Gina Bégin is a freelance photojournalist, writer and adventurer who founded Outdoor Women’s Alliance (OWA), an international nonprofit media collective that promotes women in human powered adventure. Her work has been published in Outside Magazine, Mountain Magazine, and many other publications. OWA works to promote strength over sexuality and ability over aesthetics. Their goal is to provide an alternate message to the one put forth by mainstream media. OWA’s grassroots teams also plan and host events, workshops, teen programs and trips to help develop leadership and confidence through outdoor adventures and skill building. They connect over 65,000 women worldwide from North America to the Middle East in both online and offline communities.
The Clymb: You have carved out a unique and outdoor-oriented career path. What advice for do you have for people who want to live their lives doing what they love?
Gina Bégin: To pursue doing what you love you need to have a belief that’s firmly planted in everything that you do. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, you’re not going to get very far. You’ll tire out. If this belief is the right path for you and you have a real desire for it, the hard work basically gives you a push of adrenaline all the time. You’re able to run off of that belief and desire. That is really foundational in creating the life you know you are supposed to live. After that, it’s all details really. The fact that you have that belief and desire will push you into the right channels and resources because you’ll constantly be looking for ways and avenues and chances and opportunities that can help you toward your life path.
First you develop the belief and have the desire, then you create the mindset that you are actually almost already living that life. Say you want to be a writer, just start calling yourself a writer. Don’t say “I want to be a writer,” because if it’s who you are, then just start owning that title. Really as soon as you start adopting those beliefs in to your life, things will start falling in your path because your mind is open to seeing them. I know this sounds really cliché, like, just think it and it will happen, but there’s some truth to it.
There are a ton of sacrifices that you have to make when you’re going after your dream, whether it be becoming a writer or starting a new business or creating an organization, anything like that. They don’t actually feel like sacrifices when that desire is strong and its right for your life. There are a lot of clichés in there, but I really have found on this path that there are truth to these clichés. I talk a lot about this in a book I wrote for the Peak Foundation called The Pursuit of Reality.
The Clymb: Which came first, your success as a writer or starting OWA?
GB: OWA came first, it started as an idea in late 2007. We had our first event in January 2008. Freelance writing didn’t actually start happening as a career path for me until June-August of 2010, although I have been writing my whole life. I was writing for my personal site, my blog ginabegin.com, from 2006 or 2007 onward. It was just a personal thing to update my family on what I was doing, how a lot of bloggers start out actually.
I don’t write much for OWA, I prefer to allow the voices of women around the world be showcased on there because I don’t want to take the spotlight from the organization and what we are trying to do for other women. I might write things here and there if there’s a gap that we can’t fill but it’s been probably about a year since I’ve written anything other than a review. My role with OWA’s web content is more of an editor. One of my goals with OWA is to help budding writers get their foot in the door and be able to get bylines published so they are able to build their writing resume.
The Clymb: What have your experiences been like as a female in the outdoor industry?
GB: In the industry, I have found it is actually really quite easy. As an entrepreneur, I haven’t had a negative experience, it’s just been positive actually. People are very welcoming to women in the outdoor industry. They are very excited to have us speak up and give our input and start organizations. That to me hasn’t been a problem. I still feel like women’s gear has a long way to go, but that is another story.
Being a female outdoor enthusiast has been mostly positive as well. I have found that in certain areas of the country, men are more open to women being their outdoor adventure partners and don’t really see a difference between, say going rock climbing with a girl or rock climbing with another guy. But there are certain areas of the country where I have noticed a major difference where guys are like, “Well, can you even do this?” Or they expect me to be at a lower level than they are, to not have the same experience.
I’ve noticed that my friends who are women have had that same problem in different geographical areas as well. They’ve noticed there definitely are places where men still have the mindset that women are not as skilled, strong or technical and they assume we don’t really understanding the sport. It’s a cultural thing, and I try not to judge the men who act this way because we can’t help where we grow up. I think making people realize that they are doing it so they are aware of the problem is the first step towards making a change for the better. I also usually respond by working that much harder to show them that women are on equal footing.
The Clymb: What do you think about learning outdoor sports from men versus from women?
GB: I think that we can learn from anybody, right? I think that women can learn from men, women can learn from each other, and vice versa. There are advantages of having all women and having co-ed.
In co-ed, we can learn new techniques and styles that can help us progress in our sports. But we can also learn the way that men approach situations. Generally speaking, women’s brains are a crazy tangle of connectivity because we process so many things before we act. It’s a lot harder for us to not think about something and just go for it like men can. It’s something that we have to learn as women.
