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Women are front and center in REI's new Force of Nature initiative.

REI’s “Force of Nature” Initiative Focuses On Gender Equality

The beloved co-op is putting women and girls front and center with new gear, more classes, and grant money to help level the outdoor playing field.

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If you’re a woman who loves exploring Colorado’s mountains, rivers, and forests, you’re likely familiar with one of these scenarios: Looking around and realizing the group you’re adventuring with is majority male. Walking into a gear shop and finding that what counts as women’s gear is just a smaller (or pinker) take on the male version. Seeing countless advertisements and articles where men get to be badasses while women merely watch.

And you’re probably tired of them.

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REI is too. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, the co-op—founded in 1938 by husband-and-wife Lloyd and Mary Anderson (who passed away in March at 107)—is putting women and girls front and center with the April launch of its Force of Nature initiative.

REI
Mary Anderson, co-founder of REI

In January, the company commissioned a study to better understand “women’s relationship to—and attitudes toward—the outdoors.” More than 2,000 women in the U.S., ages 18 to 35, participated. REI found that while women consider the outdoors to be liberating and good for their health, they also feel a lack of acceptance and support for their endeavors. More than six in 10 women said that men’s interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women’s, and 63 percent couldn’t think of a single outdoor female role model.

Force of Nature stems, in part, from those findings. (The co-op began looking at the issue of women’s leadership internally about two years ago. In January 2015, it announced a $1.5 million Mary Anderson Legacy Grant to Camber Outdoors, which is working toward a more inclusive outdoor industry.) “We spent a year and a half really deeply looking at ourselves and doing the work before saying, ‘We’re ready to have a conversation with our customers,'” says Laura Swapp, REI director of public affairs and next gen marketing. “It’s an overcorrection. We look at it as a culture change effort. [We have to] reset the bar.”

That conversation has four specific talking points: changing the narrative when it comes to marketing and storytelling (for example, REI partnered with Outside for the magazine’s first-ever all-women’s issue, which hit newsstands in April); a $1 million commitment to organizations creating opportunities for women and girls in the outdoors; gear and apparel designed specifically for women; and fostering community through an expanded lineup of women- and girl-focused events.

By the end of the year, REI will host 1,000 experiences across the country for XX chromosomes only, including REI Outdoor classes, 19 REI Adventures trips, and three REI Outessa retreats—three-day escapes in which participants can choose from hundreds of outdoor activities. In Colorado, look for new hands-on bike maintenance classes and an outdoor introduction to rock climbing course, among other offerings.

As for gear and apparel? Expect to see a lot more, both in terms of expanded sizing options (petite, tall, and additional plus sizes, in particular) and gear designed specifically with women’s physiology in mind. We’re digging the Force of Nature Flash 45 Pack, which was crafted by a women’s design team at REI, and the new Ghost Dreamr bike.

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Just because Force of Nature is about women doesn’t mean it’s to the exclusion of men. “We definitely don’t see this is as pie that we’re dividing, and we get some and men get less,” Swapp says. “We need the men in our lives to be on board with sharing the outdoors and the vision of creating a level playing field.”

It’s about time.

Bonus: The Force of Nature Fund is currently accepting grant applications for organizations focused on connecting women and girls to the outdoors, with $500,000 in philanthropic funding up for grabs. Submissions are being accepted through May 31; grant awardees will be notified in July. 

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