Skiing is the best sport in the world.
I might be slightly biased since I grew up skiing competitively, my first job was as a ski coach and I lived for one epic year as a ski bum in the interior of British Columbia at Big White scraping by as a ski instructor. Due to all of this, I am well versed on the ins and outs of the ski industry. With that said, I am immensely aware of the gender disparities within the ski industry.
Representation vs. Equality
Like most extreme sports, skiing has a serious lack of representation of female athletes, particularly at elite levels. Although this is problematic in and of itself, jobs like ski patrolling reflect this trend to an even larger degree. When looking at gender representations in the ski industry, many ski patrol associations like to advertise that there are more women becoming patrollers, as well as more women occupying upper management positions. To a certain extent this is true, the representation of women in ski patrolling is increasing but despite this increase in positions filled by women in recent years, the fact that this representation does not equate to gender equality is often ignored. Representation in this case is the ratio of female ski patrollers to male ski patrollers, however just having women being present in that job does not mean they are treated equally, both in training and in their career, nor does it mean that they have equal access to opportunities in their careers. This is where the problem lays, stories of patrollers being left out of specific training such as practicing lifting patients onto a spinal board because of her gender undermines her capabilities and her ability to do her entire job. Taking away these opportunities before even trying these skills in unacceptable. This season, Northstar California decided to do a weekly profile of each of its female ski patrollers to show how badass and hardworking these ladies in red are. In the first week they interviewed Kolina Coe and one particular response in her interview particularly stood out. When asked for what advice she would give to other females looking to be ski patrollers she said:
“When I was offered my first promotion, a mentor of mine gave me some advice that still rings true today: “Females will never be held back in our industry. We just have to work harder, be smarter, and never make excuses for physical ability.”
The idea that this advice has had to transcend generations of female skiers and is said to still have merit today is worrisome. For it to be normalized to have to “work harder” and “be smarter” just to be treated equal to men in the same role goes to show the disparity that is still prominent in the industry.
A major contributing factor to the way in which gender relations are managed and presented in the ski industry are due to the physical landscapes in which they are a part of. The beautiful mountains that allow this sport to thrive also encourage the development of a very specific type of masculinity. As Mark Stoddart states, “The mountainous sublime is a site for performing athletic, risk-seeking masculinity.” (2010) Although less advanced terrain can be seen as “gender neutral” spaces or even as “feminized” spaces, a pre-requisite of becoming a patroller is that they are able to ski any type of terrain with confidence. Although, this is a very necessary prerequisite for this particular job, it means that women pursuing careers in ski patrolling are required to more closely manage the impressions of gender that they present in these highly masculinized spaces.
There are many different theories in regards to how gender is exhibited, one of the most popular ones is Candace West’s and Don Zimmerman’s theory, “doing gender”. This theory suggests that gender is an activity and is the result of “managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category” (1987). Although this theory has been around for decades, the concept of deviance, particularly with gender roles, is still commonly used in academic literature today. By enacting traits that are traditionally defined as “female”, women in the ski industry are seen as socially “deviant”. Here, the term deviant refers not to those who participate in criminal acts but rather, those who do not conform to the norms and values dictated by society. There is true irony in the fact that in a sport that is all about not conforming to norms, gender norms are still extremely prevalent. In order to subvert the label of deviant, female ski patrollers attempt to “manage their public identity in an effort to eliminate the deviant label.” (Halbert, 1997). At its core, the perceived deviance of these women entering the field is due to the challenges to the power of the men in the industry and the threat that the women pose within the world of sport that has been traditionally dominated by men.
Managing identity is complicated even more since it is not just obvious traits, for example physical traits or feminine personality traits that garner women the label deviant. There is some contradicting findings in the literature, but most studies have found that leadership and communication in team settings differs between genders with women primarily “taking a collaborative approach to decision making” (Brown & Light, 2012). Even the difference in leadership approach can be seen as deviant which makes it harder for women to be viewed as non-deviant in the context of such a masculinized space and industry. Because of this, women in this industry are forced to balance the masculine and the feminine to avoid being labeled as deviant while maintaining their sense of self. This can take a toll on mental health by increasing stress levels. Essentially, female patrollers can be seen as the “token” female. Studies have shown that “token” females in male-dominated industries experience high levels of stress while token males in female-dominated industries do not. This is due to what Cate Taylor refers to as “gendered social exclusion” which she describes as:
“Behaviour that would tend to make “token” women or men feel excluded from a group of mostly opposite-sex coworkers. For example, men might exclude female co-workers by talking constantly about sports or other stereotypically male interests.”
Because this happens in male-dominated industries and not female-dominated industries, it is clear that the workplace is the common factor. We owe it to these women to fix the inequities in ski patrolling to both decrease stress levels that contribute to multiple health problems and to allow them to do their jobs properly, which is beneficial to all of us accident-prone skiers and snowboarders out there.
