Outdoor Education & Gender

James Neill
Last updated:
05 Apr 2005


Types of gender issues

Research findings

Links to programs & websites


What's new?

Introduction to Outdoor Education & Gender

Gender is arguably the most ubiquitous individual difference, thus it attracts considerable attention.  The relationship between "gender and outdoor education" has many interesting aspects and implications, and not surprisingly attracts a range of passions and thoughts, ranging from  radical feminist to moderate views to radical male rights points of view. 

Those who adopt a feminist perspective often argue that gender issues in outdoor education have gone under addressed and that more attention needs to be paid, both in theory and practice.  For example, the original Outward Bound programs were only for males.  Sometime later all female programs were developed, and much later co-educational Outward Bound programs were developed.  Another, more current example, is that major texts on outdoor education leadership, such as Priest and Gass (1997), often don't address gender issues at all.  Not surprisingly, this fuels the gender debate in outdoor education, and there have efforts to generate texts which alert people to these oversights and contribute female or feminist perspectives (e.g., Cole, Erdman, & Rothblum, 1994; Warren, 1996).  Almost invariably, such texts promote an exclusively feminist point of view.  To date, there has been remarkably little work on moderate views on gender issues or views which are consciously masculine or take account of male developmental needs in outdoor education.

Why are there Gender Issues in Outdoor Education and What Kinds of Issues are there?)

The issue of gender can become particularly salient in the context of outdoor education because programs commonly:

  • have objectives, such as personal development, which engage people in questioning gender stereotypes and their own, as well others', assumptions about gender

  • impel participants out of comfortable levels of physical and emotional engagement, thus  invoking experiential challenges of gendered assumptions;

  • involve intense interpersonal and intragroup interaction which further provoke and highlight underlying gender issues

Discussion of gender issues in outdoor education can quickly become very complex.  Consider the following examples:

Variations in Physical & Emotional Maturity of Male and Female Adolescents: It is well known that, on average, female adolescent mature physically and emotionally earlier than males.  Therefore, does it make sense to offer the same type of outdoor education program for 13 year old males and females and, if so, how can developmental differences between genders be accounted for in the educational design and delivery of outdoor education programs?  Should this be an important consideration?

Variations in Physical Abilities of Male and Female Participants: The single most common outdoor expedition activity is hiking or backpacking.  On average, males take longer strides than females and therefore, on average, males can hike faster and longer distances than females.  Therefore, does it really make sense to have the same physical performance expectations of males and females in a backpacking-based program?  Similarly, how appropriate is it to use ropes challenge course elements which rely on substantial upper body strength or flexibility, physical qualities that are more prevalent in males and females respectively?

In these examples, it is extremely difficult to tell how much of the supposed variation is due to underlying biological differences between the sexes and much is due to socialization and culture.  Further, it is unclear as to which, if any, of the socialized gender differences are to be considered undesirable, and further it is unclear as to whether or not outdoor education program should either accommodate the gender differences or purposely address the gender differences in an upfront educational or developmental manner.

Whilst many are at pains to point out the profound and under recognized gender differences in society, others argue that gender differences are exaggerated.  For example, there are many short males who walk much slower than many females, therefore shouldn't we just focus on dealing with the differences between stronger and weaker hikers in an outdoor education program, and forget about labeling it as a gender issue?  Some researchers have pointed out that because so many studies record whether a participant is male or female, the odds are, just by chance, that many differences between genders will be found.  But, in doing so, we may be blinding ourselves to more important differences which are harder to measure, such as differences between personalities.

With these cautions in mind, it makes sense to further consider some of the questions which attract attention with regard to gender and outdoor education:

  • Are outdoor education courses designed from a masculine mindset?  (or "What would outdoor education have looked like if Kurt Hahn had have been female?")

  • What are the dynamics of all-female and all-male courses, compared to co-educational courses?

  • In what ways do outdoor education programs reinforce traditional gender stereotypes (such as 'males are stronger' and 'females are more comfortable talking about feelings'), and in what ways do outdoor education programs provide valuable alternatives to traditional gender stereotypes?

  • Do outdoor education instructors use gender-free language?  If not, what are the implications for participants?

