“Breaking barriers in the world of alpinism” is the title of Marion Poitevin’s TED talk from 2017. She was the first and only woman in the French Army Mountaineering Group and the first woman to join the Mountain Rescuer Police team. And now she is mentoring other women in mountain leadership. Here she is generously sharing her thoughts and experiences about breaking gender barriers.
Marion Poitevin is 34 years old and have already achieved more in the mountains than many of us do in a lifetime. She has always been passionate about climbing and mountains, and she grew up in a family practising all sorts of outdoor sports. But if you want to make a living as an athlete you must be creative. And as a woman you must have a bit of extra luck. “I was passionate about mountains and climbing, but if I would have been two years older, I would not have been given the opportunity that I got” she says.
The chief in the French Army Mountaineering Group opened up for having a woman in the team. They were two women who were interested, but the other woman was already sponsored and chose not to apply. Marion had no sponsorship, was intrigued by the possibility and applied.
At an age of 23 she joined the army group, and went on expeditions to the Himalayas, Antarctica, the U.S, Canada, Iran and Norway among other places. “After four years I switched and worked as an instructor at the High Mountain Military School, leading dozens of soldiers in the mountains. I had so many invaluable experiences and got great tips from my colleagues in the army” Marion says. But she felt increasingly unwanted.
“The chief who hired me understood the challenges of having a woman in the team. But three months after I joined the group, he left. And after he had left, it took me two years before I realized that the other team members and chiefs in the army were uncomfortable with having a woman in the team” Marion explains.
She felt a growing resistance from her surrounding when she achieved higher ranks and a lack of trust in her capabilities when she aimed for additional instructor certificates. “All the time I had to proof myself twice as much as my male colleagues. The others were not ready for having a woman in the team yet. Perhaps it might had been easier if they had hired two women at once” she reflects.
In 2014 Marion became a certified mountain guide, and in 2015 she left the position as an instructor in the military. Instead, she started at the police school and in 2016 she joined the Mountain Rescuer Police team. Again, being the first woman to join and now leading groups with hundreds of policemen in the mountains. “In this team I feel a great support from my colleagues and chiefs. They bring in more women too, and soon we will be a handful of women in the team of 200 rescuers” Marion says.
Moreover, Marion is co-founder of the initiative Lead the Climb. Lead the Climb aims to develop women’s leadership in the mountains. It is an initiative together with the French federation for alpine clubs, the FFCAM. “I joined the first female club already in 2006.
At that time in life I did not search specifically for female climbing partners, but I found out that it was very nice to team up with other women. I gained a lot from taking part in that club. It opened for the military opportunity as well. And subsequently it was nice to hang out with only women after having lead male soldiers between nine to five at work.”
“Ten years later I realized that there is still a need for women-only groups, so I started Lead the Climb. It is the only FFCAM club which offers paid tours with a guide, and all guides are women” she explains.
Again, Marion gets significant support from a man who sees the need for breaking barriers. “The current president for FFCAM really understands the benefit and need of strengthening women professionals in alpinism, so he gives us strong support.”
In France the first female mountain guide appeared in 1983 already. When Marion and another female aspirant received their mountain guide certificates in 2014, they were 17 women guides in total and today there are 30 women guides in the French mountain guide system. But they only make 2% out of the total amount of French mountain guides.
Among the 100 000 registered individuals in FFCAM, there are 40% women, but only 10% of the FFCAM voluntary leaders are women. “Out of the big volume of women at ‘base level’ in French alpinism we need to improve the rate of voluntary leaders as well as certified guides and instructors.” Marion says.
“I want other women to feel this joy of living your passion and to be able to work in the mountains. Having role models matter. And I think the male guides will benefit from having more female colleagues. Women speak out more and may trigger improvements in structural problems for both women and men.” Marion mentions examples such as an improved payment system for guides working overnight in huts or abroad, not being able to return to the family during work periods. And improved attitudes towards clients.
“In France, mountain guides have almost a ‘God status’ and they can be very rude to the clients sometimes. With more female guides, I believe that culture will change” Marion says. “This is something the president of the French mountain guide schools wants to change too. He used to be a bit ‘macho and elite-minded’. But he got smarter with age and grasped the benefits of having female guides as well” she laughs.
Marion believes that the few women professionals that are certified already will gain from having more female colleagues. “It is great in many ways to work in a male-dominated environment, but you may start to hide your feminine sides. In the army, I started making bad jokes, and I stopped caring about my physical appearance. I felt that my transformation was required in order to become accepted by my colleagues.”
“With more female colleagues I get more friends. I feel more affinity with female co-workers. My colleagues are super-nice but I always feel more side-lined when working with only men” Marion ponders.
But Marion also faces scepticism from female colleagues. “I believe that some women don’t want to support women-only groups because they fear that their collaboration with male colleagues may suffer if they do. Other women guides argue that it is unfair to promote women. They succeeded without such promotion and support, and they are thus reluctant to change the conditions for the women coming next.”
I ask if Marion believes there is a difference between the attitude a woman meets when entering a male-dominated environment compared to what a man faces when entering women-dominated arenas. “I recently read a sentence that illustrates that difference pretty well: Women are assumed incompetent unless they can prove otherwise, men are assumed competent unless proven otherwise.” Marion continues – “even some women trust the men better than they trust another woman.”
What is your advice to young women who are about to break similar kinds of barriers?
“If a man can do it, you can do it too. And better if you want to” Marion replies quickly. Then she adds. “I read an interesting article about how it is to be the second woman entering a male-dominated arena. You don’t get as much support from media and sometimes not from the organizations you enter neither.”
“For example, the army said that we have one woman in now and they stopped promoting others. In the mountain guide school, six out of 45 adepts were women one year. Normally there are only one or even none per class and year, but as soon as there were more women adepts a single year people started discussing that there was no need for promoting female mountain-guide adepts any longer”.
Marion has one important advice to give national sport associations that wish to promote women leaders. “Ask the women how to do it! Men should stop trying to think and explain what is good for the women.”
She also points out the benefits for organizations promoting women. “It is hard to find people who wants to join the Police Mountain Rescuers team, for example. By opening up and promoting women to join we have doubled the recruitment potential. “In fact, a couple of years ago the French government pushed the issue and forced national organizations to improve the employment rate of women.
What else do you see could be done or would be required to reach more equality in mountain adventures?
“More sponsorships to women are crucial. Female and male alpinism are different sports. In France, and probably elsewhere too, 40% of the people being active in alpinism are women. But yet only a few percent of the sponsorships are given to women, I believe. It is also important to adapt and design equipment for women. Men and women have different physical conditions, but still most alpine equipments are designed for men” Marion says.
Marion is about to start a new adventure, to become a mum. When we speak she is pregnant in the seventh month. “My pregnancy is welcome at work. My colleagues are very happy for me, and they have encouraged me to get a baby. In the police, there is a good family system. But I am a little concerned about my fitness. And I feel that my boyfriend is very important for the future” she says.
My reflection after the interview is that this brave woman, who has managed to break so many barriers in life, has excellent prerequisites to tackle the complex new world of parenthood she is soon entering. And I look forward to a new chat in the future. I suspect that she has a lot of new and valuable experiences and reflections about new barriers she has broken by then.