Let’s Talk: Backcountry Bathrooms

Okay friends, let’s talk about using the bathroom in the outdoors. I’ve done a lot of overnight trips without bathroom facilities this year and I’m shocked by the amount of bathroom waste being left in the wilderness. I’m a wastewater engineer by trade and a passionate advocate for leave no trace camping, so let’s get dirty and talk about it!

You’d think using the bathroom in the wilderness would be intuitive, but it’s absolutely not for a lot of people, and that’s totally okay. You don’t need to feel bad if the prospect of peeing and pooping in the wilderness is scary or overwhelming for you, but you do need to do your research about it to be prepared. So I’d like to use this post to talk about some tips and proper leave no trace principles, so that we can all commit to a healthy and clean wilderness and so that Carolyn doesn’t have to avoid stepping in HUMAN POOP the next time she tries to make a bear cache.

Tip #1: Do your research about the trail

Before you go anywhere, always research the trail so that you know what to expect and ensure that the trail is within your ability. This includes checking if there are any facilities along the trail where you’ll be hiking or camping. I would say that generally, most hikes in southwestern BC have outhouses at the trailhead. There are hikes that don’t, but most hikes within provincial parks will have a toilet near the parking lot, so make sure to use it before you start your hike. Fewer hikes have outhouses at the end destination, but if it’s a popular backcountry camping location, odds are there may be an outhouse there too. Unless you have digestive concerns, for most people, access to a toilet at the start and end of the hike is usually sufficient, just make sure to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you, because these are rarely guaranteed to be available.

Tip #2: Plan ahead

If access to toilets are limited, pay attention to your surroundings along the hike. If a hike has a long open section, you may want to consider using the toilet before you get to that section because there will be limited privacy later. Keep an eye open for more private areas where you can hide behind a tree, or if you need to poop, pay attention to the ground conditions and look for a spot that would be easier to dig. Take into consideration where the water sources are and avoid them or go downstream of where you collect your water. Planning ahead also includes making sure you have the right supplies with you, both for using the bathroom, and for disposing of your waste. I always bring a ziploc bag with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, plus another ziploc bag for my used toilet paper. Bring a trowel for digging catholes, or a waste disposal bag if catholes are not possible (see below).

Tip #3: Properly dispose of all bathroom waste

In my opinion, this is the hardest part and the part that most people get wrong. Never ever leave waste. I know pee tissue is gross y’all, but it’s not as gross as a beautiful trail that’s cluttered up with half de-composed pee tissue. There’s no getting around this one, unless there’s an outhouse, you just have to take it with you. Use an extra ziploc bag, double bag it, or bring an empty pringles container along with you, whatever you have to do to make it bearable. But you have to take it with you. If this is really a challenge for you, consider using the drip dry method or getting a pee cloth (see below).

Tip #4: Research proper cathole technique

I recommend using leavenotrace.ca for proper techniques, but to summarize here, the two most important considerations are location and technique. As discussed in Tip #2, find a location away from the trail, that has good soils, and that is away from or downsteam of your water source. I’ve found that soil type really is a big consideration because it influences how easy it will be to dig the cathole. Organic soils are best because they will help decomposition and are easier for digging. As for technique, the hole should be 6-8 inches deep (length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches wide. It’s not necessarily better to dig a deeper hole as it will be harder for the waste to decompose. Afterwards, fill the cathole with the removed dirt and disguise with other native materials. You can bury your poo tissue in the cathole, however, try to use as little as possible as it does take a while to decompose and some people recommend just taking your poo tissue with you too. For the same reason, do not try and bury your pee tissue from earlier as it’s just too much material. Overall, it is better to pack the tissue out as much as possible. Lightweight trowels are easily available at camping stores, Canadian Tire, Walmart, etc. I have a plastic Coghlan’s trowel that literally cost me $3.

