Ten years ago, when Rachel Alliss sat in a staff meeting for the communications outreach and marketing bureau at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, she was one of only two women in the room.
Now, she says, women often outnumber the men.
Since 2010, there has been a large increase of female participation in outdoor professional fields and outdoor recreation. The Outdoor Association found that 46.2% of women participated in outdoor recreation in 2020, the closest percentage to male participation ever recorded.
Better representation in marketing and social media has made outdoor activities more inclusive and open to diverse communities, besides exclusively white, cis-gendered men.
“I think there’s a lot more openness today,” said Christy Firestone, communications director for Nebraska Game and Parks. “It’s a lot more inviting.”
Case in point: Kristine Fischer, a professional angler from Weeping Waters, who became the first woman to win a national championship in fishing in November. Her $35,000 win at the Hobie Bass Open Series Tournament of Champions opened the door for her career and the careers of women anglers across the state.
Women have come a long way in fishing since 2009, when Kim Bain Moore was the first woman to ever compete in a national angler competition. In 2020, 19.7 million women went fishing, which was a 10% increase from 2019, according to the 2021 special report on fishing put out by the Outdoor Association.
“Women are one of the fastest growing groups in outdoor recreation,” Firestone said.
More women are also pursuing careers within the outdoor professional fields. In the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, there has been a 23% increase in female enrollment since 2010, according to Elyse Watson, the school’s recruitment coordinator.
The majority of UNL fisheries and wildlife majors are now women. In 2010, only 35% of enrolled students were female, compared to 59% in 2021.
“What’s neat about this is that our total numbers have also increased, so we aren’t losing male students, we are simply recruiting female students at a higher rate,” Watson said in an email.
Similar to Alliss’s experience, Firestone started her career at Nebraska Game and Parks 10 years ago when there were only two women in leadership positions. Now, almost 50% of leadership positions are held by women, she said. Often, women take STEM roles, such as biology, conservation and other sciences.
“I don’t think women feel like the minority in the outdoors anymore,” she said.
The large growth in female participation is largely thanks to more diverse marketing from outdoors brands, according to Firestone. In the past, “shrink it and pink it” was the popular marketing approach to target women. Companies took the products designed for men, made them smaller and turned them pink.
“When they started marketing products to women 10 years ago, they were pink and purple,” Firestone said.
Today, several outdoor brands pursue better representation in their marketing. Orvis, an outdoors clothing and gear brand, started the 50/50 campaign in 2017 in order to increase female participation in fly fishing.
REI became more inclusive of women by offering more women’s options, increasing the range of sizes and reporting on women in the outdoors through its Force of Nature campaign.
“There’s been a lot more intentional outreach, and you can see it in our markets,” Alliss said.
Audrey Krimm, coordinator of outdoor adventures at UNL, agreed. The most important thing to inspire diversity in the outdoors is better representation, but in the past, marketing was limited to cis-gendered, white men, Krimm said.
“The biggest thing is representation, being able to see myself in that person,” she said.
Now, with social media, more diversity in the outdoors is being shown. Women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community are sharing their experiences in the outdoors online, and in turn, inspiring others like them to participate too.
“There is a lot more access to seeing people,” Krimm said.
Offering opportunities for women to learn about the outdoors in a comfortable space also is crucial to inspiring diversity, Krimm said.
Alliss hosts a podcast with fellow outdoor professionals Julia Plugge and Tanna Fanshier that focuses on women in outdoor recreation. She is also involved in Becoming an Outdoors Woman, a 31-year-old national organization that aims to teach outdoor skills to women.
In Nebraska, the group holds a womens-only weekend every year. The overnight seminar offers classes on topics from survival skills to hunting and fishing. Women enjoy participating in the seminars, according to Firestone, and the weekends get booked quickly.
“They feel more comfortable in an environment that is female-friendly,” she said.
When opportunities are offered for women to learn new skills without the competition of men, women are more likely to participate, according to Krimm.
“Gender is not on show,” she said. “You can just exist fully as who you are.”
Some setbacks are still present for women, despite the strides made towards inclusivity. Gender role congruence is something society teaches kids at a young age, Krimm said, and can affect girls’ interest in the outdoors later in life.
“We are put into boxes really early on,” she said.
Female participation in the outdoors is inconsistent and varies every year, according to Alliss. By analyzing hunting and fishing license sales, Alliss can see that while it can be easy to convince women to buy a license one year, it is likely that they won’t return the next.
This could be because of safety issues, pressures of family life or the lack of like-minded friends who could participate, she said.
While men traditionally have dominated hunting and fishing, women have a long history of participating in those activities, even though many aren’t aware of that tradition.
“Women have always been in the outdoors,” Alliss said.
Nebraska in particular is a great place for women to learn more about the outdoors. With so many natural spaces and lakes, it is an easy hobby to participate in, Alliss said.
“I think it is easier for folks in the Midwest to get involved,” she said.
When governments enforced lock downs during the pandemic, many people turned to the outdoors to spend their time safely, according to Alliss. In 2020, there was a huge spike in general participation, she said.
“I think people have realized how important natural space is.”