competition last month, in a division that was a stretch for me, and won. (The woman who gave me my climbing prophecy won in the most advanced division.)

Setting these rock climbing goals has at times made me feel like I was challenging the patriarchy itself. I saw with my own eyes the blatant advantages men had over me. I felt in my body how much harder it was to be a woman in a place made for men. It was physical. Visceral. Experiencing these things in concrete ways, and still overcoming them, has made me feel powerful in a way that I have never known before. There is now nothing I love quite like creating a hard bouldering route, and watching men behind me fall off the first move, because they assume I can’t possibly be that strong or that skilled. That I can’t possibly overcome the hurdles placed in my way, as if my whole life hasn’t prepared me to do just that.

Gemma Hartley is a freelance journalist and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. She lives in Reno, NV with her husband and three young children.

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