Every time Dawa Yangzum Sherpa brings her ice axe down against the steep rock face of a snow-ridden summit, she chips away at patriarchy that doesn’t encourage Sherpa women to climb mountains. Dawa Yangzum stood at the top of Mount Everest at the age of 21 and then became the first Nepalese woman to become a mountain guide certified with the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
In general, mountaineering is a male-dominated field, only 12 out of the 133 IFGMA-certified guides in the USA are female. To put things into further perspective, of the 7000 IFMGA guides worldwide, only 1.5 per cent are women – that’s just over 100. It’s a gruelling process, but earning this revered mountaineering title means as a guide Dawa Yangzum will have more job opportunities, higher pay and a chance to inspire other hopeful female mountaineers and climbers. It’s my dream to summit thousands of metres with her one day.
All over the world, female tour guides like Dawa Yangzum are breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes by entering male-dominated fields and being the first of their kind.
We need more female tour guides for the very same reason we need female representation across the board – to level the playing field, especially in countries where strict cultural norms hold women back. While women make up for well over 50% of the workforce in travel, it is yet another industry where boardrooms are full of men.
Female tour guides are rarer still, but in 2020, things are changing in that respect at least. The Independent reported that Responsible Travel – a travel company that sells responsible vacations –has noted that interest in their female-led tours is up by 58%.
The demand for female-led tours is on the rise and has been for a couple of years now, one driver behind this is the desire for women-only trips. As a result, tour operators are creating more product such as female expeditions where travellers can explore a side of countries rarely seen. The other driver is that tour operators are making a concerted effort to put female-led tours at the forefront.
In 2017, Intrepid Travel made it their goal to double how many female tour leaders their company employs globally by 2020.
Last year, Michael Edwards, managing director for the Americas, shared that they had doubled their number of female tour leaders in an interview with Skift. Having doubled their number globally to more than 300, women now make up for 30% of Intrepid Travel’s tour leaders. While this number is by no means enough, they hope that by selling more women-led tours will break barriers and create knowledge and awareness.
Edwards explained that in countries like India, where being a tour guide is an unusual career path for women, they had to do a real push. “We’ve had to really promote this locally. We go on social media, and we talk to families to show that this is a legitimate career for a woman.” In Morocco, Intrepid Travel went from having no female tour leaders to 20. In Kenya, thanks to Intrepid Travels’ efforts, Becky Kieha, became one of the first women to be an overland truck driver in that country.
Encouraging more female guides into the workforce provides an opportunity for women to be leaders in their communities and inspire younger girls. While some guiding roles require experience – for example, on mountains – travel offers women work where they can be trained on the job. This is especially important because in countries where women don’t have the same access to education, opportunities and freedoms as men.
We’ve seen the positive impact of female exploration on future generations thanks to National Geographic’s thought-provoking collaboration with Mattel in 2019. By creating a line of travel-themed Barbie dolls, they were able to encourage young girls to aspire to careers like wildlife photojournalist and polar marine biologist.
The value of travelling alongside a female tour guide furthers the good fight against gender inequality all year round.
Exploring alongside a local guide makes touring one of the most unique ways to explore any destination, they are tailormade for cultural exchange. Of course, travellers learn from their guide, but guides also have something to gain from the experiences of people on tour as well.
The male prerogative has shaped the narrative of our world for far too long. Because women experience the world differently, their perspective brings a great deal to the table, and they must be enabled to share their stories and impart their knowledge with new communities and travellers. Through female-led tours, travel provides us with a way to tip the scales in favour of equality and work towards levelling the field.
Shattering the glass ceiling is a job for all of us, and female tour guides are playing a pivotal role in that. It’s high time we follow in the footsteps of women like Dawa Yangzum and support these sheroes by actively choosing female-led tours.