Mikaela Shiffrin is crushing it on the World Cup race scene. Lindsey Vonn is four World Cup victories away from becoming the most decorated skier—male or female—of all time. Ski Mountaineer Hilaree Nelson is the first person to successfully descend Lhotse on skis with mountaineering partner Jim Morrison. Elyse Saugstad just won Powder’s Best Female Performance of the Year award for her role in Matchstick Production’s All In. And then there’s that film itself—the first ski movie to feature an equal number of male and female professional big mountain skiers, and the only one to give the chicks more screen time.
It seems everywhere you looked in 2018, women were front and center in skiing. And yet, skiing remains a male-dominated sport, with more men participating on the consumer side, and more men in power on the industry side. Which begs the question: Why do fewer women participate in a sport that’s not inherently gender specific? According to research by RRC Associates in partnership with Snowsports Industry America (SIA), women face additional barriers to the sport that men may not: intimidation, lack of confidence related to gear, uncertainty about planning a ski trip, and price sensitivity.
Some brands are coming up with ways to address these hurdles in an effort to entice more women to become active in skiing. Ski and boot manufacturer Blizzard/Tecnica and popular snowsports retailer evo are two examples. The manufacturer/retailer duo recently teamed up to host a series of women’s events at evo’s brick-and-mortar stores in Denver, Seattle, and Portland, all geared toward educating women about skiing, gear, and the barriers women face in the sport. The players on the all-women panel? Rad ladies paving the way for other women in different aspects of the sport:
U.S. Marketing Director, Blizzard/Tecnica
Baker-Brown has been with Blizzard/Tecnica for more than 30 years and has been instrumental in implementing the brand’s Women to Women initiative, a program with a mission to design authentic women’s products with the input of other women world-wide.
And it seems like the initiative is working. Blizzard's Black Pearl ski has been the top-selling ski (male or female) in the country for the past few years, and the women's Tecnica Cochise and Mach 1 boots won high praise from women across the board in 2018.
Professional big mountain skier and athlete ambassador for Blizzard/Tecnica
Saugstad grew up skiing Alyeska, Alaska and started out as a downhill racer before turning to big mountain skiing and freeride. She’s appeared in dozens of ski films over her long and successful professional skiing career, picking up three “Best Female Performance” awards over the years (most recently for her skiing in MSP's All In).
Professional freerider, FWT comptetitor, and athlete ambassador for Blizzard/Tecnica
Paaso grew up competing in moguls on the East Coast. When her Olympic dreams didn’t pan out, she turned into one of the best female freeriders on the Freeride World Tour, known for stomping big lines and winning the Verbier Xtremes in 2016.
Professional boot fitter and member of the Masterfit University teaching team
Tischendorf is one of the very few professional female ski boot fitters—or as she likes to say, professional feet-ticklers—in the world. She currently works at Bootdoctors in Telluride and collaborates with Blizzard/Tecnica on the Women To Women project.
SKI attended the first event in the series at evo’s Denver store. On the chopping block during the panel discussion: staking your claim in a male-dominated environment; the evolution of women’s specific gear; and empowering more women to enter the world of skiing.
Here are some of the highlights and biggest take-aways from the discussion (disclaimer: there were many).
On the importance of educating women about gear…
Leslie Baker-Brown: Back in 2015 our parent company made a huge commitment to [Blizzard/Tecnica’s Women To Women] project. They realized that women do a lot of the buying—they’re about 30 to 40 percent of the market. And we felt that women were a little bit underserved. So, we started with focus groups. It’s a global project, so not only do I have a group of North American women that I rely on for feedback and input, but we have one in France, one in Germany/Austria, and one in Italy as well. We meet with these groups once or twice a year. We try on our boots and we try on competitors’ boots. We tell [our boot product designers in Italy] what we think was good, what was bad, things that might be helpful. Then they go back and take that input into what they’re going to make next.
And it’s a 360-degree project, so it’s not just the product, but it’s also speaking to women. Jackie [Paaso] was a big impedes for what we do. Jackie and I were talking and she said, ‘yeah, even I’m intimidated walking into a ski shop.’ And if she’s intimidated, imagine just a regular person walking into the ski shop. I think it’s because there’s so much terminology that goes into ski equipment: ‘rocker’, ‘sidecut’, ‘radius’—all these different terms can be a little overwhelming. So part of our initiative is the website WomentoWomenSki.com that we’re continually loading with educational information: terminology, how to buy a boot, how to pack for a day of touring. We’re trying to educate women so they have the knowledge and confidence to take control of their skiing experience.
On the importance of having the right gear—and that doesn’t necessarily mean women’s gear—when it comes to performance (or enjoyment, for that matter…)
Elyse Saugstad: Part of the reason I use the women’s gear is because, well, I’m a female in the way I’m built: I’m smaller, I’m lighter, I need a lighter ski. For example, my husband Cody Townsend, another professional skier, comes in at a solid 185 [pounds]. We look at our skis, boots, and bindings—my bindings weight the same [as his]; my skis are really not that much lighter, and neither are my boots. For the weight ratio, I need to have gear that’s meant for me. [With a] setup as heavy as his, I’m not going to be able to perform the way I would like to perform. Another reason why I love women’s boots, specifically, is because I’m a little bit shorter and I need a boot where the cuff isn’t as high because my power transition isn’t coming from the top of the shin, it’s coming from a lower point. Because of that, I prefer a women’s boot. Just as long as it’s built right.
