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When I was a kid, I tripped over my feet trying to play soccer. My hand-eye coordination wasn’t up to catching a football, and my vertical jump was too meager for the basketball court. I was told by coaches and parents, with hair-tousles and shrugs, that I wasn’t cut out to be an athlete, and that that was OK.
I was sure they were right. The problem was that I, like my parents, like my coaches, like society as a whole, conflated performance in male-dominated sports like soccer and basketball with overall athletic ability. Eventually I stumbled upon climbing, a sport that clicked in a way none of the others had. A place where my few natural skills—balance, tenacity, finger strength, and muscular endurance—actually shone. Many of my strongest female partners took similar paths to get here. We were misfits, delinquents, or middling cross-country runners who never quite clicked with team sports. Then, we found climbing.
And there may be a very good reason for this shared experience. Despite lagging behind in other sports, women are among the best climbers in the world, thanks to the hidden hand of evolution.
According to a recent paper in the journal Current Research in Physiology, the gender parity in climbing is staggering: Of the world’s top 100 sport climbers as determined by hardest send, four are females: Margo Hayes, Anak Verhoeven, Angy Eiter, and Julia Charnoudie, all of whom have redpointed 5.15a or harder. That doesn’t seem like many—until you start looking to other sports for comparison.
In his paper “Female excellence in rock climbing likely has an evolutionary origin,” Colin Carroll, a Columbia University student, personal trainer, and author of the book Fitness by Darwin, examines the performance gap in sport climbing. (The performance gap [PG] measures the difference between the performance level of women and men in a particular sport.) To start, Carroll looked at the PG of the 100-meter dash, where men’s times and women’s times are relatively closer than in most other track-and-field events. Even there, not a single female sits among the top 2,000 fastest sprinters of all time. He ran the numbers again for marathon runners. Ditto—not a single female among the top 2,000. Suddenly, those four top women redpointing 5.15 start to sound like a lot.
There are different theories about which genetic traits or abilities carried ancient Homo sapiens to the top of the food chain, but Carroll’s hypothesis is that activities with the lowest PGs are among the best indicators of what skills helped early humans survive. Basically, he says, if both men and women evolved to do a skill, then that skill probably didn’t evolve as part of a mating ritual or by sexual selection. (Sexual selection is one theory for why males develop more muscle mass than females.) Instead, that skill must have been essential to helping us all escape predators or find food equally.
Running is one of these skills. Despite that statistic about thousands of men being faster than the world’s fastest female, running does have fairly high gender parity compared to sports like throwing or weight lifting, explains Carroll. (Controlling for weight class, female weight lifters can only lift about 80 percent of what men can on average. Without controlling for weight class, that drops to about 70 percent.) In contrast, Carroll calculates that women endurance runners are about 89 to 90 percent as fast as men, and—even more interesting—women sprinters are about 92 percent as fast as men.
“Relative to men, you would expect women to be better endurance runners than sprinters,” Carroll says. “Women have higher fat stores, which are more advantageous for endurance. Men have longer strides and more fast-twitch muscle fibers. They’re more lean. They can produce power at a higher rate than women. These are massive differences, and all of them would point to men being better sprinters [by comparison]. And yet.”
And yet, despite all these apparent advantages, women are faster compared to men than they have any right to be. After all, evolution favors a quick evasion: “The slowest was going to get eaten, no matter their gender,” Carroll says. “So, it benefitted men and women equally to be good sprinters.” Thus, we evolved together.
The same thing is true in climbing, theorizes Carroll. Sure, women tend to have decent strength-to-weight ratios, but men develop more upper-body muscle. Men have greater grip strength, lower body fat, faster muscle growth, and more power. They have everything going for them. And yet.
And yet there are four women among the top 100 sport climbers—and three among the 30 or so who have climbed 5.15b. Carroll believes this is because early humans had to climb trees to both escape predators and find food. Though it’s also true that these skills could just be residual traits from our ape ancestors, it doesn’t really matter.
The upshot of the paper, at least for me, is that there are a lot of things we as women can say are working against us—that science can say are working against us. These include our lesser reach, our lower average grip strength, and the difficulty we have putting on upper-body muscle. There are a lot of good excuses available. And yet.
As with sprinting, there’s something extra going on in the background, something we can’t quite point to. Something about the human shape that transcends gender differences and renders them, in the grand scheme of things, almost negligible. Carroll calls these “sex-blind musculoskeletal adaptations.” They’re the things we all have, things that matter more than our size or reach or gender.
Relative to men, women are better climbers than we are soccer players, Olympic weight-lifters, or even runners. That’s because all those other sports, many of which were invented by men, advantage men. They cater to the strengths that men evolved with. Climbing, however, advantages women more equally, perhaps because there are no rules that advantage one gender over another; there’s only the rock and its unique demands. Women are better climbers because we were meant to climb, in a way that no other sport can really touch: “The relative ability of top female climbers is unparalleled,” Carroll says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the gender gap narrows even a bit further. We’re seeing more women push the boundaries of climbing, and that is I don’t think something that’s going to abate any time soon.”
Imposter syndrome is real, and many women report feeling that they don’t belong at the crag, or that climbing is a boy’s club. My take: Bullshit. Just look at the numbers. Climbing is in our DNA. This is our sport. If there’s anywhere we belong, it’s here.