Inspiring change: International Women’s Day 2020
Women are more visible in society today than they have ever been. Particularly in sport, women have been inspiring change for decades - showing they are just as capable as men both physically and strategically. This year, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are set to be the first games to have almost equal representation of male and female competitors. And so, in a world littered with bad news, we turn our attention to all that there is to celebrate.
International Women’s Day is a time to shine the spotlight on the remarkable women achieving new heights in the outdoors. Here, we speak to five women who have conquered oceans, the world’s highest peaks, who have survived and thrived in sub-zero and tropical temperatures, and who have battled against the odds to fulfill their goals - both personal and professional.
Lucy is a 27 year old adventurer who was made an RGS fellow at 23. With plenty of experience at altitude as well as in the high Arctic, she has climbed Denali, crossed Greenland, the Finnmark Plateau, ski toured across the High Sierra and along the Norwegian-Russian border. Her most recent expedition took her to the jungles of Guyana.
The biggest challenge facing women today: Learning to ignore those who believe we only have a small window to achieve our dreams.
People often try and tell me that this life cannot last forever. When are you going to settle? Have a family? It’s not always by old fashioned men. I used to find this stressful, think that maybe they were right, and make myself believe that I must go full force now, in my twenties. I realise now that is not the case.
Settling down and fulfilling your dreams don’t have to be separate things. It’s great to see so many women proving this. Some people don’t figure out what they want until much later in life, and that's great too.
Your proudest achievement to date: I first went on expedition to the Amazon six years ago and found it a real struggle, so in recent years I concentrated my adventures in the high altitudes or high arctic. I kept telling others to get outside their comfort zone, and I realised that I needed to apply that to myself. I just got back from crossing the Kanuku mountain range in the Amazon jungle of Guyana. I chose to do an ambitious, adventurous, world-first expedition. Teaming up with local indigenous Amerindians, we set off into the widely feared mountain range. The terrain was steep and thick and there were times we thought we were in big trouble but we pulled it out of the bag! I was incredibly proud.
The hardest hurdle you’ve overcome: Failure. I’ve failed a whole bunch of times and it makes me question everything I do. But I’ve learnt that it’s failure that you learn the most from.
Your greatest strength: Persistence. Whether I fail or I’m finding it hard, as long as I keep going, I know that I can do it.
Your wisdom for tomorrow’s women: Back yourself and, when it all gets too much, take a moment, take a breath and then keep going.
Once the owner of a beauty salon, Laura turned her life around aged 30 to forego ‘things’ in place of ‘experiences’. She is now a runner, endurance athlete and ocean rower. Laura was part of the fastest female team to cross the Atlantic during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018.
The biggest challenge facing women today: I’m still shocked at how few women are featured in adventure and outdoor products and media. Typically a lot of brands focus their attention on white, middle class men. It’s not a great representation and it certainly doesn't encourage women who want to venture into outdoor activities. I find it so frustrating.
Your proudest achievement to date: My proudest achievement was crossing the finish line of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a 3,000 mile row from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. I was invited onto a team of women I didn’t know, and eight months later we got in a boat to row across the Atlantic Ocean. We had our challenges in every sense: physical, mental, emotional and social, but we were all clear on one goal and that was to be the first female team across the finish line. After 43 days of rowing non-stop in two hour shifts, we won the female race. That feeling of crossing the line after six weeks of rowing was like nothing I have ever experienced before! I’d go through all that pain and discomfort again just for that moment.
The hardest hurdle you’ve overcome: I’ve joined in many challenges that have pushed my body and mind to the extreme, but nothing compares to some of the things I’ve endured in my personal life: being homeless, suffering from depression, having suicidal thoughts and the intense feeling of loneliness. There have been days where I couldn’t see a way out. I’m a primitive girl living in a modern world. It’s taken me 13 years to accept the bad days and know who I am. I am proud of that. Overcoming those tough times and finding who I am is the biggest hurdle I have overcome.
Your greatest strength: My greatest strength is my determination. When I set my mind to something, I go at it full-pelt and don’t stop. That’s why I am good at endurance events. I’ve been pretty determined since I was a kid.
Your wisdom for tomorrow’s women: Women and men will never be the same - that’s what makes it work so beautifully. But know that it's ok to do ‘man things’. If you see something you want to try, whether it be climbing, fishing, knitting, bushcraft, dancing, ocean rowing, slacklining, then do it. There is so much out there - the world is full of wonder for everyone.
In 2018, Sophie was photographed breast-feeding her three month old baby during the UTMB, a 106 mile mountain race. The story went viral. An ultra-runner, Sophie has competed in over 40 ultramarathons and is using her story to encourage more support for women in sport.
The biggest challenge facing women today: We live in a world designed for men, by men. We are underrepresented in positions of power, in share of voice. Our challenge is to overcome that, to gain our fair place and give every woman the same opportunity to fulfil her potential, allowing for our differences.
