Mind the gender gap! How can we make the climbing community more inclusive
Tania Matsuka tells us about being one of the first female guides in Greece and her experiences of sexism in the climbing community.
Posted on Mon 29 Nov 2021 · Community
"I like to think of inclusion as a chain where everything is linked. It’s not just about the attitude of the climbing community in a certain area, but about the culture, the education we receive and whether women feel supported in society more broadly."
My first climbing trip was also my most memorable ‒ but for the wrong reasons. It started out well. I cycled to my local climbing gym at what felt like the crack of dawn, climbed aboard a minibus with 10 other kids and instructors, and tried to sleep as we barrelled down the motorway to the sound of a heavy metal playlist. We climbed a few routes in the sunshine then headed to the pub for some fish and chips. But as I sat down at the table with the other kids, the mood changed. Uncomfortable silence. A few minutes later someone asked ‘sorry, but do you mind not sitting here? It’s just that we want to talk about guy stuff - like picking up girls - and… well… you’re a girl’. To this day, I’m not sure why I complied.
Sadly, this was just the first of many comments reminding me that I’m a little out of place as a woman in the (white) male-dominated climbing community. As I improved, male climbers with bruised egos would remind me that I could only climb harder than them because I was lighter, younger, still a kid... Onsight attempts were ruined by unsolicited beta spraying. Once someone even got on the wall ontop of me because apparently my training drill looked too much like ‘messing around’. In that moment, my safety was less important than his training. Of course, most of the time I feel pretty welcome and supported in the climbing community, but these comments do leave their mark.
Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Tania Matsuka, one of the first female rock climbing guides in Greece. We touched on her journey with climbing and guiding, Kalymnos, and some of the challenges that female climbers face. I hope you find this conversation as interesting as I did!
Tania Matsuka, one of the first Cypriot certified female rock climbing guide © Tania Matsuka
So Tania, thanks so much for your time! Let’s begin with your story. When did you start climbing and what encouraged you to become a rock climbing guide?
I started rock climbing about 15 years ago, when I was a student in Greece. There was a very strong climbing community at this point and I think I picked the perfect time to start: I was in the middle of a group of strong and motivated climbers who just wanted to push themselves on the rock. I felt straight away that this was a great space for me to develop my climbing skills.
I decided to become a guide after moving to France in 2010 to work as an engineer. France offers one of the best rock climbing diplomas in Europe, and I thought that if I wanted to become a guide then I would qualify through the French diploma. I found that the guides there had a lot of experience and were doing things really well, and that the quality and standard of instruction in the guiding programmes was above expectations. The French climbing community also had very strong foundations and was very encouraging to women ‒ whether they wanted to climb recreationally or become professional rock climbing guides and athletes.
You’re now based mostly in Kalymnos. What drew you to start guiding here?
Kalymnos has always been my happy place. I actually went there for my first rock climbing trip ever, back in 2004. From the start, Kalymnos was such a source of inspiration for me: the amount of climbing, the diversity of style, the energy of the climbing community, the natural environment, the combination of rock and sea... It felt like everything was flowing ‒ there was a lot of encouragement and such an amazing vibe. I knew from the start that this place would be important to my development ‒ not just the development of my climbing skills, but my personal development too. I have actually visited Kalymnos every year without fail since 2004. In 2015, I decided to settle there and make my happy place my professional home.
Perhaps the most iconic view in Kalymnos? Matoula Malia rapeling from Grande Grotta © Tania Matsuka
That’s fantastic! I’ve actually never gone climbing in Kalymnos, but you’ve convinced me to visit! Let’s now talk a bit more about women’s empowerment and diversity in climbing. You mentioned earlier that the French climbing community was very supportive of female rock climbers. Can you tell me a bit more about this? Have you always found the climbing community to be supportive?
Let’s see… When I was selected for the guiding qualification programme, I was one of 4 women selected out of 15 participants. Despite this, I think there was a big effort on the part of the climbing community as a whole and the other participants in the programme to make us women feel welcome and supported. I never at any point felt that I didn’t have a place there ‒ but it’s important to understand that I had already been climbing for a long time before joining the programme! I have however experienced sexism from members of the climbing community at other points ‒ comments that female climbers couldn’t perform as well as men and similar. But this taught me to raise my voice and stand up for myself.
Wow, I’m glad that you had a positive experience on your guiding programme! I work as a climbing instructor part time ‒ at an indoor gym, for now ‒ and I think there’s a similar ratio of female instructors to male ones as in your programme. But, like you, I have generally found my colleagues to be very encouraging and supportive. What about role models ‒ do you think it’s important for there to be more female role models in the climbing community?