Tip #5: Be prepared for your period

You can absolutely go hiking and camping on your period and it’s smart to be prepared for it. First of all, even if you’re not on or expecting your period, bring supplies for it. Hiking and camping are a big change to your normal habits and can cause your period to come early. Otherwise, dealing with your period on the trail isn’t really that different from anywhere else. Take extra care in washing and sanitizing your hands both before and after you use the toilet and pack everything out, including used tampons and pads. These will not decompose in an outhouse or cathole and may be dug up by wild animals, so they need to be packed out. Bring something a little more heavy duty for waste disposal (a pringles can instead of a ziploc) and mask the smell with other garbage, like used tea bags. As with all garbage, you need to keep it in your bear cache overnight. If you use a menstrual cup (see below), you can use a cathole to empty the cup. REI has a great article about menstruation in the backcountry if you want to read more.

Tip #6: Proper squatting technique

Some of you may laugh at me for including this one, but I still believe it’s not necessarily intuitive to everyone. The sitting position that we use on the toilet is not really a natural position for using the bathroom. Don’t try and mimic a toilet position in the wilderness, it’s tiring and not as effective. I’ve heard some people will bench against a tree for support, but my recommendation is to squat with your knees out so that you get your bottom as close to the ground as possible. Try and keep your feet a good distance apart and use your hand to brace against whatever is nearby. If you’re on a slope, pee downwards to avoid the pee running back into your shoes. Likewise, if its super windy, pee with the wind. If you still find squatting really difficult, consider getting a pee funnel to make it easier. Some people really love these, just make sure you give consideration to how you will clean and store it.

 

That’s it for my tips, but there are 3 more backcountry bathroom considerations that I’d like to discuss:

1. What to do when it’s not possible to dig a cathole? There are some situations where it’s just not possible to dig a cathole, primarily in the alpine where it is mostly rock. Fortunately I haven’t been in this situation very often and I usually try and plan ahead (i.e. poop in advance when it’s possible to bury it), but unfortunately in some cases you will just have to take your poop waste with you as well. If it’s a short haul, use a sealed container like a pringles can and dispose of it when possible by burying it or dumping in an outhouse. If it’s a long haul, consider getting a proper waste disposal bag. I don’t have experience with these myself, but there are waste disposal bags, such as the wag bag, on the market.

2. What’s the deal with menstrual cups? Menstrual cups are definitely not for everyone and if you’d prefer to continue using pads or tampons, that is totally great, though I’d recommend against free-bleed in the backcountry for wildlife reasons. Essentially, it’s a silicone cup with a stem that collects menstrual blood and is removed, dumped, and cleaned up to every 12 hours. Personally, I’ve been using a menstrual cup for several years and I absolutely love it. I find it more comfortable than tampons or pads and I like that you don’t have to change it as frequently. It’s great for the backcountry because it’s easier for disposal and you only have to carry the one little cup with you instead of a stash of products. But it’s definitely messy and that can be a challenge to manage. Always wash your hands before inserting or removing. It can also be hard to wash the cup in the backcountry, so I usually just give it a wipe with some toilet paper or pour some water on it if I’m only out for a day or two. There’s lots of cups on the market, I have only tried DivaCup, but I love it.

3. What about pee cloths? I don’t personally have experience with pee cloths since I don’t mind just dealing with pee tissue, but I’ve heard a lot of people really love them. It’s basically a microfiber quick dry cloth that can be used multiple times and then laundered after the trip. If you have one, you can carry less toilet paper and subsequently, less pee tissue. I won’t get into it because I don’t have any experience with them, but I’ve heard Kula is a great brand and recommend checking them out if you want to learn more about it.

 

And that concludes my bathroom talk. It’s important to take care of ourselves and the environment, so it’s also important to normalize talking about it. I hope you learned something and always do your best to be prepared in the wilderness!

Books I Loved in 2015

In addition to my love of travel, I’m also a great lover of books! I read a whopping 50+ books last year and these are a few of my favourites:

On The Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

book4Let’s start with my favourite read of the year; I liked it so much I read it twice in a row! On the Jellicoe Road is the story of teenager Taylor Markham, who was abandoned on the Jellicoe Road by her mother when she was a child. She is picked up by a young woman named Hannah and grows up attending Jellicoe’s boarding school for troubled youth. During the first few weeks of every year, the Jellicoe school participates in the Territory Wars with the local Townies and the Cadets. The students secretly fight over school territory behind the backs of their teachers and in her senior year, Taylor is selected as the leader for the Jellicoe School.

