By Therese Iknoian
For the complete story, see GearTrends® Fitness 2007, p. 30, "Glass Ceiling in an Iron World"
It was 1993. Carolyn Cooke, then in sales at Merrell Footwear, said she felt like a “lonely little girl” wandering around the outdoor industry shows and company hallways. It seemed unfathomable that she was the only woman in this industry, but she sometimes felt as if that was the case. The following spring she met a couple of other women in the outdoor industry who would tell her about women working at various companies. “Oh, you’ve got to meet so-and-so," they'd say, but Cooke really wasn't sure how to go about meeting others who were also breaking ground in the outdoor market.
She felt as if she sometimes wanted to bounce ideas off her female peers, who might approach a situation or solve a problem differently than a man would. “I wanted to have a resource,” she said. At the August 1994 Outdoor Retailer trade show, she and Ann Krcik, another active industry woman, decided they should organize a networking social.
“We sent out maybe 50 invitations,” Cooke recalled, writing in them to come meet other women and bring a friend. “About 170 showed up!”
It was clear a nerve had been struck. Obviously Cooke wasn’t the only “little girl” in the industry. And she also wasn’t the only one who wanted to network with others.
Today, the women of the outdoor industry have a non-profit group called the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition (OIWC, www.oiwc.org) with several hundred members and many hundreds more who partake in events, networking and socials. What began as a social network of folks who gathered at the trade shows twice a year now is a solid non-profit that raises money, supports other non-profits, has a board of directors, a newsletter, mentors women, recognizes outstanding industry women and generally acts as a resource. Its stated mission is to “equip women to achieve their success.”
“Other women really saw the value as having it as a resource,” Cooke said. Men stereotypically play golf or go to sports bars to network, and women needed a format of their own, Cooke noted. “There is so much that happens in business through social networking,” she said.
While the OIWC has been a great benefit to individual women, its existence is affecting the broader outdoor business world.
“People stand up and take notice,” Cooke said. “Business is a masculine creation and they have set the rules, and with this you can wave the flag and say, ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat.’ ”
Is the fitness industry ready for this kind of group? The outdoor industry has a much longer history and it's comprised of more softgoods, such as clothing and shoes, so it could be more welcoming to women than an industry based on equipment. Cooke said women working in the ski industry, which also revolves around another hardgoods, have tried to organize something, but without much success. Plus, fitness comes from a man’s world of sweaty iron-filled gyms, pumped-up guys on a beach, and the likes of Charles Atlas or Jack LaLanne, although admittedly women today drive the purchases of equipment, product, club memberships and working out.
“When it’s ready,” Cooke said, “it’ll start bubbling up.”
Nevertheless, she advises that it’s OK to start small and just do some simple social networking at industry events. In conjunction with a growing national voice to get the country fit, a women’s fitness industry group could indeed quickly find its legs.
Don't miss the full story, "Glass Ceiling in an Iron World,” in the GearTrends® Fitness 2007 issue. To download the full issue, go to www.geartrends.com/magazines.