When I first started as a counsellor I knew right away this was something I wanted to do forever. I couldn’t imagine a better gig and I was determined to figure out how to keep working in camping as a real life, grown up job.
This was my first summer at camp. This my friend Ashley and I dressed up in “fancy clothes” drinking Mocktails that we made with our adult campers for a patio party.
One of the first things I did was to begin actively paying attention to the people around me and the structure that was holding us all together.
Female vs. Male campers/ Counsellors/ Directors
Over the next few years there were a few things I began noticing, we always had lots of female campers, in fact if we didn’t have a cap for cabin assignments, we’d probably end up with way more females than males.
We had an abundance of female counsellors too, and we almost always struggled to get male counsellors. This became especially clear during my first few years as a seasonal director when I was partially responsible for putting together my summer team.
We would have loads of really phenomenal female applicants, and unfortunately we couldn’t hire them all because we didn’t run an all girls camp and needed some male role models too. But it was often a struggle to get male applicants, let alone really great ones.
Often what would happen is that we’d end up having more female staff than male and they would be paired with a male counsellor and work on a boys cabin. It wasn’t ideal, but I always said I’d rather have a really amazing female over a not so great male.
I hate the idea of hiring someone based on the body parts they own, or the gender they identify with – but residential camps have policies about who can work in which cabins.
Here’s the strangest thing I noticed though. There were lots of female campers, and lots of female counsellors but not all that many female directors. Huh.
I don’t just mean at my camp(s) but camping within my province in general.
What is happening between all of those female campers & counsellors and directors
Here’s a really poorly drawn diagram of what my perceived experience was.
*Please note, there is exactly zero scientific evidence to back this up, I haven’t done any studies, and don’t have access to what the camper/ staff numbers were back in the early to mid 2000’s. This is simply a representation of what I was seeing.
Why yes, I did draw this diagram on a piece of scrap paper with some markers I had lying around. Thank you for noticing.
With that said, there were a lot of women in leadership positions at the International Camp Directors Course I attended last November, and there are lots of women in many of the online camping communities I participate in – although I don’t have any data on those numbers either. So maybe it’s a regional phenomena?
Women as Role Models
I have been so fortunate to work with some really fantastic humans in my career so far. Some of them have been women and some of those women have been supervisors and others have been colleagues or employees.
I’ve actively sought out women I admire, to say hello, chat with them, learn from them, or work with them.
I make an effort to encourage the women I interact with at camp to pursue a career in camping if that’s what they want, to take big chances, speak up for themselves when they feel like they’re being dismissed, and to support each other.
I also make an effort to encourage the men I work with to pursue a career in camping if that’s what they want, to take big chances, and to be aware of some of the challenges their colleagues face and of times they’re being dismissed simply because of the weird social roles society had attached to body parts and/ or identity.
Strong and Independent
One of the questions I always ask on the Head Counsellor application is “Why are you a strong role model for new staff?” and my returning staff always try to give serious answers in the funniest way. So one of my returnees answered “I am a strong and independent women…” and it has become a catch phrase for the entire camp (with permission of course, although we still tease her about it a little bit.)
But I love that!
Camp DOES breed (and attract) strong and independent women and men.
And it’s our job to create environments that foster that type of confidence and strength and to be those strong role models for our young staff. I’ve been so fortunate to work in some really incredible cultures, but I’ve also had some bizarre encounters too.
My Experience as a Female Director
I have had some really amazing, incredible, phenomenal, – other adjectives to describe “good” – experiences in my directing career. And I’ve had some super challenging ones too. But the only experiences that truly frustrate me are the ones that are directly related to me being a woman.
One memory that really stands out to me (though it wasn’t the first or last time this type of thing has happened) happened during my first year as a seasonal res camp director, which would have made me around 23 or 24. (Although I still looked like I was 12.)
I was waiting for some repair person to fix the fridge, or washer, or something that couldn’t be fixed with duct tape – I don’t remember what exactly. I saw the van coming up the drive so started making my way out to meet them.
One of the counsellors wanted to run something by me so we chatted while walking to meet the repair person. The counsellor was an 18-year-old guy who was on staff for his second summer (he also looked 12), we chatted about whatever it was he wanted to ask me and I excused myself when the repairman got out of his van, the counsellor waited around because he had a follow-up question.
I introduced myself as the camp director and the person who had called him about the fridge/ washer/ whatever, he shook my hand, introduced himself and proceeded to look over my shoulder and ask the counsellor standing behind me what the problem was with the equipment.
The counsellor, who had nothing to do with the equipment and who only knew there was a problem because I had told him about it 5 minutes before, answered, “uhh, yeah, we’re not sure what’s wrong with it, but it just stopped working early this morning.”
The repairman said, “ok why don’t you show me where it is and we’ll have a look at it”. And he and the counsellor started walking toward the main building while the repairman started asking some follow-up questions.
That’s when I came out of my shocked stupor and said “actually Jim*, why don’t you head back with the campers and I’ll show Mr. MacNeil* where the equipment is, then I’ll come check in with you and answer any other questions you have, ok.”
The counsellor made his way back to his campers and I showed the repairman where the equipment was, and answered the rest of his questions.
Ok, so to some of you reading this, it may not sound like a big deal, and in the scheme of things it’s not earth shattering, but it is an excellent example of what women sometimes come up against.
Not only did the repairman look to the closest male for information and verification, but the counsellor went along with it rather than saying, “actually she’s the one you should talk to” – he jumped in and answered questions even though he had almost no information. Not because he’s a bad guy (he wasn’t, he was a great guy and an awesome counsellor), but that was the norm of the society we are a product of – the “man” or 18-year-old kid, as the case may be, is expected to have all of the answers ESPECIALLY if it has something to do with repairs/ trades/ hands-on things.
So that was a super weird experience that left me feeling … icky, for lack of a better word. It’s not even the most frustrating or uncomfortable situation I’ve been in, just the one that stands out most in my memory.
If I encountered the situation today, I’d have used it as a teaching moment and (nicely) pointed out to both men what was happening. I’ve done it a few times over the years; I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable standing up for myself as I got older and I’ve tried to work hard to create camp cultures where everyone feels respected and heard.
We have such a cool opportunity at camp to empower kids to embrace who they are and feel powerful.
There’s so much scary, weird, stuff happening in the world right now that it’s more important than ever that camp is one of the safe places for young people to learn how to speak up for themselves, and not only feel powerful, but learn how to empower their peers too.
So let’s make a promise that we won’t shy away from those teachable moments (even if they’re uncomfortable), that we’ll constantly evaluate our culture and our biases, and that we’ll encourage young women to speak up, speak out, and step up as leaders.
What do you do in your camp to encourage “strong and independent” and supportive campers? I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.
*Names have been changed.