This story appeared in the September 2012 issue.
The most male-dominated corner of the ski industry isn’t the park or the bar at the Peruvian. It’s ski engineering. Women’s skis, the ones with the turquoise and purple topsheets, the lady-specific flex pattern, and the mounting point set for child-bearing hips, are all engineered and designed by dudes.
According to SnowSports Industries of America, women-specific gear makes up 28 percent of the products bought in the ski industry, and 41 percent of skiers are women. Despite the significant female footprint in the sport, ski engineering is dominated by men. A few brands, like K2 and Salomon, have women in lab testing, product marketing, or graphic design, but no major company has a female ski engineer or designer.
Every brand, from big ones like Volkl, to smaller operations like Moment, has a team of female testers who ski prototypes and give input about the products. But the guys pressing those prototypes, changing dimensions, and laying out CAD files are just that—guys. That disconnect trickles down into everything from topsheets to ski dimensions and flex.
“We tried to just make ’em shorter, but they were way too stiff,” says Luke Jacobson, the vice president and engineer at Moment. “With a men’s ski, I can hop on it and really get a feel for it, but I’m 6-foot-2. Getting on a 150 [cm ski] is pointless for me.”
Andy Hytjan, the ski category manager at Line, says that when they design women’s skis, they rely on feedback from their athletes, information from their marketing team, and reps to predict what consumers want and need. “We get direction from them, then we can kind of apply the ingredients, like sidecut and rocker,” says Hytjan.
They have plenty of data points, but without girls in the shop, designers are dependent on comments and numbers instead of hands-on experience.
That’s not to say they aren’t trying. In the past five years, women-specific ski performance has evolved significantly, especially because brands have started to build female skis on their own chassis, instead of modifying men’s designs.
“When I started here (in 2006), they had no specific women skis, just men’s skis in shorter sizes with a paint job in more female colors and flowers,” says Maria Pichler, women’s skis product manager for Atomic.
The absence of women is not exclusive to skiing, as engineering is a male-dominated field across the board. According to the National Science Foundation, women receive 18 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees. They only hold 12 percent of engineering jobs and in highly technical fields like mechanical engineering—the standard background for a ski engineer—the number is 7 percent.
Magalie Gless, Salomon and Atomic’s French alpine bindings marketing manager, and one of the only women working in hardgoods, says that when she started, she had to prove herself both in the office and on the hill. “You gain credibility when you also ski well,” says Gless. “If you prove yourself on the snow, then they trust you more in the office.” She thinks women are put off by that attitude as well as the technical side of gear production. “There are more girls studying how to design a jacket than how to design skis,” she says, but hopes that will change in the future, as women in hardgoods add value in a male-dominated field, especially for women’s-specific products.
Despite improvements in skis, a gap still exists between the production chain and the people who are actually using the product. Pichler and Gless say they think women are still intimidated by the technical aspect, and some brands say they’re hesitant to hire women, because female-specific products still don’t sell at the rate of men.
“Even if that position became available, we probably wouldn’t have the space for a woman in R&D,” says Jacobson.