Gender Norms Within the Climbing Community


How are gender norms enforced within the climbing community, and what are ways these norms can be challenged?


I want to understand how gender norms play a role within different gym communities.

My project aims to advance the UN goal of gender equality. It includes personal narratives of members of the climbing gym, and how they see gender stereotypes in their personal lives.

NOTE: The names of the facilities are not disclosed in this article for their confidentiality

I believe that through informing the public about their implicit bias surrounding gender, people will be more aware of how their actions promote unhealthy expectations.

Gender Norms

This video helps explain what gender roles are.

Gender norms are the stereotypical expectations for each gender. They are defined differently in every culture. My project will be exploring gender norms within my personal community. For the purposes of this presentation, I will define “promoting gender norms” as creating an environment where people feel the pressure to act a certain way due to their gender.

Gender Performativity:

This is the idea that people act a certain way to fit into gender stereotypes.

  • EXAMPLE: An example of this could be a man who likes to lift weights so that he can appear more masculine.
  • MY PROJECT: This relates to my project because I hypothesized that there may be gender performativity within the climbing gym which could be a factor in the promoting gender norms.

Social Construction Theory:

Social construction theory is the idea that sexism only begins when a space filled with mostly men has women enter the picture.

In a study conducted by Kasumovic et. al, they tested men playing video games with and without women. This was their conclusion:

Low skilled men responded more angrily when playing with women then with other men.

  • EXAMPLE: This relates to what I believe to be common gym culture. In the gym, if there are no women, men will often mind their own business. However, if a woman enters the space, they might begin showing off. This could occur if the need to feel masculine has been a large part of the culture that a man was raised in, there may be performative aspects regardless of the presence of women. This proves the social construction theory and gives an example of toxic masculinity.
  • MY PROJECT: In my investigation, I hoped to explore whether or not there are performative aspects like these within the climbing gym community.



Masculinity is displayed differently from person to person.

In a paper titled “Masculinity and the Role of the Fitness Guru,” Andreasson et., al explored how different gym users view masculinity differently.

This is similar within the climbing gym. While masculinity usually has the same stereotypical aspects, the root of where the idea of masculinity developed may differ in different cultures.  This could impact whether or not men feel the pressure to perform in the gym or on the climbing wall.

EXAMPLE OF TOXIC MASCULINITY: Within the gym, some men said that they felt they could not use the “feminine” equipment



Do women feel that gender norms are promoted within the gym?

Just recently, the University of Western Ohio published a study that interviewed women and asked them to describe their feelings within the gym (Kasumovic et. al).  Most women stated that:

“they felt that they needed to take up as little space as possible “

This allowed me to conclude as follows:

  1. Gender norms are not just negatively affecting men and their masculine identities
  2. The promotion of gender norms is prohibiting us from progressing gender equality.
  3. By addressing gender norms within the gym, we will be able to tackle an important aspect of gender equality: internal subconscious gender biases.

MY PROJECT: I wanted to know if this study was really a true sample of how most people felt in the gym. Therefore, I did the following:

  1. I began paying closer attention to what equipment was being used by either gender within the gym.
  2. I found that the treadmills were largely used only by women.
  3. I found that the men stuck to the bench press and the dead lift.

NOTE: While these might be stereotypical masculine and feminine pieces of equipment, it may also just be that these were the tools each individual needed for their particular fitness goals.

Field Study #1:

I asked members of my community whether or not they thought gender norms were present within their climbing communities.

GOAL: I hoped that by asking this question, I could get a sense of whether or not gender norms were promoted, and whether or not the gym had common instances of gender performativity.

EXAMPLE: For instance, this could be a man showing off his skills in front of others in order to feel more confident with his masculinity.

MY POLL: In my poll, I had a sample size of 41 people from all around the United States. Most of the individuals lived in California, but a few were from the midwest, east coast, and south. These are the results I obtained:

This data is from a pole I conducted from members of the climbing community. I find it very intriguing that a majority of the people who said yes to the question of whether gender norms are promoted within the climbing community are from women. This is indicative that many people are unaware of the norms promoted in the gym and that the promoting of gender norms may be very subconscious.

Field Study 2:

I also decided to interview a few individuals around their experiences within the gym. I thought that by getting personal anecdotes, I would have a more complete picture of how people felt within the rock gym. These are some quotes that stood out to me:

“In the music community any band of females get labeled a “girl band” or something. I’m actually not a girl, but I can tell it seems like the climbing world has made more progress then other sports” – Man Age 19, Rock Climbing Gym

“Guys try to flirt with me by trying to be better at climbing then me. This creates awful sexism.” – 16 year old girl from climbing gym team

“I notice some things where women will get upset about men telling them to do things on the wall.” – Man age 23, Rock Climbing gym

“I find men trying to help me in gyms. All the movie stereotypes of men helping girls seems real.” – 20 year old women, Climbing Gym Member

“Dudes act like they know what they are doing.” – Man age 23, Average climbing gym user

“I feel like a lot of people who come to the climbing gym don’t care what other people think” – Man age 24, frequent member at climbing gym and regular gym

“Climbing is the least gender normative sport I’ve participated thus far.” – 17 year old girl, previously competitive runner

Note: The names of the individuals are not present for their confidentiality.

