When Shelma Jun founded Flash Foxy, an all-female rock-climbing community, it was just to post pictures of her and her girlfriends climbing. Now, she's using it as a platform to change how women participate in the world outside.
On April 10, 2014, Shelma Jun posted her first photo on Instagram under the handle @heyflashfoxy. It’s a snap of the 34-year-old Brooklynite and two of her girlfriends sitting in front of the red sandstone rocks, captioned: Welcome to Flash Foxy, a girls climbing crew! #foxforce #flashfoxy #girlswhoclimb #girlswhoslay #gurkswhocrush. It has exactly 52 likes and two comments.
“It didn’t start out as a huge women’s movement,” says Jun. “It started out as a celebration of the women in my life—the women that I was climbing with,” she says, “and how that was positively impacting my life.” Fast-forward to today, and Flash Foxy has become one of the most influential groups in the outdoor industry: a vibrant women’s climbing community with more than 30K followers that hosts events and festivals across the country. (This year’s event, this past March, sold out in less than a minute.)
Jun quickly realized that the discussions that Flash Foxy sparked were not limited to just the climbing world or even the outdoor industry. "If you're going to make change, it makes sense that you start in the places that you know," says Jun. "I want to open up these conversations in climbing so that we can make concrete change that will affect everybody on a larger scale." At the most fundamental level, Jun's goal is to focus on how women are empowering themselves by coming together. What it boils down to, says Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, a passionate advocate of gender equality in the workplace, “is having the courage and imagination to turn the corner and embrace the 'radical' notion that empowering women helps everyone succeed.”
Although Jun’s original motivation was pretty straightforward, her path to becoming a women’s champion was anything but. Jun’s family moved to Fullerton, Calif., an Orange County suburb, from Seoul, Korea when she was five. She grew up a self-proclaimed tomboy, though she dislikes the word now. (“The fact that there has to be the word ‘boy’ in the word that describes you if you’re outdoorsy is ridiculous,” she says.) She swam competitively starting in second grade and played water polo in high school.
“I found myself feeling like I had to put down other women, like, ‘Those girls are not like me. They’re so girly and emotional and catty,’” Jun says of being a sporty teen. “These stereotypes that are put on women, I felt this need to put those on other women so I could rebel against it, and that’s f***ed up.”
While she studied econ as an undergrad at UCLA, Jun’s college boyfriend introduced her to surfing, snowboarding, mountain biking, and VW racing. She found climbing on her own at age 25 because of a faulty shoulder; reconstructive surgery for recurring dislocations meant sports with falling potential were out. But, as a female friend told her, you can’t fall top-roping.
Jun continued to climb while she got her master’s in urban planning at UCLA and moved to New York City to put her degree to use. She worked with an Asian-American affordable housing nonprofit, a community-based design nonprofit, and co-founded a minority bike coalition called Biking Public Project that seeks to spark local cycling advocacy discussions by reaching out to underrepresented bicyclists around New York City including women, people of color, and delivery cyclists.
“A lot of my conversations were around being a minority in a group that you feel strongly toward,” Jun says. Like being a person of color cyclist. And being a female climber. “What I’m saying with Flash Foxy is: Here’s what I’ve noticed. Here’s what other women have noticed. Maybe we can talk about why it’s like this—why does climbing with other women make us feel good?”
The answer has been a tough one for the climbing and outdoor industries to accept: “What we found was overlooked gender discrimination and a sexist culture,” Jun wrote in a story for Outside after surveying 1,500 climbers about their experiences in the gym. The backlash to the story was quick and harsh; it was difficult for climbers to see the issue stated so plainly—and to be fingered as part of the issue. “I think we all have this impression where we’re liberal, progressive-minded people and maybe a little bit better than some of the other industries,” says Deanne Buck, executive director of Camber Outdoors, whose core mission is to achieve equality for all women in the outdoors, from backcountry to boardroom. “We drive efficient cars, and we donate to our favorite environmental charities, so we must automatically be good at diversity and feminism, and maybe that’s not the case.”