Jackie Paaso: I don’t really feel that there needs to be a gender label on skis. I just choose the skis that work best for me. So I like to call them unisex. And it’s the same with boots. I choose the boots that fit my foot and perform at the level that I want them to perform. I’m kind of the opposite of Elyse in that I want something that has a higher cuff. And I have a ridiculously skinny foot and ankle with no calves, so the women’s boots don’t necessarily work for me, and I have to find other options. And the same goes for skis. I’m not looking at the color, I’m not looking at the graphics, I’m just looking at the ski and what I want out of the ski, and just basing my decision off of that. If there happens to be “Men’s” [label] next to it, it really means nothing to me.
On working in the male-dominated world of skiing…
Tischendorf: It’s definitely a challenging environment. I teach Masterfit which goes across the country and Australia and Europe as well. Say we have a participant level of 100—of those 100 we might have six women, including myself, come in to learn to be a boot fitter. There’s still such a minimal presence of women in the ski industry. I don’t see why it should be that only men are boot fitters and ‘I will only trust the male boot fitter.’ My name being Sam is fairly unisex, and I’ll have a customer come into the store and have booked an appointment to see ‘Sam, the boot fitter.’ And I’ll say ‘Yes, that’s me.’ And they’ll say, ‘No, I was expecting a male.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, you lucked out.’ And sometimes it’s received really well, or they’ll say ‘I might wait for one of the guys.’ Sometimes I’ll then have to help out my male colleague with this particular customer and it makes for a really awkward environment. And it just doesn’t seem necessary. It would be wonderful if we could get more ski techs and boot fitters who are female.
Baker-Brown: For the first five to 10 years I was probably the only female at our sales meetings. This past sales meeting, we had eight other women in the room. So that is super exciting for me and fun. I feel the support that I get from having other women around. You still don’t see many women on the hard goods side of the industry. Our Colorado sales rep was here and his associate is a female. She’s the first female sales rep that we’ve had, which is super exciting to have a woman in that role. They’ve got big vans full of skis and they’re hauling stuff—so it’s not an easy job by any stretch. Even if you give women the opportunity, is it really what they want to do? You don’t want to force them into it, it may not be that many women out there want to do [the job]. So that may be part of the equation. It’s definitely hard, you have to be confident and prove that you can do it, because they’re not expecting that you can. But that’s in every industry.
Saugstad: It’s definitely been the token female syndrome for quite a while [in ski movies]. When I first started getting into filming, my sponsor went to MSP and said, ‘Hey, we want you to film Elyse this year.’ MSP said ‘It’s OK, we already have a girl.’ So now here we are, almost 10 years later. [All In] came about because some of us females got together and decided we’ve been doing this long enough, and absolutely love skiing with the guys, but we want a chance to finally ski with each other. Ingrid Backstrom was at the helm and she got North Face to back it, so we shopped it around to the different movie companies. And it was Matchstick that bit. They loved the idea, and when you hear it, it has a lot of marketing value.
So we got to make this movie that’s 50 percent men, 50 percent women. But if you saw the film, 75 percent of the screen time is females. And it’s awesome. And you know what, those guys will readily admit it. Because the more women who are out there having a good time, the more fun the environment is ultimately. At the same time, we didn’t want to have a movie that was just female-focused. Not to downplay the idea of a ra-ra-female-movie, but that’s just not life. We enjoy skiing with guys, and there are a lot of amazing guys—supportive men who have helped us along the way and been mentors. So why not be a part of that, and make it a more realistic view point of what we’re trying to get across. So, I think it’s really come a long way. But, you know, we still have a ways to go. There are still a lot of movie companies who barely film women and don’t see the value in it.
On bringing more women into the fold…
Saugstad: I think more women like Leslie will make a big difference. A lot of the decisions that are coming down from the companies are coming from men, and a lot of older men who have been running things a certain way for a long time. And I think we just need more women in those leadership roles. As much as we athletes are kind of the face of these companies, there’s only so much we can do. I do think that the more visibility athletes have, the more it will make sense to everyone that there are a lot of women, and we really need to think about women as a legitimate part of this industry.
Paaso: If you open up more opportunities for women, you can show young women coming up that there is actually something to work towards, on the business side of things or as an athlete. Whether it’s filming All In, [where young women can] see that there isn’t just one [woman] and it’s a realistic goal to work towards, or more women being able to compete [on the FWT] instead of [people] thinking that ‘oh well, there’s just not that much talent out there.’ How is that going to motivate young women to come up, if they think that there aren’t any opportunities for them? We have to start opening those doors, so younger women see there are all these opportunities.