Outdoor Retailer REI: Women Can ‘Level the Playing Field’ With Men By Spending More Time Outside
Forget power dressing and career coaches—REI says the key to women’s confidence can be found under the open sky.
On Monday, the outdoor retailer announced a four-pronged effort to encourage women to spend more time outdoors, which it calls “the world’s largest level playing field.” The four major components of the initiative are a multi-channel marketing campaign, a $1 million commitment to support nonprofits that create opportunities for women in the outdoors, an increased push to develop technical gear and apparel for women, and more than 1,000 female-focused, outdoor-related events.
At its core, the “Force of Nature” initiative is based on the company’s findings, through a quantitative survey of 2,000 women as well as a series of focus groups, that those who spend time outside are more confident than those who do not. Eighty-five percent of survey respondents said they saw the outdoors as key to their health and well-being, while about three out of four women said nature is a place where they’re free from the pressures of everyday life.
Laura Swapp, the company’s director of public affairs and next-gen marketing, says women who spend time outdoors see it as “their secret sauce.”
“Women who spent time outside possessed a sense of confidence and content and assuredness that they talked about bringing to all areas of their life,” she says. The reason? “Outdoors is a place where the expectations of women and how to be a woman and that you have to be sexy or pretty or kind of show up in a certain way kind of fall away.”
Gender stereotypes aside, spending time in nature is also considered beneficial for mental agility. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, recently performed an experiment in which he tested 22 psychology students’ problem-solving ability; after three days of wilderness backpacking, students performed 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks than before the outdoor adventure.
Raquel Karls, REI’s senior vice president of human resources and an avid outdoorswoman, says the benefits of spending time outside are immeasurable for the company’s employees, many of whom are actively engaged in outdoor activities. “It teaches a certain level of independent thinking.”
REI has been on Fortune‘s list of Best Companies to Work For since the list launched in 1998.
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While the benefits of spending time in nature are hard to argue with, many women don’t because of a lack of female role models and friends to go with, according to REI’s research. To that end, the company aims to change male-dominated imagery of the outdoors, starting with a partnership to produce the first-ever all-female issue of Outside magazine later this month.
The outdoor retailer was co-founded by Mary Anderson in 1938. The company is currently helmed by CEO Jerry Stritzke, but was previously led by Sally Jewell, who left the retailer when she was named U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 2013.
Currently, about 44% of the company’s leadership team—including its CIO Julie Averil and CFO Tracie Winbigler—and a third of its board is female. For comparison, the average percentage of women on Fortune 500 boards in 2016 was just under 20%, while the percentage of female execs at a Fortune 1000 company was 18% in the same year.