To me, these quotes indicated that not everyone agrees upon whether there are strong instances of gender performativity within the climbing gym. While some people thought there was a culture that promoted stereotypical masculinity, others believed that the climbing community was less judgmental then a regular gym environment.


Overall, I believe gender norms are promoted within the regular gym community, and the climbing gym community. While not everyone felt that there were pressures for them to act a certain way at the gym, many individuals did feel a “pressure to perform.” This was seen in both the studies I read about, and the interviews I conducted.

I think the first step in eliminating these gender norms is to acknowledge their presence. According to the polls I carried out, many people do not believe current gender norms to be a problem within their gym communities. However, many individuals do not feel fully comfortable within the gym environment. In my opinion, if one person feels uncomfortable this indicates that there is a problem, and change must be made.

What Can you Do?

First, you can take this poll to share your thoughts on this matter.

In addition, I urge you to do the following:

  • Pay attention in the gym for instances of gender norms being promoted. This could be a women being showed what to do, a man showing off, or anything else.
  • Speak out. If you see toxic masculinity, respond to it and let people know why it is problematic.
  • Share your own story. If you have had personal experiences with feeling unsafe in a climbing gym due to your gender, speak out about it. The more people who share their stories, the easier it will be to address the problems within our community.

Works cited:

Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by E B

    This is very interesting. However, I recommend that you survey more people from more places to get more complete data. My climbing team is very supportive, and is almost 3/4 female, but many other people experience an entirely different story within their gyms. Thanks for bringing this issue to light!

    • April 27, 2019 by Phoebe

      Thanks for the idea! I do agree that the page would have been better if I had surveyed a wider audience. My goal was not to generalize for all gyms, but rather, just to share the experience of people around me.

  2. April 26, 2019 by Eugenie.Park

    Hi Phoebe,
    Your Field Study was super interesting and brought a lot of things to light for me. The athletic world continues to be one where gender discrimination is the most apparent, and I really appreciate you diving into it.

    • April 26, 2019 by Eugenie.Park

      Also, I loved your call to action to storytell! Stories continue to be some of the most impactful means of action.

      • April 27, 2019 by Phoebe

        Thank you! I wanted to explore the athletic world for the reasons you mentioned, and also really valued your input through the drafting portion.

  3. April 27, 2019 by India.Soranson Way

    Hi Phoebe – I love your project! The most powerful part, in my opinion, are the interviews you conducted as they provide insight into your own local community. I didn’t even think about how there are gender norms in the gym for women to stick to cardio machine and men to weights. Do you think women are afraid to use weights based on the norm that it’s ‘masculine’? Let me know your thougths!

    • April 27, 2019 by Phoebe

      Hi India, I don’t want to jump to conclusions about why women avoid weights, because I know there are different reasons why from place to place. Also, I know that not all women do avoid weights; this was just something I noticed personally. However, I do think it is likely that they avoid it because it is either masculine, or make them look too buff. Another thought I had was that they focused on the treadmill because there is often a pressure on women to look thin, and the treadmill is often used to lose weight.

  4. April 27, 2019 by Orly

    Hi Phoebe! I found your project to be really engaging, particularly because of its applications in everyday life. While I don’t belong to a climbing gym, I do use the normal gym fairly frequently, and I feel that many of the gender stereotypes you pointed out here are present there. The weightlifting section tends to be dominated by men, and I’d like to use it but I’m always too intimidated to actually do it. My normal gym routine involves some free weights, but I always grab them and move to a different section of the gym. I’ve certainly seen some women in the weightlifting area, but they’re by far the minority. One thing that I’ve noticed is that where there are women there, they are usually in pairs, which makes me think that being there with another woman helps them feel more confident and gives them the backup that they need to overcome the barrier. While most of the men at my gym are considerate, I’ve definitely had men come up to me to give me completely unsolicited pointers. People may say that they are just being friendly, but I have never seen them do that to men that they don’t know, and as a 17-year-old girl it is very threatening to have a strange man walk up to you and start a conversation without invitation. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue!

    • April 29, 2019 by Phoebe

      Hi Orly,
      I totally relate to what you said about it feeling threatening to have a strange man walk up and start a random conversation. I think it is also important to keep in mind that some people were raised differently and in different cultures and this may be “okay” or have a different intended impact. In our class we learned about transnational feminism, and I think this is related to this topic, because without taking into account how people respond to feminism all over the world, we don’t know the intended impact of potential “helpful men in gyms.”

  5. May 04, 2019 by Georgia.Farmer

    Hi Pheobe,
    Your presentation is engaging and interesting! Your exploration into gender norms within athletics is very relevant to today’s sports culture. I found it interesting the way you engaged with your community and questioned the problem of gender norms directly within your field studies. I was wondering what specific gyms/athletic teams can do in your opinion to get rid of the gender norms?

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