What it’s like for female skiers, riders in a male-dominated sport

Gabby Dodd, Managing Editor


In such a male-dominated sport, professional skier and Lake Tahoe native Michelle Parker, explains on a podcast called The Adventure Stache, hosted by professional mountain biker Payson McElveen, the struggles she’s faced as a female skier. Gender inequality is as old as sports, and even today, women still feel sexism creeping into the sports they love.

“I did at times feel that my opinions didn’t matter as much, they didn’t carry as much weight, or that my ideas weren’t worthy, or that if I’m standing out there with a group of athletes that are all men that are the best in the world, that I would just take whatever the leftovers were because I didn’t feel that my skiing stood up next to theirs,” Parker said in the podcast.

Parker also explains that she wants women to change their perceptions of themselves so they can feel confident, and men offering sometimes to give up their opportunity to drop first “is a pretty cool thing to do.”

“When I say the guys would ski my lines, I also wasn’t speaking up and being like ‘Hey, I really want to ski that line.’ I think that’s more of a female characteristic too. Like we aren’t going to speak up and be like, hey I want to drop first,” Parker said in the podcast.

Sometimes feelings of discrimination go even further. Last March, all the women on the U.S. soccer team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation. The players cited gender discrimination as the basis for why they received less pay, differences in medical care, coaching, and even how they travel. Famously, women have even been excluded from sports before eventually becoming pioneers in taking steps towards equality, like Kathrine Switzer who ran the entire Boston Marathon in 1967 when women were not allowed to race.

Winter sports often feels its instances of inequality through general attitude and perceptions, media/ films, clothing/gear, pay gaps and much more.

A 2016 Toyota ad at the Australian resort Thredbo, received negative repercussions when it went viral for being labeled as sexist. The ad showed a green circle with the word kids next to it, a blue diamond with the word mum next to it and a black diamond with the word dad next to it and finally a cup of hot chocolate with the words, everyone. Many women were upset over the idea that Toyota would assume mom couldn’t be ripping the harder run with dad.

Sexism isn’t just a marketing issue. In 2018, Camber Outdoors surveyed over 1,500 outdoor industry workers. The survey revealed that 38 percent of all women surveyed said that they have been indirectly or directly affected by behavior or comments that are discriminatory or biased.

Only 12 percent of the total participants surveyed for the Camber report were in the snow sports industry, but of this percentage, 24 percent of women agreed with the above statement. In the same survey, 30 percent of women said that they do not feel like the outdoor industry takes some of their employees seriously based on gender.

Sierra Nevada University senior Emily Noel experiences times where she feels she is treated differently than the guys. Noel started skiing when she was four and made the transition to snowboarding almost six years ago.

“Someone will come up to me like you should model this gear, not whoa, I like what you just did,” Noel said. “It’s more, you’re hot, rather than you’re talented.”

However, Noel also believes that the guys can help progress her riding skills.

SNU student and professional skier Maddie Bowman announced her retirement from competing in January.

“The only time I have been brought down for being a woman in skiing were in two magazine articles that were very harsh,” Bowman said in an email.  “It honestly took me a long time to move past this. It really brought my confidence down in my life and in my skiing, which made competing very stressful. But with time, support, and talking it out I was able to move through it.”

The South Lake Tahoe native was the first woman to receive an Olympic gold medal in pipe skiing. She has found both men and women in the sport to be very supportive and encourages families to not limit their children’s sports based on gender.

Former professional halfpipe skier Jen Hudak has also spoken up about media’s role many times. In one interview with SnowBest.com, Hudak explains that in her younger years she got really caught up in her body image. Her final straw was when Freeskier Magazine had an article about women in freeskiing which featured her in a bubble bath. “If it was really about my skiing, they would’ve just put a headshot,” Hudak said in the SnowBest.com interview.

Filmmakers faced backlash this season in an article in Ski Magazine which called out the lack of women in this year’s ski films.

Matchstick Production’s latest film, “Return to Send’er” features 11 male athletes and zero females, which takes a different approach from its 2018 film which featured an equal male-to-female athlete ratio. Matchstick cited scheduling conflicts between all female athletes they reached out to as the reasoning for a completely male-dominated film.