Your proudest achievement to date: I think it’s finally having found balance in life, between being a wife and mother to my two amazing little boys, reaching personal and career goals, and making a positive impact in the outside world. I’m so proud that my battle to follow my dreams and race UTMB has changed perceptions of motherhood, of female strength, and given other mothers the belief they can still follow their dreams.
The hardest hurdle you’ve overcome: Ignoring what others think. I used to be driven by society’s opinion of what I should be doing – what career path meant success, what I should be aiming for in all parts of my life. But when I nearly died during a race in Cambodia 7 years ago I had to rethink what really mattered to me – what would make me, and now my family, happy. The path I was on didn’t lead me there so I changed direction.
Your greatest strength: My positive mindset and mental strength. Ultramarathon running, as with much of life, depends as much on your mental strength as other skills. I always look for the silver lining in everything, not dwelling on mistakes in the past and have confidence in myself to succeed. I think it makes me more resilient in all parts of my life.
Your wisdom for tomorrow’s women: Think what happiness really means to you. For me it means staying healthy (I still want to be running ultramarathons when I’m 70!), nurturing family bonds and friendships, having adventures and working on projects that make a difference to others. Often short term - especially work - pressures seem so important and drive all our energy but we should always be thinking about what really matters.
Despite being over 150 years since the first woman climbed the most iconic of these, no all-women’s team has yet climbed all 82 of the UIAA 4,000m peaks in the Alps. Last year, Mo and two others set out to be the first all-female group to do this in the space of a year. Aiming to fly the flag for female mountaineering and to highlight the history of women in the sport, Project Alpine Spirit was born with the backing of the BMC. Mo is a mountain instructor at The National Mountain Centre, Plas y Brenin, and holds the highest British mountaineering qualification.
What is the biggest challenge facing women today? I feel very privileged to live in a country not at war, to be able to vote, to do a job that is equal to my male counterparts and have the independence and the freedom to make choices about which mountains I want to climb. I really feel there has been a lot of positive change in this area, providing so many more opportunities for females today. Regardless of gender the world is full of challenges but, compared to previous decades, we have seen huge progress in the support and pathways available to people who are unfairly treated.
What is your proudest achievement? As an outdoor instructor, I really enjoy encouraging people to try hard at things - to try something new or to push themselves to do things they never thought possible. My proudest moments are seeing the people I teach love and learn about the things I'm passionate about.
What is the biggest hurdle you’ve overcome? Friends losing their lives or having accidents in the mountains way too soon in life. In my line of work, there are both long-term physical and mental health problems that come with that.
What is your greatest strength? Endless determination! I really believe that if you want something, you have to work really hard to get it. Have a go, and when things don't go quite as you'd expected, dust yourself down, take stock, reflect, learn and have another go!
What is your wisdom for tomorrow's women? I have a little code of conduct for myself, which is always growing:
We have one life of unknown length, so get out and have a go at everything! Don't worry too much about what other people think. Learn from everything and everyone and put it to good use. Take responsibility for your actions and think about what you can do to be the best version of yourself. Be determined, be brave. Be honest, humble. Bear no grudges, have no regrets. Reflect and take rest days. Have fun, make great friendships, see amazing things and beautiful places.
Raha is an Art Director living and working in Dubai with an MBA in women’s leadership. She was the youngest Arab and the first Saudi woman to summit Mount Everest. Since, she has scaled the seven summits - the highest peak on each continent.
The biggest challenge facing women today: Stereotypes. People still think women are oppressed. In the past, women conformed to stereotypes but now we are much bolder in our attempt to break the mould and there’s no longer a stigma attached to doing so. We just don’t remain quiet. Women are still put in stereotypical situations so it’s still a challenge, but it no longer feels like an obstacle.
Your proudest achievement to date: Making my Saudi mother and father proud parents of a high altitude mountaineer. I loved climbing each and every one of the seven summits. Becoming a celebrated Saudi athlete is by far the most special thing I have achieved.
In the beginning it was not ok for me to start climbing. People saw it as dangerous and rebellious, but now it’s widely accepted as something to celebrate. My parents are recognised by what I have achieved. I now have a travel show and I’m in the media. It’s been amazing seeing the number of girls contacting me to ask for advice, and parents sending me pictures of their kids climbing. It’s so special.
The hardest hurdle you’ve overcome: People’s negativity and criticism. Their hatred of what’s different and outside the norm.
Your greatest strength: I’m very determined and I’m also stubborn. I am a person who sets myself goals. I plan thoroughly and am very disciplined. Discipline and determination are things that can’t be taught. I have this inner desire to want to be better, to do better and achieve my goals.
Your wisdom for tomorrow’s women: A lot of people are afraid of doing new things for the fear of failing. I think failing is one of the one of the best things you can do. There’s no shame in it. Take it as a lesson and not as a setback.