I think it can be very intimidating for women if we just see male role models. For example, if there are only documentaries on male climbers, then women may feel less inclined to try the sport. Similarly, if we only see male guides advertising their trips, then fewer women may think about becoming a rock climbing guide. But this is changing. Now that climbing is in the Olympic Games, more women are trying the sport and hopefully more people will see female climbers succeeding on a big stage. I would no longer say that there are only male role models, but that the climbing community is becoming more inclusive. However, we do still need to push for increased diversity in the climbing world!
I think that, at the moment, female rock climbers and guides can become role models just by standing up for ourselves and taking up space. By doing this we are creating more space for women to join the community and opportunities for them to develop professionally and athletically. I think it’s a matter of our attitude and how we approach situations where we don’t feel encouraged. Do we give up or stand up for ourselves, take up space and keep going?
Tove from the Isle of the Man, Lucie from Switzerland, Natalie from USA, Taslim from Paris and Kirsten from Germany at the crag in Ulassai, Sardinia © Tania Matsuka
That’s a great message. What else do you think needs to change to encourage more women to take up rock climbing or work as guides?
I like to think of inclusion as a chain where everything is linked. It’s not just about the attitude
of the climbing community in a certain area, but about the culture, the education we receive and whether women feel supported in society more broadly. Encouraging women to join the climbing community starts way back with the culture we grow up in and education we receive. In places with a less misogynistic culture and where efforts are being made to empower women across the board, there will be more opportunities for women to join the climbing community and succeed professionally as climbers. That being said, today more and more women are guiding and female rock climbers are pushing the boundaries of the sport, for example by climbing 9b and sending hard alpine routes. All this helps illustrate what we can achieve and encourages the other women in our community.
In the time that you have been climbing, have you noticed a change in the number of female rock climbers overall?
I’ve climbed for 15 to 16 years, and definitely noticed more women in the sport and a change in the climbing culture. When I started climbing, there were only a handful of female climbers in the area where I was based in Greece. I remember one in particular ‒ Katarina Kolyrou, one of the best female climbers in Greece at the time ‒ but aside from her, there were maybe three or four other strong female climbers visible in the sport. These days there are so many more strong femle climbers in Greece and Cyprus but also all over the world. It’s both inspiring and encouraging: it shows there is more space for women to develop their climbing skills and that we are taking advantage of these opportunities, and succeeding!
Natalie from the USA on Monahiki Elia (6b) in the Grande Grotta of Kalymnos © Kieran Duncan
I’ve also observed a similar thing. I’ve only been climbing for 8 years, but I’ve really noticed more women ‒ and young girls in particular ‒ taking up the sport. The climbing community is also definitely getting more diverse in other ways, but quite slowly!
You previously mentioned that you experienced sexism from members of the climbing community. Would you mind telling me a bit more about this?
I won’t go into specific details because it doesn’t really matter to me. With hindsight, I see how these experiences helped me stand up for myself and realise that I have a voice. Even after qualifying as a guide, I’ve got comments such as ‘you’re female, how will you compete with the male rock climbing guides’, or, in my guiding programme, ‘it’s great that there are only 4 women, let’s keep these numbers low’. I’ve heard lots of these sorts of comments, but I don’t think we should give them much importance. What’s important is to keep moving forward and adopt an attitude that helps in whatever we want to succeed. By standing up for ourselves, we support the other female climbers out there and create a solid foundation for more women to join the community, and develop within it.
Finally, what do you think the climbing community as a whole can do to better support female climbers and encourage them to succeed?
The climbing community can be quite a competitive environment that promotes a lot of perfectionism. You have to be lean, you have to have big biceps, you have to climb hard grades and look a certain way. These beliefs are not supporting or helping anyone ‒ no matter their gender. I don’t like to generalise, but I think that women are generally raised to be less competitive and may prefer a more supportive and encouraging environment for developing our skills. To be honest, shifting from a competitive to a supportive environment will help everyone!
Absolutely! I also strongly believe in building a supportive and encouraging environment in the climbing community. As a coach, I've seen how a gentle and supportive approach can really help climbers who are struggling with the mental side of the sport, whether that’s because they’re afraid of failure or falling, feel like they don't fit in, or are just falling out of love with climbing. We’ve all been there!
I personally used to struggle with this perfectionist mindset a lot. I constantly felt that I had to climb harder and harder grades to earn the right to call myself a climber and coach. At one point I just burnt out. I now realise that these feelings were due to imposter syndrome ‒ I didn't see that many other committed female climbers around me and very few female coaches. I'm hoping that this changes in the coming years, but for now I'm focusing on being kind to myself, making use of the opportunities I have, taking up space and hopefully training some of the next generation of strong female climbers!
The incredible tufa formations and the Grande Grotta, Kalymnos © Tania Matsuka
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A huge thanks to Tania for her time and wonderful insights! You can find a recording of the original IGTV interview on our instagram channel @mapo_tapo
You can also find Tania on instagram @climb_mediterranean
Top image caption: Tania Matsuka climbing a 7b in the North Cape of Kalymnos © Kieran Duncan