Taylor has spent most of her life trying to forget her sad history, but when the leader of the Cadets turns out to be an enemy from her past and Hannah disappears, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript about 5 kids, she is forced to uncover secrets about her past that have been buried and forgotten. I’ll admit, the premise of the story seemed a little strange to me at first and the narrative is a little hard to follow at the beginning, but this is a wonderful book about friendship, family, love, and loss. The relationships in this book are so touching and real and watching all the friendships grow is what made this book a huge winner for me!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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A satirical novel set in Seattle about 15-year old Bee and her eccentric mother Bernadette. My book club selected this book as a “light read” after completing several heavy-themed books, and it did not disappoint! After Bee receives a glowing report card, she convinces her reluctant parents to take her to Antarctica for a family trip. Bee’s father is a high level executive at a tech company, so the trip planning falls mostly on Bee’s reclusive mother, Bernadette. After a number of unfortunate (and hilarious) incidents at Bee’s private school, Bernadette’s social anxiety begins to get the better of her and shortly before the trip, she disappears without a trace! The story is told through a series of emails and documents that Bee compiles in her attempt to track down her mother. This is a laugh-out-loud book about Seattle, private school, the tech industry, virtual living, and finding yourself; I would highly recommend it if you’re looking for a laugh!

Girl at War by Sara Novic

girl at warFinally, some historical fiction about Croatia! I travelled to Croatia in 2012 and aside from being totally enchanted by the beautiful landscapes; I was fascinated by Croatia’s turbulent recent history. My knowledge of the Bosnian War and the break-up of Yugoslavia was unfortunately quite incomplete when I travelled to Croatia. Since historical fiction is one of my favourite ways to learn about history, I looked for related books when I returned and had a hard time finding one about Croatia until now. Girl at War tells the story of Ana Juric’s life in Croatia as a young girl in the early 1990’s and later as a student in America. Ana escapes to America after a truly horrific experience and tries to move on by forgetting her former life. After being asked to speak at the UN about her experience during the war, Ana decides it is finally time to return to Croatia to face the ghosts of her past. This story is heart-breaking, but incredibly well written and moving.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny

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As you may gather from this list, I like reading about women and I like challenging my thinking on gender equality and women’s issues. Unspeakable Things was definitely my favourite read on the topic this year. In this book, Laurie Penny talks about gender, power, and – the relatively new medium which makes things so much easier and yet so much more complicated – the internet. Feminism needs to be inclusive of all women – black, fat, lesbian, bi, transgender, poor, sick, or disabled – and Penny really challenged my thinking on women’s issues and “white feminism”. This book helped me push my thinking on intersectionality and I hope it has helped me be a better feminist!

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

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This book is targeted at middle school age, but I really think anyone can enjoy this novel. When 12-year old Suzy is informed by her mother that her best friend Frannie has drowned just days before she starts 7th grade, she has no idea how to process her grief. Frannie was an excellent swimmer and Suzy can’t accept this simple account of how her friend was taken from her, especially after their unresolved fight at the end of 6th grade. Her feelings of guilt and of frustration at the adults in her life causes Suzy, a compulsive talker, to stop speaking entirely. But everything changes on a class field trip to the aquarium when Suzy learns about a rare jellyfish and becomes convinced that Frannie was killed by a jellyfish sting. She just has to prove it to everyone else. This novel is written in beautiful prose and tells a moving story of how Suzy comes to terms with the death of her friend.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Big Little Lies focuses on the lives of three women whose children just started kindergarten at Pirriwee Public School. There’s charismatic Madeline and her talkative daughter who is placed in a class with her ex-husband’s child; wealthy Celeste and her energetic twin boys; and quiet, single mother Jane with her little boy Ziggy. When one of the other children is bullied and Ziggy is blamed, tensions escalate quickly. We know from the beginning of the story that a kindergarten parent has been murdered, and as the story unfolds it leaves you wondering who could have possibly been murdered and how! It’s a very lighthearted novel that deals with some pretty intense issues – murder, sexual violence, domestic abuse, playground bullies, and helicopter parents – but never feels dark or overwhelming. The characters are well written and believable; I liked that this was a fun, easy read, but that I feel better for having read it.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirlI know Rainbow Rowell is super popular right now, but I was only introduced to her earlier this year when my book club read one of her other novels, Attachments. I really didn’t like Attachments, so I had trouble understanding Rowell’s appeal until I decided to give her another chance with Fangirl. Fangirl is about Cath Avery’s first year at college and how she struggles to leave behind the comforts of her childhood, namely her obsession with the popular Simon Snow fantasy series. The Simon Snow series represents the real-life Harry Potter series, and as a huge HP fangirl myself I was interested in the ‘fangirl’ storyline. Unfortunately, I think the fan aspect of this story was a little lacking and actually the weaker part of the story, but I loved the characters in this book and I loved reading about Cath’s struggles with her sister, boys, and with adjusting to college life. The characters and their struggles are so relatable and that was what made this book a win for me.

