REI, which was co-founded by a woman back in 1938, boasts that 45 percent of their employees and almost 50 percent of their corporate officers are women. Laura Swapp, director of public affairs and next-gen marketing, said, “Women’s leadership for us has been a really big deal at REI for a long time. Our challenge was how can we bring this to the rest of our 16 million members.” Supporting an employee and leadership base which is approximately half female are the members and customers, whose population is also about half female.
Despite the nearly equally gendered involvement with the cooperative, the deficit in the media’s portrayal of women in the outdoors and the availability of useful female specific outdoor gear remains. According to REI’s research, 63 percent of the women they surveyed said they couldn’t think of a female outdoor role model. Meanwhile, 85 percent of these women believed that being outdoors positively affects mental and physical health as well as overall well-being.
If women believe that being outdoors is beneficial, yet they have no role models to help them picture themselves as being able to champion the outdoors, then how are women supposed to enjoy nature to the fullest?
Recognizing the problems this poses for women, REI recently launched a comprehensive campaign called “Force of Nature”, which aims to change the way that nature-related gear and activities are advertised and made for women. According to Forbes, the campaign sets out to create high-quality gear designed for women, include imagery of women in nature in product advertising and marketing, and donate $1 m towards nonprofits that organize events for women to get involved in the outdoors.
REI believes that by changing the way they recognize women as members of the outdoor community, they will better understand the problems these women are facing and how the industry as a whole can change for the better.
“We felt like we had to get our own house in order, to understand the impact of women’s leadership internally,” said Swapp.
When Swapp was asked about the potential negative responses to the new campaign from their customers and their community, Swapp was sure that there was nothing happening to which people should reasonably respond poorly.
“We think about [backlash to the campaign], but we’re not worried about it,” Swapp said. “This effort is about leveling the playing field, not pushing men away. We see men as our partners and allies who are participating in the effort.”
Regardless of the feedback REI receives from the campaign, Swapp insists that the campaign is necessary because it reflects their values, saying “For us, this is really personal, this is us. We are literally surrounded by these women, these forces of nature. They are everywhere and we have an opportunity to share that power. This feels deep and personal.”
“This is built into the core of who we are,” said store manager Jacqueline Harp from the REI in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s time, and it’s overdue, and we’re the organization to do it.”
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