“‘I know what sexism is,’ somebody will say to me. ‘I don’t say lascivious things to women. I don’t slap them on the butt,’” Jun says. “'I respect women so I’m insulted and offended that you’re telling me I’m complicit in these sexist acts.’” In other words, most people don’t consider themselves sexist, so when Jun suggests they’re part of the problem because they live by societal norms without challenging them, it’s hard to hear. And Jun, the former “tomboy” who once thought she had to choose between being one of the guys or a girly girl, knows how uncomfortable it can be to start recognizing our own involvement in perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
“I had to break down those prejudices within myself,” Jun says. “Why’s society telling me that as someone who’s athletic and outdoorsy, I shouldn’t be wearing makeup?” It’s a question that gets at the core of a very contentious issue. “I don’t think women need to be de-sexualized in order to demand respect and not be objectified,” she says. “The conversations we’re having in climbing and the outdoor community are just a microcosm of what women are experiencing on a larger scale.”
But Jun knows the smart way to be an effective community activist is to start with what you know. So she started the conversation among climbers—and the outdoor industry is responding to the problem, with several companies making big efforts to champion women’s equality both in and outside the office.
This past April, REI teamed up with Jun and Outside to explore this very topic in the video above and partnered with Outside to launch a new initiative called “Force of Nature:” a commitment to making women the prime focus of the company’s nonprofit investments, gear development, and marketing for the rest of 2017. The campaign kicked off with Outside’s May issue, which was 100 percent focused on, written, and photographed by women.
All of it—Flash Foxy, REI’s Force of Nature initiative, Outside's May issue—is born out of the desire to shine a light on the real and perceived barriers that women face in an effort to make the outdoors the world’s largest level playing field. Companies such as Patagonia and Clif Bar have worked hard to acknowledge that women’s needs in the office are often different than men’s and to create company cultures that respect those needs. Both companies provide on-site childcare, and Patagonia even pays for childcare professionals to travel with nursing babies when mothers leave the office for work. “Our industry has a track record of amazing women,” says Patagonia's Marcario, “leaders like Sally Jewell, Kris Tompkins, Donna Carpenter, Sally McCoy, Gert Boyle… I could go on.”
Of course, there's still room for lots of improvement, which is what industry nonprofits like Camber Outdoors are focusing on. “They're really doing some great things right now to make sure the outdoors is inclusive for everyone,” says Marcario. “They’ve brought together 60 CEOs and 170 companies and thousands of individual members to join a community committed to empowering women with a passion for the outdoors to get involved in our industry at all levels. They’re providing a new platform for women entrepreneurs, holding companies accountable for gender equality in the workforce, helping to ensure wild places are accessible to women and all people, fostering innovation by women in product innovation at outdoor companies, and facilitating a big-picture conversation about a vision of inclusion for our industry and beyond.”
Like Jun and Flash Foxy, Camber is trying to empower women by focusing on the positive change that's already happening. “Our philosophy is: let’s look at the bright spots, let’s look at the people who are doing it right,” says Camber Outdoors’ Deanne Buck. “Let’s look at the practices that are working, and let’s build community around that, and let’s create an industry where talent thrives.”
Brands are showing they’re willing to support the cause and people behind it. Outdoor Research and Black Diamond have signed on as sponsors of Jun’s festivals, because they know they’ve got to practice the values they want to see in the world. “The reaction I’m getting from people who are part of the outdoor industry is that they know there’s a problem—they’re not sure how to connect with people, but they want to,” Jun says. “And that’s a really exciting place to be.”
Force of Nature claims the outdoors as a place to opt out of cultural pressures to conform—the “supposed-tos” and “shoulds” that underpin outdated stereotypes—especially for women. To create real change right now REI is putting women—of all ages, races, sizes, gender expressions—front and center in all we do.