Ipanema Turtles: A South American Adventure by Bike by Laura Mottram

book10I stumbled upon this book when I was looking for literature to read about Brazil before I went on my trip. It only has about a dozen reviews on goodreads, so I’m happy to recommend it to more people!  It’s a memoir about an English couple, Laura and Paddy, who take a year-long break from their lives to cycle around South America. They start on Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro and cycle more than 20,000 kms, through every country in South America, before returning (like turtles) back to the same beach where they began. The story is written by Laura using her travel diaries. It’s not the best travel writing I’ve read because Laura is not a writer and has never written a book before, but it’s personal and I really enjoyed traveling along with the couple on what must have been an incredible journey. Both characters are relatable – I didn’t feel like Laura or Paddy were so different from myself – which is what made their journey so believable and exciting!

The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

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I always knew America had a bit of an obsession with virginity, but I never realized how deeply ingrained the idea of sexual purity is in American culture. I was genuinely shocked by some of the things I learned from this book, such as the existence of “purity balls” where girls and their fathers attend a ball for the daughter to sign a pledge of abstinence to her father, who is viewed as the keeper of her virginity until marriage. Government funded abstinence-only education is incredibly prevalent in parts of America, where school curriculum includes comparing sexually active girls to a piece of tape that gets dirtier every time you re-use it (or have sex with a new partner). This was a really eye-opening book on how America fetishizes virginity, uses “sexual purity” to control, de-value, and shame women, and attempts to limit women’s sexual freedom and autonomy. (Follow this book with a reading of “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” by Katha Pollitt if you want to be really disgusted)

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

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This graphic novel is awesome! The story is great, the message is great, the artwork is great – it’s just fun all around. Nimona is a young shapeshifter who teams up with supervillain Lord Blackheart to take on Sir Goldenloin and his cronies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. The Institution is supposed to protect the Kingdom, but when Nimona discovers that they’re actually lying to the peasants and putting them in danger, she wants to strike back! Nimona is impulsive, funny, and boy does she have character. If you love a book where the good guys are the bad guys, science is revered, and the hero is a chubby, red-headed girl – then this is the book for you. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and really enjoyable to read!

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

book2This story opens in the mid 1970’s when teenager Lydia Lee turns up dead in the local lake. The police chalk her death up to suicide by drowning, but Lydia’s parents can’t believe their beautiful, popular, and intelligent daughter would kill herself and suspect foul play. Lydia’s parents, Marilyn and James, are a mixed race couple with two other children, Nath and Hannah. When I picked this book up, I thought it might be a mystery or thriller, but it’s really a simple story about relationships. We get to experience the story from the point of view of each family member as their histories, personalities, fears, and dreams are revealed to us over the course of the novel. It’s not a fast paced book, but it’s well written and I really enjoyed the character development throughout the story.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

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Everyone loves Sophie Kinsella, but after you’ve read so many of her books (like I have), it can start to get a little repetitive. Finding Audrey is her first young adult novel and was definitely a change of pace from her other material. After a bullying incident goes awry, 14-year old Audrey develops severe social anxiety and agoraphobia, refusing to leave the house, talk to anyone, or take off her dark sunglasses. This book is about Audrey’s family and her brother’s friend Linus and how they encourage Audrey as she deals with her anxiety. It’s a surprisingly funny book about family, relationships, and mental illness. It’s a sweet and simple story and I loved Audrey’s crazy and supportive family!