“Movie producers should include women not just for the sake of gender equality, but for the sake that they are equal and they can be just as good, they are just as good, and they can do the same things, some if not better,” Noel said.

Several other films did not feature female athletes, but Warren Miller Entertainment kept its momentum going in an effort to reach equal representation. This year’s film, “Timeless,” featured 10 women out of 29 total athletes.

SNU junior Maddy Johnson has been skiing since the age of three. “This company, [Warren Miller] has really understood the ability of women’s skiing and I respect it,” Johnson said.

Johnson only knew of one or two girl skiers growing up. She thinks that skiing with the guys pushed her to become a better skier and she has never felt any negativity from being a female skier.

Although, Johnson and Noel agree that the options for women as far as ski clothing and gear go, is limited.

“I have always found it difficult to shop for new ski jackets or ski pants because there are fewer options for women,” Johnson said. “I feel there should be more options for women.”

Noel has never bought a women’s jacket, she only buys men’s. “I feel like a lot of women’s style stuff is made to be really fitting and I don’t like fitted ski gear,” Noel said.

Johnson and Noel aren’t the only ones who have felt a lack of options. This very same issue is a part of what prompted Jen Gurecki and friends to start the Truckee-based company Coalition Snow in 2014. They were tired of an industry that was “pinking and shrinking” women’s gear.

They sell a variety of skis and snowboards as well as some apparel. Coalition hopes to refine the ski industry and provide women with hard-charging skis/boards. Their motto is; “where they zig, we zag.”

“Tons of people are out there making really awesome skis, but there are definitely skis that- aren’t necessarily of poor quality, they’re just not designed to be really hardcore ripper skis,” Hannah Spendlove at Coalition said. “They’re like self-driving Tesla skis. Skis that are easy to ride instead of skis that perform.”

Spendlove believes Coalition can be a safe space for women to shop for gear. She has found that a lot of women don’t want to go into ski shops or be a part of the industry because it can be intimidating.

“You have a bunch of male shopies and you’re trying to tell them what you feel like you need and they kind of just tell you, ‘This is what you need, trust me’ instead of making women feel heard,” Spendlove said.

Spendlove has always participated in numerous outdoor activities, but she didn’t start skiing until she was an adult. Immediately, she noticed how outnumbered she was on the hill.

“Even In the outdoor industry in general, if you just look at the sheer numbers of who’s participating, there are so many more women who are capable of doing these things, but who just don’t feel empowered to do them because it is a really hard thing to just go and put yourself out there knowing that there are not people like you out there,” she said.

Spendlove also sees how there is the growing participation of women in winter sports and how the industry is changing.

In most competitions, women finally receive equal prize money, which is something pioneer freeskier Sarah Burke fought very hard for, according to Bowman. There are instances where women have to still speak up for this, such as at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Kings and Queens of Corbet’s competition in 2018 where the winning prize money for men was $5,000 more than the women’s. The controversy created through such a stark pay difference gained large social media and news attention which eventually prompted the resort to give equal pay to the winning men and women.

Finally, for professional female athletes, there is also a change happening which lets women continue their careers after childbirth.

For many women, their pay is temporarily suspended or sponsorship is ended once a woman is pregnant or a woman tells their sponsor that they want a child. This happened with runner Alysia Montaño with her sponsor Nike, which prompted Montaño to speak out against the company. Nike felt the heat which led to other athletic companies to change contract deals with their female athletes.

At Burton, they changed contracts to support women and families. According to Burton’s website:

“Pregnancy will not be considered a medical condition. Burton will not reduce or suspend compensation for pregnancy/maternity reasons for twenty-four weeks (= six months). Burton will work with its pregnant athlete(s) to identify reasonable accommodations to the athlete’s contractual obligations. Burton will not terminate a contract for pregnancy/maternity reasons. Burton will reimburse for a companion air ticket for any appearance required of an athlete during the time she is breastfeeding her child.”

“We’ve made sacrifices [for creating coalition] because we really believe that women need to be represented in a better way,” Spendlove said.