"That’s a girl's game," my daughter said, pointing to a box in Wal-Mart's toy department. It was Operation, the surgery game that I often played—with girls and boys—when I was a kid. But this new version depicted Doc McStuffins, a cartoon girl who wore a sparkly headband and pink stethoscope. At just six years old, my daughter was already decoding the social cues that indicate what's for her and what’s not.
Studies have found that whether we're six or 36, seeing reflections of ourselves on the product’s packaging makes us more likely to buy it and buy into its ethos. Women gravitate to things that have a female image or spokesperson, while men do the same. In the realm of outdoor sports, the packaging has almost always depicted men being active. (Witness GQ’s fall 2016 photo essay on rock-climbing in Joshua Tree, which prompted this brilliant spoof by Outdoor Research).
That's why I'm encouraged to see recent efforts by gear companies and retailers to represent more women in marketing materials, product descriptions, and branded content, including the blogs, videos, and articles that the brands circulate on social media and their websites.
Take REI, which just announced a major initiative to boost its representation of women (and bought a number of ads in our May XX Factor issue, on newstands now). "The Co-op has committed to putting women first and foremost in all of its storytelling for the remainder of 2017," the company said this week in a release.
It's part of REI’s Force of Nature project, which attempts to close gender gaps in the outdoors in four ways: donating $1 million to nonprofits that create opportunities for women in the outdoors; ramping up its design and production of women's technical gear; offering more than 1,000 classes and events targeted at women; and filling its social media channels with images of women backpacking, paddling, cycling, and skiing. In other words, the company will showcase women getting after it—and sell those women more gear in the process. It's smart business that I can get behind.
"For me, it's been crucial to see other women out there as mentors and role models," says Jainee Dial, an outdoorswoman who co-founded the online marketplace for women’s gear Wylder in November 2016. The site sells women's products made by environmentally-conscious companies, and it also publishes stories of women setting examples in outdoor athleticism and activism.
"I personally think it's essential to see outdoor women represented in the media in a real and authentic way," says Dial. "Seeing those images, we subconsciously think, 'I can do that too.'"
It's a lot like Hasbro's appeal to my daughter. Only Wylder wants its photos of gear-wielding women to change the gender makeup of the entire outdoor community. Such images can embolden women to try new things and get better at activities they're already proficient in—from rock climbing to fishing to hunting. "They're permission, a nudge, an invitation, and social change," says Wylder's co-founder Lindsey Elliott.
Of course, women can represent products that are not intended for women alone—like a tent. I want to see more of that such marketing. This spring, Big Agnes debuted the Tufly SL2+, which isn't specific to women (it's the kind of light-but-livable shelter any backpacker would appreciate). But it was designed by women and Big Agnes touts the female touch on the tent's feature list. The company also donates a portion of its profits to SheJumps, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing female participation in outdoor activities. "I hope we sell a ton of them," says Agnes co-owner Bill Gamber.
So do I.