By Helen Barnard, Chief Instructor at Plas y Brenin national outdoor centre.
My love of the outdoors started as a child during many family holidays walking in the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia.
Years later, as part of my career in secondary school teaching, I was persuaded to do a Mountain Leader training course at the local authority outdoor centre. Of the 12 candidates, I was one of only two females on the course. It was a very intimidating experience. So much so, it took another five years to build up the confidence to go for my Mountain Leader assessment - which I passed here at Plas y Brenin in 1997.
Spurring me on was the desire to help the school deliver a massive Duke of Edinburgh programme. Despite many of the children never having had the opportunity to leave their local area, 350 of them would complete their bronze, silver and gold DoE expeditions each summer in Snowdonia.
The additional driver was to prove to myself that I could do it. I’d been walking, camping and navigating in the hills and mountains of the UK for years – but my confidence had suffered as a result of the Mountain Leader training course.
Since then, every outdoor qualification I have achieved I have been the only female candidate on the course. Admittedly, this was a few years ago (early 2000’s) and I’m pleased to see a lot has changed since then. There are now more female role models in the outdoor sector, initiatives such as ‘Women in Mountain Training’ as well as Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor, and Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor mentoring programmes as well as female only courses.
Outdoor clothing manufacturers now make garments specifically for women to wear – and not just the ‘pink it and shrink it’ approach – but technical outdoor clothing for women to keep warm, comfortable and agile whilst climbing and mountaineering. Our partners, Mountain Equipment, have a great range of clothing for women - and they’re always open to our feedback and ideas.
While this represents welcome progress, there is still a long way to go before the outdoors feels truly inclusive. One of the biggest barriers preventing people from pursuing outdoor learning is the feeling of not being welcome - similar to my experience all those years ago. The countryside, and outdoors more generally, is perceived as being very white, male and middle class and that can be very intimidating and off-putting for many.
There are many complex issues at play here without a single or simple answer, so we as a sector need to come together to first learn more about the barriers to access in order to affect real change.
There’s also a perception that the outdoors is not for amateurs, which needs addressing. Our introductory skills courses are our most popular, but we need to do more to broaden the reach of them to reflect the makeup of society.
For too long, participation in outdoor learning has not reflected wider society so we, as a sector, must do more to address this. People of all genders, all communities and all walks of life want to be able to see themselves reflected in adverts, promotional materials and in the participants and instructional staff on outdoor learning courses, and at the moment this isn’t happening as much as we’d like.
The last few years - and 2020 in particular - has been a wake up call for many sectors and organisations, with increased attention on improving inclusion and diversity - and the outdoor learning sector should be no different. At Plas y Brenin, we are actively engaging outdoor champions from diverse groups, communities and organisations that have been created to make outdoor learning and pursuits more accessible. We want everyone to feel welcome at our world-class centre.
Collectively, we must work together as a sector to realise our role and responsibility in making the outdoors more diverse. From hiring staff from different backgrounds to creating initiatives that will help make outdoor learning more welcoming and accessible, so that more people can experience the often life-changing benefits associated with outdoor learning.