Hiking away from the binary: An examination of gender in WOOLF leadership

This year, the directors of the Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-Years (WOOLF) program have altered their leader selection process in a significant and symbolic way. While WOOLF trips traditionally have had co-ed leader pairs, under the new policy, leaders may have a co-leader of the same gender. The updated policy reduces the pressure of the gender binary, allowing leaders who do not identify with either gender to participate more completely in WOOLF. By abolishing its gender quotas for leader selection, WOOLF is ultimately taking an important step towards combating the gender binary.

WOOLF’s change in its leader selection process is commendable, albeit overdue. Other EphVenture orientation programs (such as Where Am I?!) already have non-gendered leader co-pairs, at no detriment to the programs themselves. Although WOOLF is slightly different than other orientation programs, as it entails temporarily living in the woods, the trip itself spans a relatively short period of time, making it comparable to other EphVenture programs.

At first glance, having two WOOLF leaders of the same gender seems to have the potential to lead to some uncomfortable situations. For instance, if a first-year with two male leaders were to get her period during WOOLF, it may be awkward for her to approach them about it. However, this is an easily fixable issue. If all female first-years participating in WOOLF received training on how to handle menstruation in the woods, they would be prepared to tackle the situation, should it arise. The short nature of the trip further minimizes the implications of potential issues of non-gendered co-pairs.

Having exclusively gendered co-pairs is not only heteronormative; it also opens the door to a whole host of other issues. For example, what if a student who did not identify with either gender wanted to be a WOOLF leader? Should they be discouraged from applying? Surely not. The establishment of non-gendered co-pairs allows students who do not fit under the strict gender binary to participate more fully in WOOLF. Having non-gendered co-pairs also better enables WOOLF directors to choose those who they think will be the best leaders. If the directors must meet gender quotas, they may end up choosing students who are not as qualified as their other-gendered peers, simply to meet that imposition.

While creating non-gendered co-pairs is an admirable step towards lessening heteronormativity, there are still several problematic aspects of WOOLF that reinforce the gender binary. For example, WOOLF leaders often separate their groups by gender to explain that first-years should not be engaging in sexual activities during WOOLF: The male leader talks to the male first-years and the female leader to the female first-years. Heteronormative practices such as these undermine the progress made possible by the introduction of un-gendered co-pairs. We hope that, in light of the change made to the leader selection process, other aspects of WOOLF will be more closely scrutinized, too.

Ideally, gender should not matter. Unfortunately, we have been socialized in a society in which gender does matter. We are socialized to be more comfortable talking to someone of our own gender, to shy away from discussing menstruation with those who do not identify as females and to assume that males are more likely to initiate sexual activities. While we cannot tackle all of the implications of living in a gendered society, abolishing WOOLF leader gender quotas is a small step towards cultivating an environment within the College community where gender matters less.