  • Does outdoor education programming allow for participants to explore alternative gender roles and to feel comfortable with their sexual identity and preference?

  • How should outdoor education programs be conducted for special populations who have had particularly negative gender-related experiences, such as having suffered from, or perpetrated sexual abuse?

  • Are outdoor education jobs structured to allow equitable participation of women, particular those who are caregivers?

  • Why do the patterns of physical injury and incident in the outdoors appear to differ for males and females? (Sharp, 2000)

Research Findings on Outdoor Education & Gender

Research on gender and outdoor education is not particularly extensive, however there have been several findings worthy of note and which deserve to provoke further discussion:

  • Neill (1997) examined outdoor education research studies which reported separate results for males and females and found that substantially more studies showed that females had more positive change than male participants.  Neill (1997) speculated that perhaps outdoor education programs are run in a 'male model' and that, paradoxically, this is developmentally more beneficial for females to learn positive masculine qualities, than it is for males, who may benefit more from outdoor education programs designed in a 'female model', so that males could learn more positive feminine qualities.

  • Neill (2002) conducted a program evaluation of three Colorado Outward Bound School programs for gay, lesbian and transsexual youth, and found extremely positive personal development outcomes.  This demonstrates: a) the potential positive applicability of outdoor education to participants of different sexual orientations; b) the societal need to support the develop of all people.

  • Hattie, et al (1997), in a meta-analysis of 97 studies of the effects of adventure education, found no difference in the overall size of outcomes for males and females.  There was, however, evidence of slightly stronger outcomes for single-sex groups compared to co-educational groups.

  • Qualitative research on gender issues in outdoor education is less easily summarized.  If anyone would like to provide an overview of qualitative research on gender issues in outdoor education, we would be very interested to hear from you!

Outdoor Education Programs & Websites which Focus on Gender-related Issues

References - Outdoor Education & Gender

Asher, S. J., Huffaker, G. Q., & McNally, M. (1994). Therapeutic considerations of wilderness experiences for incest and rape survivors.  Women & Therapy. Special Issue: Wilderness therapy for women: The power of adventure. 15(3-4), 161-174.

Cole, E., Erdman, E.& Rothblum, E. D. (1994). (Eds.) Wilderness therapy for women: The power of adventure. Haworth Press: New York.

Estes, C., & Ewert, A. (1988). Enhancing mixed-gender programming: Considerations for experiential educatorsBradford Papers Online.

Hattie, J. A., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-87.

Humberstone, B. (1995). Bringing outdoor education into the physical education agenda:
Gender identities and social change
. QUEST, 47, 144-157. [Abstract only]

Japp, K. (n.d.) Mental Health, Outdoor Education and Gender Issues. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Melbourne.

Johnson, C. Y., Bowker, J. M., & Cordell, K. (2001). Outdoor Recreation Constraints: An Examination of Race, Gender, and Rural Dwelling. Southern Rural Sociology, 17, 111-133.  http://www.srs.fs.fed.us/pubs/viewpub.jsp?index=3050

Little, D. E. (2002). Women and adventure recreation: Reconstructing leisure constraints and adventure experiences to negotiate continuing participationJournal of Leisure Research, 34, 157-177. [Links goes to PDF summary of article from Research Connections, Indiana University]

Neill, J. T. (1997). Gender: How does it effect the outdoor education experience? In Catalysts for Change: 10th National Outdoor Education Conference Proceedings Jan 20-24, pp. 183-192; Collaroy Beach, Sydney, Australia: The Outdoor Professionals.

Neill, J. T. (2002). A brief report on the short-term changes in the personal effectiveness of young adult gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered participants in a 2002 Colorado Outward Bound School Program.

Pohl, S. L., Borrie, W. T., & Patterson, M. E. (2000). Women, wilderness, and everyday life: A documentation of the connection between wilderness recreation and women’s everyday lives. Journal of Leisure Research, 32, 415-434.

Roberts, N.S. (1998). A guide to women's studies in the outdoors: A review of literature and research with annotated bibliography.  Needham Heights, MA:  Simon & Schuster.

Warren, K. (Ed.) (1996). Women's voices in experiential education.  Kendall/Hunt: Dubuque, IA.