REI wants to see more women in the wilderness

REI is on a mission to make the outdoors the world’s largest level playing field, according to its marketing materials. In May, the company launched its Force of Nature movement, a multifaceted push to get more women outside.

Courtesy REI

REI stores nationwide will host more classes for women than ever before this summer, and teams are currently working to close the gaps in gear design. But that’s not enough, REI says. The company wants to change the conversation about what it looks like to be an outdoor enthusiast. Its social media networks and summer catalog share the stories of real, empowering women who love to explore the wilderness and are tired of being told it’s a man’s world.

“Today, the outdoor way of life is dominated by male imagery, heroes, and stories. This creates real barriers and stifles the power of inspiration the outdoors can hold for all. As the saying goes, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” said Rebecca Bear, Director of Outdoor Programs and Outreach for REI.

The idea of the movement sprouted in 2015, after CEO and President of REI Jerry Stritzke signed a pledge to accelerate women’s leadership at the company and beyond. For about a year and a half afterward, the company’s leaders wrestled with how to better serve and support women customers.

It wasn’t until they conducted a survey of 2,000 women in the U.S. that they zeroed in on an important concept: Women feel confined to looking and acting a certain way in their daily lives. But outside, they feel free of that pressure.

“The correlation between the compression that women feel and the liberation they feel outdoors (was the most striking). The pressure to feel sexy or skinny or, you know, kind of the social conformity which was measured. But then the statistic that 74 percent of women feel liberated or free when outdoors was a really profound juxtaposition,” said Laura Swapp, Director of Public Affairs for REI of the survey results.

The survey also found that more than 60 percent of women can’t name an outdoor role model. When they did list someone, it was names like tennis champ Serena Williams or former first lady Michelle Obama. Both athletic but not necessarily outdoor pioneers.

“There are a lot of women who are out and getting after it. There is not a huge gap. There’s a huge invisibility factor,” said Swapp.

Supporting women isn’t new for REI. The co-op was founded by Lloyd and Mary Anderson in 1938. Having a woman co-founder, who died only a few years ago at the age of 107, has kept women’s issues a key piece of the company’s nearly 80-year history. Former CEO Sally Jewell is also held in high regard for dramatically growing REI’s sales and opening more stores.

Courtesy REI

The REI team behind the Force of Nature movement wants to see more of that leadership out on trails. The classes it is providing will help women summit mountains, kayak through rivers, and climb up cliffs. Bear says that assuring women they can lead is a huge part of REI’s outdoor education programs.

“I’ve been involved in running women’s programs for a long time, and one of the biggest things we hit is girls and women often lose that sense of self confidence in their ability to feel like they can lead, that they can be the person out front. And they end up discounting the skills that they actually have in the outdoors. I think creating an all-women’s environment helps women realize that they can do it,” she said.

So far, the company is calling the movement a big success. Women of all races and ages attend events. Sometimes, it’s women from cultures where the girls are expected to stay home when the boys go outdoors, Bear said. And in some areas, the classes are so popular, women are putting their names on waitlists.

“There’s nothing that we do that everybody loves. So, I’m not saying that. But it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I definitely feel like we’ve tapped into an appetite for community and conversation,” Swapp said.

For Bear, the goals of the movement go back to the foundation of outdoor education: Nature is uncontrollable. It can’t discriminate. It can’t favor anyone.

“The outdoors doesn’t know what gender you are. When we all go outside, we are equal in the face of Mother Nature,” she said.