From the moment that sliding down a mountain on wooden boards strapped to a person’s feet became a popular pastime, it’s been a male-dominated activity. Today, men still make up the majority of the ski industry’s market, but there's evidence the gender tides are slowly changing—in 2013, 62 percent of skiers were men and 38 percent women. But in 2018, 60 percent were men and 40 percent women, according to Snowsports Industries America (SIA) studies. Blizzard Tecnica reports the U.S.’s overall top-selling ski for at least the past four years has been Blizzard’s women’s Black Pearl, and SIA data shows the sale of women's touring skis grew 85 percent in 2018, while men's sales dropped 11 percent.
One evening in December, Julie Brown, writer and former managing editor of Powder magazine, leaned on a high bar stool before a crowd in the back of evo’s Denver retail store and addressed how new waves of female gear and woman-led initiatives are taking the industry by storm. She gestured to four women seated to her right, along a black-clothed table, each of them poised at a different frontier of skiing’s female empowerment: expert bootfitter Sam Tischendorf, professional skier Elyse Saugstad, Freeride World Tour athlete Jackie Paaso, and Blizzard Tecnica’s longtime marketing director, Leslie Baker-Brown.
Bringing these women to the same table, in front of this Colorado crowd, was part of Blizzard Tecnica’s Women 2 Women (W2W) program—an initiative Baker-Brown leads on behalf of the ski brand Blizzard and boot brand Tecnica, which partner together as Blizzard Tecnica under the Italy-based sportswear manufacturer Tecnica Group.
Launched in 2015, W2W has two goals: one is to design authentic women’s ski products; the other is to curate healthy retail and community experiences that elevate confidence levels of skiers of all abilities. In the greater female-first narrative sweeping the outdoor industry, over the past four years W2W has become part-watchdog, part-catalyst, ensuring female skiers are heard, seen, and their needs acknowledged.
W2W generates direct input from a wide range of lady skiers—athletes, ambassadors, ski-shop owners, ski instructors, coaches, and boot technicians—who test gear, identify issues with retailer experiences, and brainstorm ideas for educational resources in different focus groups around the globe. Thus far, feedback from W2W groups has helped usher the various iterations of the Black Pearl ski to market, manipulating its weight, camber, and rocker to suit female anatomies and gravity centers; and when women demanded a boot that could be adjusted to fit a large range of calf sizes, Tecnica’s thermoformable boot cuffs were created.
But gear innovations aside, the need for female-friendly ski shop environments crystallized early on in W2W’s research, when Paaso, 2016’s Xtreme Verbier champion, admitted even she felt intimidated walking into a ski shop. Oversaturated with technical lingo and ego-loaded male techs, many women have reported similar feelings of discomfort entering and navigating ski retailers.
“Somebody has to create the culture,” Kjerstin Klein, W2W team member and co-owner of Pittsburgh-based Willi’s Ski and Snowboard Shop, tells me a few days later on the phone. “The retailer plays a really critical role."
Breaking down barriers
To dispel intimidation within the ski industry, Baker-Brown has been partnering with retail stores like evo to host educational events where women can ask questions and participate in discussions in an environment free from judgement and led by women.
Chris Shalbot, evo’s marketing director, says supporting W2W has been a boon for evo’s three retail stores across the country. “To do something that addresses the topics of breaking down the barriers, or removing any intimidation, when talking and communicating about gear in shops,” was a no-brainer, Shalbot says. W2W’s panels and workshops have infused a deeper sense of community into evo and attracted new female customers interested in how the industry’s stereotypes are changing.
“Women just want to be treated equally,” Baker-Brown says. “We want to be ‘skiers,’ not ‘female skiers.’ But we do have different needs, and we do communicate differently.”
To help combat gendered experiences in her stores, Klein hosts a recurring workshop for her employees before each ski season. “It’s really a ‘men are from mars, women are from venus 101’ class, basically how to communicate in general with women and then specifically around product knowledge,” she says.
On the sales floor, she believes cross-merchandising—displaying a mix of hard and soft goods together—draws women in and diffuses the traditionally masculine energy that surrounds many hard-goods sections of retail stores. This can help women feel more comfortable browsing and buying their own ski equipment, she says, plus pairing matching colors on ski bindings and jacket details, for example, are attractive displays. “We’re actually starting to find out that lots of guys are into that too. Style-minded people just want that package deal.”
Tracy Gibbons, who is also on the W2W team and oversees three Sturtevants’ ski shops in the Pacific Northwest, has implemented organizational changes on her sales floors, too. Sturtevants used to merchandise all skis by brand—men’s and women’s blended together—but “we determined that was maybe more intimidating for the gals,” Gibbons says. Recently they separated the genders as a way to give women their own space if they want to browse equipment without interference from men.
Another way to provide a better retailer experience for women is to get more women into hard-goods sectors and tech positions, Tischendorf suggests. As the only female teacher at Masterfit University, the world’s premier source for technical bootfitting education, she says they “might have six women” in a class of 100 people. “I’d love to see more women [working] in ski shops,” but for now intimidation remains a large barrier of entry to the workforce side of the industry, too.
Baker-Brown knows W2W’s work is far from over, but after watching its collaborative mindset trickle down from Blizzard Tecnica executives and accumulate in the growing comforts and aspirations of female skiers, “We’re on to something here,” she says.
As Paaso notes, “It’s just starting to fill in a lot of blanks of what's been missing and what a lot of women have been asking for.”
Before the crowd at evo disperses into the cold Denver night, Saugstad, a women’s ski film advocate and the overall 2008 Freeride World Tour champion, concludes on note promising the brighter, more-inclusive future of the ski industry. “I see a change from when I was younger,” she says. “I believe that we're making a difference.”