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The Issue of an Industry – Acceptance Versus Inclusion for Women in Routesetting

Acceptance differs from the active inclusion of women in routesetting

Photo by: Allyx Theus

Rock climbing is “Not Just a Boys’ Club.” The aptly named film series directed by the B.I.G. Initiative’s Alexa Fay furthered the conversation started by the organization’s founder Genevieve de la Plante.

The Sports Federations

Over the last three years, the Initiative has worked to increase the visibility of women in the climbing industry, while simultaneously took action to increase the number of women in setting. In the U.S., no such organization exists, nor has USA Climbing taken it upon themselves to create women-focused setting clinics.

USA Climbing is America’s climbing National Sport Federation (NSF). The CEC (Climbing Escalade Canada) is Canada’s NSF and operates in a similar capacity. The CEC has also refrained from developing women’s focused setting clinics. From a competition routesetting perspective, the two organizations differ in structure. While both require experienced routesetters for their Regional, Divisional/Provincial, and National level competitions, only the US requires a certification to set for these events.

This certification assures a level of standardization in competition setting across the country. Conversely, Canadian routesetters must apply for higher level competitions to be selected to set an event. This application process is reflected in the United States, but takes place only among certified routesetters.

In these National Sport Federations, there exists a lack of resources elevating women in routesetting. In both countries, there are a lack of female routesetters on the National circuit. This trend is reflected on the IFSC’s (International Federation of Sport Climbing) World Cup Circuits as well. (Below post of Olympic setting team)

Climbing and Diversity

There is more than one reason that climbing lacks diversity, but the systemic exclusion of women in sport is a place to begin. Audrey Wagstaff Ph.D., MJE and Travis Scheadler discuss this at length here.

In routesetting, gendered exclusion occurs at the intersection of strength-based gatekeeping and sexism. A quote de la Plante referenced in Part Four of Not Just a Boys’ Club related to hiring a setter because they are the best for the job, not just because they are a woman. This argument exists and has existed in all types of businesses and is a short road to an I-don’t-see-gender argument.

This argument inherently excludes because it releases the empowered party from a responsibility toward diversity. Diversity in gender is important in routesetting because setters are community leaders. Seeing people that look like you in a community-leading position is affirming and will bring folks in like you. This expands the climbing community and increases the general involvement in the sport.

From a competition perspective, female routesetters better serve a female category. The reason for this is multi-faceted. There are several morphological differences between men and women, including average height. USA Climbing’s recent Lead Team Trials had a jump-start route that many women could not reach the opening hold of. The setting team was comprised entirely of men. Although a person could argue that this sort of movement could appear on the World Cup Circuit, it did not appear in the entire 2021 series.

Another reason is more subjective: perhaps women setters pay better attention than men to separating the women’s category. This 2021 World Cup Series saw poor separation in the women’s category. As of November 2021, there were only two fully-fledged female IFSC World Cup routesetters.

A Need for Women in Setting

During the season, the women’s field saw two Boulder World Cups and the Boulder World Championships where there were ties for Tops in finals. These podiums were separated by attempts. This phenomenon did not present in the men’s field.

In Lead finals at Villars, and the semi-finals for Chamonix, Briançon, and Moscow, ties occurred in the women’s field where they were avoided in the men’s. The exception was at the Moscow World Championships where both men and women suffered ties in topping the final routes. In Chamonix, the semi-final had nine women top the route. This meant that one woman did not move to finals despite sending the climb. As a ratio, the women had seven less-than-ideal results compared to the men’s single, poor result.

This disparity reflects a trend. The difficult part of this conversation comes in stating correlation as equal to causation. It is unclear that an all-female routesetting team for the women’s category could better the result. However, it is unclear because no such thing has ever occurred at the International or National levels in either the United States or Canada.

This has not occurred in North America as there are so few women in setting. There are so few women in setting, as there is a comparatively small number of women in climbing. So few women climb because it is not a sport that has pushed toward including women. As a sport, it has subscribed to the same problems, those referenced in Wagstaff & Schaedler’s aforementioned report, as other sports.

Setting in Canada

With all of that said, we can see how this affects people. In Canada, Mika Hosoi referenced an easy entrance into the sport. Bolder head setter Hamish Thomson found Hosoi, a competition climber, applying for a desk job at The Hive. He told her to apply for a routesetting position instead. Upon receiving the position, Hosoi bettered herself through years of practice. She noted the small number of female setters when she began, but also found support from her male coworkers.

As time passed, Lead Nationals approached and due to her proximity to the Richmond Oval in BC, alongside her own interest in setting a National-level competition, Hosoi applied to set Nationals. She noted that she did not think she would get the job as she was unqualified for the position. This would be her first competition as a routesetter. The CEC made an exception for Hosoi and chose diversity over competition experience. She was the only woman who applied.

It is exciting that she received the position. Although she did not meet all of the prescribed qualifications, the CEC believed her experience and inclusion invaluable to the competition. She also helped set the HPP competition that followed. The other setters on her team valued her so much that Hosoi noted she was forerunning much of the time. Her team saw her small stature and gender as great advantages toward setting the women’s category.

The other side of this coin is the lack of applicants. It speaks toward a need to uplift women in the industry in Canada. Hosoi said, “I almost didn’t apply just because I thought my chances were so low. And I think that’s probably a reason a lot of other women don’t apply.”

Setting in America

In America, the situation is a little more complicated. Women are gatekept from the onset due to the level system in place. The level system incorporates five levels of route setting certifications. Level 1 is the lowest and Level 5 is the highest. These clinics are competitive as they bolster a setter’s resume for working at climbing gyms. Some gyms will pay level-certified setters more based on their certification.

There are 10-12 Level 1 clinics a year with a maximum occupancy of about 20 per clinic. USA Climbing is trying to increase that number to 16 clinics per year. For more about levels and the subsequent qualifications for each, click here. The Level 1 clinic is the beginning of a competition routesetter’s journey and is the first method of restricting the number of eligible routesetters for competitions.

These clinics require host gyms to hold the educational programming. These host gyms earn priority enrollment for their staff and leave a smaller number of spaces for the remainder of applicants. Once the clinic is posted, applicants are accepted on a first come-first served basis. While this method is accepting of all folks, it does little to actively include populations currently missing from the landscape. Most of the certified routesetters in the United States are white men. A systemic problem requires a solution that can de-centre white men every year.

Oregon-based routesetter, and Kinetik athlete, Allyx Theus mentioned a need for women-exclusive clinics. Theus said that she has tried for years to get her Level 1 certification without luck. “How do you expect women to do this type of career when you’re not creating opportunities for us?” She described her own journey through routesetting as one less accepting than Hosoi’s and a place where she constantly needed to prove herself.

Today her strength speaks for itself, but climbing culture still asks women to prove their strength time and time again.

Featured image of Allyx Theus.

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Lead photo: Allyx Theus