I first entered the whitewater industry the summer after my freshman year of college as an unassuming, 120-pound, 19-year old woman. As you can imagine, this is not the typical demographic for river guides — an occupation that is dominated by big, burly, self-assured men. Right off the bat, I was intimidated by this macho-charged work environment. I always felt as if I was falling behind by default of my small size, unable to lift as much weight or move a large, heavy boat as quickly down the river. The inferiority I felt from feeling like I was too small, too weak, and too slow to keep up with the guys quickly translated into me compensating by working my a** off, trying to prove that I too, am a valuable employee, that I too, can hold my own, and that I too, am capable and strong. And, as time went on, I started to get compliments from my male coworkers for my strong work ethic. But, for me, working hard never felt like an option, instead it felt like something that was expected of me, something that was required in order to prove my worth as a female guide. For me, this wasn’t working hard, this was survival in a male-dominated work environment.
Over time, I started to notice that, despite our smaller size, my female coworkers and I could run laps around the guys: continuing to work when they stopped, noticing details that could be improved, taking initiative to do the grunt work that no one else wanted to do, and going out of our way to help and take care of other guides. I can’t speak fully for other female guides, but I think we are subconsciously motivated by deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. This overcompensatory work ethic is driven by a patriarchal belief taught from birth that we are not good enough, strong enough, or as naturally fit for a physically-demanding job as our male coworkers. So, we work hard even when we don’t have to, go above and beyond even when we are not called to, and take on the work of others even when they don’t ask us to, all in an effort to prove our worth.
Our male coworkers, on the other hand, act as if they are entitled to the job and take full advantage of this dynamic. There are multiple times where I have found myself working under the blazing hot afternoon sun or late into the night while the guys sit around, drink beer, and tell me to “chill out” and “stop working so hard” because it makes them uncomfortable. What they don’t understand is that I am caught in a double standard where women have to work twice as hard in order to be considered valuable. If I were to sit down and drink a beer while there was still work to be done I would be confirming stereotypical assumptions that I am weak, worthless, and incapable of hard work because I am a woman.
However, after three years as a guide it is becoming apparent that proving your worth through hard work does not gain you any more respect as a woman. I find myself continually frustrated that, even though my female coworkers and I continually go above and beyond the call of duty, we are still underestimated and put-down by our coworkers and clients. These put-downs usually come in the form of back-handed compliments and snide comments that belittle our capacity for strength. I regularly receive comments such as:
“You’re so tiny, how do you move that big boat?”
“Wow, these oars are actually really heavy, you’re a lot stronger than I thought”
“With how small you are, I am surprised you can carry those big buckets of water up and down from camp”
I have come to find that when people call me small and tiny, they are really calling me incapable. Because I am a woman, when people see me working, they assume that it is not hard work. Instead, they assume that any physically demanding work I do, such as rowing a boat or lifting gear, must be easy. So they are surprised when they feel the weight of the oars or see the amount of water I carry from the river in the washbucket. It amazes me that, even when people see a woman working in a highly non-traditional occupation, they still assume that she is adhering to traditional roles, and that, even when a woman is performing an overtly physically challenging task, people still assume that it must not be taxing. In essence, any work a woman does is undervalued until proven otherwise.
This all being said, I am very lucky to work at a company that values women, hires many female guides, and where my boss responds and takes action to complaints of sexism. I have heard many horror stories from female guides at other companies who have experienced sexism in much more apparent, and life-threatening ways than I have. So, I am grateful to work in a mostly woman-friendly work environment. However, I think it is important to point out that even in a work environment where sexism is actively called out and looked down upon, women still experience a great deal of it, just in less-apparent ways. Female guides are some of the strongest, no-nonsense people I know, so the fact that sexism still creeps into their lives shows how powerful and sinister it can be, even in less-apparent forms. Until we become aware of the veiled sexism that exists in the whitewater industry, these incredible women will continue to be overworked and undervalued.