I started snowboarding in 1990 and was hooked from the moment I started. Back then, the percentage of women participating in the sport was at just 3%, and we were such a small market, there wasn’t even female-specific clothing or equipment. Fast forward a decade, and through a combination of talent, fortitude and luck, I ended up being short listed for a senior sales role at Burton Snowboards in 2011.
By 2011 female participation in the sport had risen to almost 20% (thanks in no small part to its inclusion in the winter Olympics, and the availability of some women-focused product lines), but it was still hugely dominated by men. The target market for snowboarding was urban males, 17 to 19, which meant the entire sales and marketing process frequently felt like a frat house keg fest. During my interview process, the president asked me straight up how I’d deal with the rampant sexism in the industry. He made it clear it would be part and parcel of the gig. “I guess I’ll just reach into my purse and grab my anti-testosterone spray and give them all a spritz then," I said. They must’ve liked the answer, because I got the job.
What I didn’t know then was that I’d have to re-load that spray: over, and over, and over, and over again. Decades down the road, I’m still re-loading.
Recently, I came across a "How To Choose Your Snowboard" chart from Transworld Snowboarding, the prominent consumer magazine. “Start Here: I Am A Woman” says the flow chart.
This diagram is supposed to help riders find their optimum snowboard. I had to check my calendar to ensure it was indeed 2017. We’re shown an image of a female rider as…. a bearded white dude with pigtails.
That’s right. We don’t even merit a cartoon icon showing our sex. We literally do not exist, according to this diagram, printed in the world’s largest consumer magazine. This chart was first run in 2014, and I can’t fathom why it even passed the smell test to publish in the first place, much less ran again in 2017.
Oh no. Wait. I *do* know. It passed the smell test because the industry is *still* marketing the sport as if its only audience is 17 to 19 year old males. You *still* need your anti-testosterone spray in your purse. Probably should shove one in the goggle pocket in your jacket too, just to be sure.
Snow sports are in trouble. Big trouble. Skiing and especially snowboarding are down in number of participants in the low to mid double digits. There’s tons of reasons for this: Rising costs put the sport out of reach of many; climate change makes conditions a crapshoot; the loss of small, family-owned local hills, etc. But in the face of a shrinking pool, you’d think the business of snowboarding would want to hang on to as many customers as they could, versus consistently alienating half the population. There are plenty of statistics that show women riders may now indeed make up 25-30% of all riders on the hill, but the problem is keeping them. The frequency rate of participation is low, and the rescind level is high.
Oh sure, we get some women-only camps. Some video parts are parsimoniously doled out to women. Burton and a small handful of other companies (Nikita, PowderRoom) make efforts to support women’s snowboarding. But the day-in-day-out imagery we see — in trade magazines, on social media platforms, in ad campaigns, on the graphics of our boards — all portray women as either fuel for adolescent fantasy (i.e. graphics of naked chicks!!!! partying apres video shoot with chicks!!!) or else we are….. left out entirely. Or else portrayed as white, male guys in pigtails.
I cannot begin to tell you how many smart, strong, savvy and insightful women I know have either left the industry, and have thrown up their hands in despair of moving the ball any further down the field. They still ride, like I do. They still love the sport. However despite the fact snowboarding is now 40 years old, it hasn’t grown up enough to realize that women hold up half the sky. Each year that passes is only more time for athletic and bold girls growing up to discover other sports, where they won’t be marginalized as consistently as snowboarding does, and another drip, drip, drip that erodes an already declining participation rate in the sport.
There is a desire to keep snowboarding "edgy." To say and do things in ad campaigns or editorials that are shocking or incindiary in order to get attention. The kind of attention getting tactics popular with, say, 17 to 19 year olds.
But just like adolescents, "edgy" is frequently code for "douchey."
And eventually, we all have to grow up. Even snowboarding.
Top photo: Flickr Creative Commons/LG
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Sue Ferguson has held senior executive sales roles at Levi Strauss & Co, Burton Snowboards and G4S Security. Sue has been snowboarding since 1990 and regularly shreds with a group of bad-ass women from all around the globe. She and her husband Ross, live in Toronto Canada, where they are the happy slaves to two miniature dachshunds. Follow her on LinkedIn.