In co-ed situations, though, women will often defer to men. This is a generalization, you know, there are strong women who don’t allow that to happen and will speak their minds and take charge, but often times women will allow men to control the group dynamic. Again, this another cultural thing that we need to overcome. But when we get together with all women, we act more as a group and we come to decisions together as equals instead of having a hierarchy in place.
We also understand each other, the ways we learn and approach sports. We understand what is going to make other women feel comfortable, whereas men may just charge forward without giving thought to the rest of the group. Women will make sure that everybody is taken care of, everybody is set to go, and everybody understands what’s going on before moving forward. I do feel that women have advantages of learning together in that way. We are able to look out for each other as well as push each other forward. Women a lot of the time will get really excited when they see each other progressing. They’re like, “She can do that? I’m totally going to do that.” There’s no excuse not to try. And again, I always apologize for the stereotypes, but when some women see a guy doing something, we make excuses like, “Well, it’s because he’s taller, or it’s because he’s way stronger than I will ever be because he’s a man.” But when you see a women doing the same thing, then the excuses go away. We approach the situation as an athlete regardless of our height, our strength, our whatever. There are a lot of advantages of learning together as a group of women that are difficult to have in a co-ed situation.
The Clymb: Why and how did you start OWA?
GB: It comes back to what we just talked about—that mindset of a woman athlete.
I was a ski instructor for a few years and I would have women come up to me all the time and say, “I wish that I could learn to ski but I just can’t. My boyfriend or my husband or whoever will take me to the top of a black diamond and I’ll get scared and won’t be able to do it.”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that story over and over again, about not being able to learn because of the fear factor. Obviously there’s a learning curve. People should take ski lessons with an instructor who, whether male or female, knows how to progress a student. I don’t mean to blame it on boyfriends or husbands in general but I’m just saying that it was that difference in mentalities between women and men. If a women were to bring her friends skiing, she would say, “this is how you stop, this is how you slow down.” They would go through more of a progression and she would probably take her friends to the bunny hill, then on to a green, then to a blue, and then on to a black. It would be a smooth transition rather than the bunny hill a couple of times and then a black diamond.
I realized that there were so many women who needed to learn things in this way. There were also a lot of women who used to be into outdoor sports but hadn’t been able do to them very often because they were married or had children or careers—you know all these little caveats about why they weren’t able to get outdoors. I decided that we were just going to get together and go out. It was very casual, very local at first. People would invite their friends who would all invite more friends, and I showed them how to ski, or we would go hiking or climbing or kayaking, things like that.
We were writing about what we were doing as well on a blog. I was very active on social media so I was talking about this on Twitter and Facebook as well. Pretty quickly, women from different areas of the country were like, “Exactly, I want this experience, too. Are you guys doing anything in this area?” I realized there was a bigger need for this outside of where I lived.
There are always reasons women want to get together in the outdoors, no matter where you are geographically or culturally. OWA is a way for us to step over those cultural differences and sort of level that playing field and allow women wherever they are to participate and grow in outdoor sports.
That’s one reason why we don’t do the topless photos on top of summits and things like that, because we work worldwide. In a lot of cultures that’s just not acceptable, including many here in North America. We’re trying to be careful and lay a very acceptable foundation that’s inclusive of everybody. That’s how OWA started and why it grew the way that it did.
The Clymb: How can women get involved with OWA even if they don’t have a grassroots team near them?
GB: We’re always looking for women’s perspectives and their voices, no matter where they are. We have women in the Middle East, in Japan and the United Kingdom. They are showing us their perspective through their writing and photography, as well as through ambassadorships, which are basically individual grassroots teams. There’s a lot of different roles women can play within the organization and it doesn’t just have to be as a member of a team. We consider everyone who contributes a member of the OWA team. Every outdoor women’s voice is part of who we are and part of our story. Share your perspectives and your approach to sports and the outdoor world. There’s no one way to get involved, there are an infinite number because we are always exploring new ways.
You can always send us suggestions of ways you would like to see OWA grow through our email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re really community based and are entirely made up of volunteers, including myself.
Take a look at our Instagram, @outdoorwomen. We’re really excited because we actually have some great brands that are going to be taking over our Instagram account this summer with giveaways and great content. American Alpine Club, Outdoor Research, Scarpa, and Arc’teryx will all be taking over our account in the coming months, so stay tuned.