Women in Leadership: You can’t be what you can’t see

As a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, the presence of women in my workplace has always been important to me. I am fortunate to have graduated from a civil class with a female to male ratio of 40% and to work for an organization that hires a fairly large number of female engineers; yet I’ve still had very few opportunities to work with women in senior positions. The reality is that, while the number of women obtaining engineering degrees has been pretty steady in Canada at 17-18%, there are still very few women in senior engineering and management positions.

I’ve always been an advocate for more women in positions of leadership, but I recently had a little ‘aha!’ moment about WHY it’s so important for women to be represented at senior levels. I recently watched a great documentary on Netflix called ‘Miss Representation’. It’s about the way women are represented in the media, the effect this has on girls and women of all ages, and the importance of having female roles models and leaders in all industries to combat the misrepresentation of women. The film’s tagline, and my ‘aha!’ moment, is that you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s hard to see yourself in certain careers or positions of leadership if there are no female role models demonstrating that it’s possible.

Before I continue, I just want to acknowledge that I am writing this blog from a position of privilege. I am a white, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, woman. This blog is about the importance of female roles models in leadership positions, but when I say ‘women’, I want to specifically include women of all race, size, class, and sexual orientation. I am privileged because the few female role models I do see generally look like me. I believe women of colour, fat women, transgendered women, and lesbian women (among others) face additional challenges in finding relatable female role models in their everyday lives. I hope I can draw some of these connections in how we are misrepresented in the media.

We’ve all been influenced by the media in some way or another. Magazines, tabloids, and advertisements constantly present us with these images of “perfect”, over sexualized, unattainable women. They’re designed to make us feel insecure about our bodies so that we rush out and spend money on clothing, hair products, make-up, diet plans, and even cosmetic surgery. The images we see on a daily basis create unrealistic expectations about what beauty is, negatively affecting the self-esteem and body image of young girls and women and normalizing boys and men to the sexual objectification of women.

The media places a disproportionate importance on appearance and has a huge influence on how we determine our own self worth and value and the worth and value of those around us. We’re subconsciously taught about how to perceive sex and gender, about the role we can play in the world, and about what we can be expected to accomplish based on our gender. The way we report the news and the characters we write for movies and television reinforce dated ideas about what societal roles men and women can be expected to fill and the value that they can add to the world.

Let’s start by talking about the film industry. Major blockbuster movies and box office chart toppers generally feature male protagonists and supporting male-dominated casts. There might be a few women who either play love interests or serve some role in supporting or motivating the male protagonist, but they generally don’t have a large impact on the plot. For example, in the Batman Trilogy, Rachel spends most of the first movie playing the role of ‘damsel in distress’ and in the Dark Knight, she is pretty much the only female character in the movie. Even though her presence is important to the plot, she does little to progress the story in the first half of the movie and we soon discover that her real purpose is simply to serve as motivation for the acts that will be committed by the two men in love with her in the second half of the movie. Her role only serves to further the development of the male characters. Unfortunately, movies that feature female protagonists or larger female casts are more likely to be dismissed into the category of “chick flick”, where the storyline still often focuses on the pursuit of a man. Even movies with mixed casts can be deceiving about the importance of the female characters.

A useful tool I recently discovered for examining the disparity between the roles played by male and female characters when watching movies is to use the Bechdel Test. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, the movie must contain one scene where there are two women having a conversation about anything other than a man. It doesn’t have to be a long or important scene or add any value to the movie, but it’s surprising how many films fail the test. For example, I was surprised to discover that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, which has one of my favourite female characters, Hermione Granger, doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test. I’m not saying it’s a good measure of what films have meaningful female characters (I still think Hermione is great), but it does highlight the absence of female to female relationships in a lot of films. It’s okay for there to be unequal numbers of men and women and movies, but over time, the number of movies featuring majority male casts has been largely disproportionate.

It seems that there is an assumption in Hollywood that both men and women are interested in watching movies about men, but only women are interested in watching movies about women. I find this sad because women are every bit as complex as men and are every bit as capable of leading a storyline that does not center on romance. It’s possible to write compelling female characters that are just as engaging as male characters and that are just as much of interest to male viewers as female viewers. Why are we only catering to half of the population when we write and produce movies?