The way in which females in the industry navigate these gender roles differs vastly between each individual. In an interview for Northstar California’s blog, Jenny Altman says:
“some people can unintentionally default to gender stereotypes and treat me slightly different. But I use my interactions with all people and departments, including my own, to foster positive change towards the belief that females and males are equally capable.”
Jenny acknowledges that she navigates every interaction in a way that has the aiming of fostering positive change in the pusuit of equality. Having to be constantly aware of yourself in daily interactions can’t be easy, couple that with one of the most challenging roles on the mountain and it is clear that that female ski patrollers deserve all the kudos and respect in the world.
The Nursing Comparison:
One career path that ski patrolling is commonly compared to is nursing. I spoke with a couple of female patrollers, the comparison is also drawn by ski patrollers themselves, but mostly by male patrollers in regards to female patrollers even though they are doing the same job. This comparison is likely drawn because of the resemblance of the patrolling job description with the initial responsibilities of nursing in that ski patrollers are trained to deal with “trauma-related injuries and have the resources to assess and provide initial immobilization techniques.” (Sagalyn, 2014).
Firstly, it needs to be pointed out that this is in no way accurate as it undermines the vast amount of training and education that nurses go through before attaining their position, as well as underplaying the scope of what their duties encompass. Secondly, there is a lot of irony to this comparison being made in the first place, particularly when male ski patrollers make it since their particular aim is to devalue the women working with them and by extension the nursing profession as a whole as well. In fact, nursing as a profession is still dominated by women with a 2011 study finding that 9 out of 10 nurses in England are female (Couta, 2011) and although these numbers are shifting, they are doing so at a very slow rate. Additionally, bias is still held within the nursing community, a study by Cude & Winfrey in 2007 found that 42% of male nurses had experienced gender bias from nursing staff. These numbers are reflective of stereotypes and biases held by society in regards to nursing and gender as a whole, creating the image that nursing is a job that requires feminine traits and is still dominated by women.
While this comparison is common, the way in which it frames the job of ski patrolling in a feminized way is interesting because it directly contradicts the hyper masculine culture that is inherent in ski patrolling. It is intriguing to see the way in which the traditional masculine traits, such as competition, dominate the feminine ones, for example caregiving, to maintain ski patrolling as a masculine pursuit. When discussing this juxtaposition with female ski patrollers, the way in which they view helping those on the hill is inherently different from the maternal way in which nursing is framed. Depending on which resort patrollers are working, helping people turns into a competition. At some resorts they count how many calls they answer as a means of comparison while at others the severity of the calls they answered are what determine where they stand compared to the others. Helping people is seen as a competition. I am not suggesting that this is due to any sort of malice, rather this has naturally developed due to being within the context of a community that is built upon a type of masculinity that relies on competition as a core way for males to assert said masculinity.
Competition is unavoidable if an athlete intends to get to the caliber of ski performance necessary to be a patroller, whether it is between peers or in a more structured setting such as taking lessons. When males and females enter the work place in the ski industry it creates a new dynamic that is atypical of sports since “sports competitions- divided into mens’ and womens’ events- assume a strict gender binary. (Sloop, 2012) The problem is magnified due to the competition that is seen within ski patrolling which re-contextualizes the job and shifts it to being a more competitive space than it should be.
Heywood discusses how historically athletes were seen as feminists for pushing for inclusion and representation of women in sports and she goes on to say that “Now feminism—second wave, third wave, liberal, radical—needs female athletes”. (2003) This can be interpreted as meaning athletes who compete as well as those whose jobs are rooted in athletics. However, the outdoors industry is notorious for its lack of gender equality, regardless of representation within it, for instance, in 2016 the “Department of the interior’s Inspector General released a 13-page report chronicling the 15 years of sexual harassment and hostile working conditions for National Park Service employees working on the Colorado river.” (Shilton, 2016) This issue often goes under the radar since these industries are seen as “boy’s clubs” and the mentality is that women should expect this kind of behaviour when entering these jobs.
A New Era
Even though there is still a long way to go for gender equality in the ski industry as a whole, in recent years we have seen a shift and women have been breaking barriers and making it into top positions in the industry. This past season Meegan Moszynski was named the first ever executive director of the National Ski Patrol. These shifts are occurring in other parts of the ski industry too, in 2017 Kelly Pawlak became the first woman to be appointed president and CEO of the trade association for ski area owners and operators. It will be interesting to see the changes that come in the near future, whether it is an increase in representation and equal opportunities or if it is better training and workplace management, although hopefully all of the above. Regardless, the industry is slowly changing and I can’t wait to see this snowball turn into an avalanche.
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