Think About It: OIWC says we've still got a long way to go, baby

On many levels, there is no doubt that women have become a true force in the outdoors. Today, it's easier to find women's-specific clothing and gear, retailers who support the category, growth of participation in outdoor activities over the years, and an increase of women working (and holding senior-level positions) in the industry. This is the first in a series of monthly columns, a result of a partnership between OIWC and SNEWS®.

On many levels, there is no doubt that women have become a true force in the outdoors. Today, it's easier to find women's-specific clothing and gear, retailers who support the category, growth of participation in outdoor activities over the years, and an increase of women working (and holding senior-level positions) in the industry.

In fact, women's-specific equipment, apparel and footwear sales rang in a whopping $875 million in 2004, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation (OIF). This was an impressive increase of 60 percent over women's-specific sales in 2002 -- during the same period, unisex and men's goods grew by only 4 percent.

It would seem that women's foothold in the "great outdoors" has become dramatically stronger in the last few years, but has it really?

While women's interest in outdoor activities -- and the gear to support it -- has grown exponentially over the years, the OIF Outdoor Recreation Participation Study (published June 2006) indicates that overall average participation was down in general in 2005, as well as in specific sports such as backpacking and bicycling. For example, mountain biking experienced a 23-percent decline in participation by women from 1998 to 2005 and natural rock climbing plummeted by over 52 percent.

Why have women backed off? First off, the general population has also followed this trend, with participation in human-powered activities peaking in 2001. Since then, there has been minimal growth. In addition, women today are simply more time-compressed, with work and family responsibilities taking priority over the outdoors. According to the OIF, 50 percent of women participants said they feel the time crunch of too many commitments.

Some activities, though, have still seen tremendous growth with women from 1998 to 2005, such as snowshoeing (up 164 percent), telemark skiing (up 89 percent) and paddlesports (up 8 percent).

In the workplace

On the flip side of the outdoor products equation, the status of women who work in the outdoor industry has been elevated significantly. "There is a lot more respect today for women as leaders in the industry," said Sally McCoy, president and CEO of CamelBak. "But there is still a dearth of women in leadership positions."

With over 20 years as an operating executive in the outdoor industry, McCoy knows a thing or two about women in the industry. She co-founded Silver Steep Partners, a financial advisory firm specializing exclusively in the specialty outdoor and active lifestyle industry, and has served as vice president at The North Face and president of Sierra Designs.

"You need to believe it's possible and be driven," she said. "Brick walls are there for a reason -- they let us show how badly we want something." McCoy suggested that women need to have both work and personal goals written down. They will also benefit from focusing on their strengths: "Run on your strong legs," she added.

Women also need a strong network within their field -- "networking is absolutely crucial to career development," McCoy noted. All you need to do to experience women's-specific networking in full force is to check out one of the Outdoor Industry Women's Coalition (OIWC) gatherings at Outdoor Retailer or Interbike.

Born in 1996, OIWC's vision is to "provide power, influence and opportunity for women in outdoor-related businesses and to generate champions to inspire other women." No small task, but this non-profit organization, which boasts a membership of nearly 1,000 strong, serves up events and programs that educate and provide networking for women across the country.

>> This new monthly column, a partnership between OIWC and SNEWS®, aims to address the issues that concern women in the industry most -- anything that is controversial, topical or newsworthy relating to women and the outdoors. The goal is to help, educate, inspire and grow. We welcome your ideas, gripes, thoughts and comments. Bring it on. E-mail us at

Erinn Morgan is an award-winning magazine editor, whose work -- which focuses on outdoor sports, adventure travel, gear and sustainability -- has appeared in magazines from National Geographic Adventure and Outside to Bike and Skiing.



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