I’m inclined to think that it might have something to do with the fact that the movie industry is almost completely dominated by men. For the majority, our film directors, producers, and writers are men and the number of meaningful (say Oscar-worthy) roles available for men far outweigh the number available for women. Men, understandably, don’t know how to write compelling female characters because they are not female. So it shouldn’t really be any great surprise that our movies and television shows are filled with male heroes in the form of doctors, lawyers, police officers, scientists, engineers, and politicians. Unfortunately, women are filling very different roles in movies and as such, we have a very different expectation about what our female characters, and by extension ourselves, can accomplish.

That’s not to say there aren’t movies and television shows with great female characters. Grey’s Anatomy has a diverse cast of female doctors, Parks and Rec has director and city council member Leslie Knope, Girls has four relatable female stars, and Orange is the New Black is a great example of the success a female creator, writer, and diverse cast of women can have. However, there is a tendency when trying to write these “strong” or “empowered” female characters to simply give them physical strengths or traditional male traits to demonstrate their power. We don’t need to adapt our female characters to the same traits as our male protagonists to create compelling and meaningful characters. Women need characters that they can relate to on television and in movies. The media has become a very important part of our culture and can influence how we relate to one another and interpret our experiences. We should be able to turn on the television and see characters that we can relate to.

We can draw a connection here by looking at the percentage of people of colour that are cast in movies. Similar to female roles, lots of movies may have one or two black actors/actresses, but the majority of the cast, and generally the protagonist, will be white. Producers love to write in that one stereotypical black, gay, or fat friend to pretend like they have a diverse cast and to get a few cheap laughs. What’s equally frustrating is that these characters are often added simply because they’re black, gay, or fat. That one quality that deviates from the norm becomes the entire essence of their character.

Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson are both popular, successful actresses. I won’t pretend like I’ve seen even a portion of their movies, but in many of their roles, being fat is an important part of their character. In Bridesmaids, McCarthy’s forward approach to romance is funny because as a fat woman, we assume her prospects for love are slim and in Pitch Perfect, Wilson’s character is literally called ‘Fat Amy’. Most of the laughs they generate in these roles are directly related to the fact that they’re overweight; it becomes the dominating feature of their personality. McCarthy and Wilson are both great actresses and their comedic value shouldn’t be limited to their size. That said, I was impressed that both these characters had a lot of self-love; they don’t try to change who they are and that makes you love them too.

In the same way, women of colour are not frequently featured in roles where being black isn’t an essential part of their character. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o are all great actresses that have been nominated for Oscars for their roles in The Help and 12 Years a Slave. But in all cases, being black was a requirement of the casting and necessary to the plot of the movie. That’s not to say the roles are bad, it’s just that we don’t see many people of colour leading movies where the character’s race is unimportant. If the protagonist’s race doesn’t matter, by default, the role generally goes to white actors.

If we move on to politics, the story is, unfortunately, more or less the same. Men dominate the political scene, shaping most of our nation’s legislature and policy; policies that affect everyone, whether male or female, black or white. There just seems to me to be something so inherently wrong that governments can meet and draft legislature that will affect the entire population, when they’re often missing representation from half of it! Even more inconceivable, is the power (predominantly white male) politicians have to dictate policies on women’s issues. Here, more than anywhere else, I believe it’s imperative to have women not just participate in the discussion, but to shape and lead the discussion.

Unfortunately, the media does us few favours when it comes to augmenting the number of women in politics. Female politicians are fighting a completely different campaign during election time and an additional set of challenges if they are elected. When Sarah Palin was selected as the republican VP nominee in the 2008 election, the media quickly framed what the dialogue surrounding her campaign would be and highly influenced how Americans would view her as a political candidate. Her political platform was of little interest to the media, who instead focused on how she dressed, how she did her hair and make-up, and how running for election might impact her family. That’s not to say no one talked about Obama’s sex appeal, but when he talked, we at least stopped and listened to what he had to say. We never questioned Obama’s ability to be both a world leader and a good father.

