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In Search Of Female Routesetters

Routesetters are finally getting the recognition and compensation they deserve for their crucial contributions to the gym climber’s experience and to the success of competition climbing. Routesetting is, by and large, understood and respected as a profession that is simultaneously creative, technical and physical. It is also predominantly a male profession.

But this is changing. In fact, there may be more female routesetters in Canada today than you thought. However, there could and should be more.

Statistics on Female Routesetters in Canada

Based on our survey of 28 gym owners/managers representing 40 climbing gyms nation-wide, the current average of female routesetters is 23.9% (49 out of 205). The majority of gyms land in the 20-30% range with only a handful of outliers. For example, five gyms have no female setters (though some have had them in the past) and one gym has three female setters out of five (60%). These numbers refer to full and part-time setters, but do not include guest or occasional setters.

Selena Wong, 2019 Open Bouldering Nationals at Bolder Climbing Community. Photo by Fred Charron.

Women are not just making up the numbers, they are also taking on leadership roles. There are currently at least four female Head Setters and one Assistant Head Setter. Selena Wong is Head Setter at Blocs in Edmonton, Hannah Mandrish is Head at Toronto’s Base Camp, Maya Robertson is a Head Setter, Jaz Watson is Head Setter at Junction Climbing Centre in London, and Alex Kuusela is Assistant Head at True North in Toronto.

Of course, while we believe this survey is representative of the current state of climbing gyms in Canada, it is not an exhaustive sample. And we note that many gyms experience high staff turnover. Therefore think of these numbers as a snapshot in time, rather than a definitive picture. But the trend is there. And, more importantly, so is the right attitude. Almost every gym owner voiced the desire to have more female setters.

The Importance of Female Routesetters

Is there a difference in the way women set? The most commonly cited difference is that women’s setting is less “reachy,” and this is attributed to their typically smaller stature.

In the video from the 2018 Women’s Climbing Festival in Fontainebleau, Natalia LaPré explains that she became interested in setting because “when there are mainly men routesetters I find less problems accessible to me even though I know I’m strong and I know I can climb on par with some of the male climbers. [When] climbs are not made with female climbers or short climbers in mind, that often…hinders people’s experience in the gyms.”

For LaPré and fellow routesetter, Sandra Jonsson, a good way to make climbing accessible to more women is to have more women setting.

Based on seven years of experience Maya Robertson told us, “With the obvious height difference aside, I find that female setters generally have a better sense of how newer/weaker climbers will experience difficulty while male setters are more likely to underestimate their base strength and under-appreciate the difficulty of powerful moves. [Setters] have a tendency to set to their own personal styles, and you see that play out in a general trend of men setting more powerful boulders and women setting more technical climbs.”

“Female setters generally have a better sense of how newer/weaker climbers will experience difficulty” – Maya Robertson

To be sure, these are generalizations. Not completely unfounded, but generalizations nonetheless. There are extremely powerful female setters and tall female setters; there are less strong and short male setters. There are also male setters who are empathetic and attentive to the varying skill levels of modern gym climbers.

One could argue that with proper training and experience a good setter should be able to create problems accessible to all sizes and skill levels, even well below his or her own. That said, it makes intuitive sense that greater diversity in the setters would result in greater diversity in the routes and boulders.

According to internationally-renowned setter, Tonde Katiyo, theoretically speaking, “a good setter is a genderless concept. But good climbing is about variety. And having 90% of climbing set by white males between 15 and 35 is not variety.” Likewise, according to Robertson: “Setting on a crew with a mix of body types and abilities is key to creating good climbs. As much as it’s possible for a good setter to visualize how someone different than themselves would climb their route, it’s always going to be most effective to actually see that person climb the climb.”

Sachi Adachi at Up the Bloc, in Mississauga. Photo by Geneviève de la Plante

While variety in routesetting is important, the need for more female routesetters goes deeper than that for Geneviève de la Plante. As we discuss with her below, it’s about working towards gender balance in the climbing industry.

Gender Balance in the Climbing Industry

During the survey, we often heard that gyms were actively searching for women to join their setting teams. But finding female setters is not always easy. And that is one of the reasons why Geneviève de la Plante is organizing a female routesetting clinic at Allez-Up, in Montreal this summer. We spoke with her about her motivation for spearheading the event.

De la Plante explains that the women’s setting clinic is to “help create new female routesetters and to reinforce and increase the knowledge of female setters already in the industry.” Notably, for de la Plante, the main reason for wanting more female routesetters is not because of any perceived difference in the way men and women set. Rather “it’s about equal representation” in climbing-related work. For de la Plante, the overarching goal is to help make it possible for more women to have a career in climbing. “We have to increase how seriously we take women’s desire to work in the industry,” she says.

“We have to increase how seriously we take women’s desire to work in the industry,” says de la Plante.

De la Plante would love to see the ratio of men-to-women working in climbing-related professions at least representative of the male-to-female ratio in the community. Moreover, she wants the range of job opportunities for women to be as far-reaching as they are for men.

There are numerous ways to make a living in climbing these days, and that number is increasing with the popularity of the sport. But right now routesetting is one of the most visible jobs, it’s the “superstar job,” says de la Plante. So the routesetting clinic is to show women that setting is a viable profession for them, and to show female setters that they are supported, and of course, to provide training. Once the numbers get higher, more young women might see themselves in the role.

Alex Kuusela at True North, in Toronto. Photo by Roham Abtahi @projectroro

De la Plante’s vision of female empowerment and advancement in the climbing industry is exciting. And it is a vision increasingly shared by influential members of the climbing community. It is a vision echoed in the events and projects of Flash Foxy for example, and the 2018 Women’s Climbing Festival in Fontainebleau, which featured routesetting as a part of the event. Check out the full video here.

The number of female routesetters is on the rise, slowly but surely, and this is thanks in part to female setter pioneers who made space for themselves amidst a sometimes not-so-female-friendly environment. It is also thanks to gym owners and managers making an effort to have a gender diverse routesetting team. And finally, it is thanks to leaders in the industry creating opportunities for women to hone their skills, or even just to be exposed to the idea of routesetting as a profession.

Here’s to more women superstars.

Happy International Women’s Day