I’m not saying the election result should have been any different, but Sarah Palin was certainly treated differently, and taken much less seriously, for being a woman. Our news outlets like to pretend that a female politician’s appearance is somehow relevant when they should be educating us on important voting issues. How can we encourage young women to pursue careers in politics or leadership by tearing them down on national television, for reasons completely unrelated to their political policies or views?

Today our society just doesn’t seem to value or respect the female voice. Any woman who has the courage to speak out about politics or inequality knows they’re up against a media industry that cares more about their appearance than their voice and social communities that just don’t respect them. When a young girl was raped in Steubenville, reporters lamented the lost future of her rapists rather than the trauma she was experiencing from being sexually violated and the ongoing emotional pain of having to relive that trauma throughout a trial. When female blogger Anita Sarkeesian speaks out about violence against women in video games, male gaming communities attempt to silence her through intimidation and threats of harassment. And when five black American, transgender women are murdered during the first 5 weeks of 2015, it gets virtually no media attention.

These actions demonstrate to young girls and boys precisely how little we value the voices of women. How can we expect girls and women to speak out with so many people screaming at them to be silent? If we can’t be what we can’t see, then what I see is a serious lack of female role models. It can be easy to think that women have progressed so far since the days when we were forced to fight for the right to work and vote, yet on average, women are still paid less than men, promoted less than men, and generally respected less in the workplace.

I’ve often heard the argument that women simply aren’t interested in the higher paying professions and leadership positions that men traditionally hold. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it. Yes, modern feminism respects that you have the right to choose whether you want to focus your time and energy on pursuing your career or follow the traditional path of being a mom and homemaker. There is no right or wrong choice and women should feel comfortable and secure in choosing either path. But I just don’t buy that women are not interested in these higher paying, management positions and I think there are other factors at play in why we typically see fewer women in these positions.

First of all, there’s the fact that we make women choose. Do you want to pursue a career or do you want to pursue a family? We generally don’t put this responsibility on men and it’s very unlikely that a man’s choice to become a father will ever have any effect on the trajectory of his career; it’s assumed a man can have both. However, even if a woman has no intention of having children, her employer is more likely to be prejudiced against her. Whether subconsciously or not, when hiring and promoting women, employers often take into consideration the likelihood of having to pay for maternity leave(s) and other family related benefits and anticipate that female employees may be less dedicated to the company once they have children.

Women tend to get stuck in middle management positions and get passed over again and again for leadership positions. We tend to favour working with those that are similar or like-minded to ourselves. Since men already dominate our boardrooms, it’s easier for companies to just keep promoting men. Men and women do think and act differently; but I’m of the opinion that it would greatly benefit companies to have both perspectives at the highest levels of management.

However, I think some of the biggest challenges in climbing the career ladder up to senior management are historically ingrained gender norms and the perceptions of gender the media has instilled in us. Men have always been assured of their value to society. They have traditionally been viewed as providers and the voice of authority in family, work, and politics. Media influence teaches boys and men that their voices are valuable and deserve to be heard, whereas our society is more likely to try and silence female voices. As a result, I do think that men are more confident. They’re more willing to speak up in meetings, to put forth ideas, or directly ask for a raise or promotion. Women bring immensely important viewpoints and ideas to the table, but they’re more likely to hesitate before sharing and be judged more harshly if they fail.

We also interpret the actions of men and women very differently. I recently saw a great comic illustrating the double standard between how we interpret the same action from a man and a woman. The comic features a man asking for a raise and his employer thinking “what a go-getter”, and then a woman asking for a raise and the employer thinking “what a pushy bitch”. We respect confidence in a man, but we view a confident woman as pushy and an unconfident woman as a pushover. Those women that have made it to a leadership positions face just as much of a struggle once they get there. From what I understand, it often involves having to make sacrifices in your personal life, working twice as hard, and having to adapt your attitude and personality to that which suits the man’s world you’re immersing yourself in.

We can’t be what we can’t see. It can be hard to relate to the female characters on television because there are no women writing relatable characters. Likewise, it’s hard to envision a future for yourself in management or politics when there are few role models demonstrating that you can have that future. Let’s not make excuses for why there are so few women in leadership and let’s not take our inspiration from the media. Instead, let’s look for the already amazing role models in our lives, build them up, and then become role models ourselves.