The skis Smith is looking for exist. In fact, she skis on them. But they aren't women's skis, or at least they are not skis expressly marketed to women. By industry standards, Smith skis on men's skis.
"I'm not an extreme case--there are a lot of women charging out there--but no, I can't find that in a women's ski," she says. "Just because someone is a woman or a man doesn't mean they ski a certain way."
"The message is there are skis and then there are women's skis. We often focus on the effect this type of marketing has on women, but it's a lot easier for women to go out and buy men's skis and feel good about it, whereas most men would have a hard time going and buying a women's ski, even if a lighter, shorter ski is a better fit for them." --Dr. Heather McLaughlinWalk into any ski shop and you'll find plenty of products designed differently for men and women, like packs made to fit around a woman's chest instead of over and men's long underwear with that extra special pocket. For a lot of gear, having male or female body parts matter. But not when it comes to skis, which are constructed to work with height, weight, and ability.
The basic physics of skiing tells us lightweight skis are better for intermediate skiers because they require less energy and strength to control. This is true for both men and women. Yet it's typically skis marketed to women that are lighter and shorter, compared to the heavier, longer models made for men. The corresponding message is that women, by default, are intermediate, shorter skiers. Sure, some women will appreciate and benefit from light, short skis, but so will some men--and that's OK, too.
The American man averages a height of 5-foot-7, about 6 inches taller than the average woman and 30 pounds heavier. But these are generalizations that don't apply to all people all the time, nor do they take into account the terrain a certain skier rides or their level of experience.
"Just as much as you're telling women that you should buy these skis, you're perpetuating the idea to men that 'I'm a man and I should have these super durable, long, metal skis,'" says Dr. Heather McLaughlin, a professor of sociology who researches gender in sport. "The message is there are skis and then there are women's skis. We often focus on the effect this type of marketing has on women, but it's a lot easier for women to go out and buy men's skis and feel good about it, whereas most men would have a hard time going and buying a women's ski, even if a lighter, shorter ski is a better fit for them."
Surfboards have never been sorted by gender (their shapes span different lengths, widths, and weights to suit varying waves and styles) and bike manufacturers like Specialized are no longer offering gender-specific geometries. Rather, they use the same frame for men and women and focus on adjusting the fit based on a rider's height and weight.
When the first skis designed for and marketed specifically to women arrived on the market in the mid-1980s, manufacturers quickly learned they would sell. They still do. Women make up 41 percent of skiers, according to a Snowsports Industries America 2016 participant study. Ski manufacturers should continue to talk to women. However, instead of labeling which skis they think fit women, companies can talk to them through marketing that showcases female athletes skiing on their product.
Reno-based Moment Skis' top-selling women's ski is called the Sierra, and it sells at 45 percent the rate of their top men's ski, the Deathwish. Both are made with the same materials, but the women's version is shorter, which means the core has to be thinner, says Luke Jacobson, CEO and head ski designer. It is also narrower underfoot to match its length.
"A lot of our women's skis are versions of our men's skis," says Jacobson. "On some shorter skis, you don't need as much material, or when the person is not as heavy, we'll go to a lighter weave. Making shorter skis is a lot harder than making a longer ski because you have to figure out the sidecut and the flex in a much shorter distance."
Essentially, Jacobson is describing the variations in designing and building skis of different lengths--not for different genders. He feels the need to label them as such because of the buyer's expectation.
"If we just make skis, women will be like, 'Where are your women's skis?'" he says. "When we categorize it, we're buying into social norms. Right or wrong, we definitely are."
The label says nothing about the product; it's about the message.Salomon's alpine commercial manager Chris McKearin agrees--retailers want a women's graphic to sell to women and a men's graphic to sell to men. "The moment we get rid of the women's ski, we risk the perception that we're not paying attention to women and encouraging them to get out there," he says. "I've sold a men's or unisex ski to a woman. But doing the opposite is quite challenging. That's probably for the same reason men overestimate their ability, while women underestimate theirs."
He's right that women are less confident in their skiing ability. According to data collected by SIA, just 13 percent of skiers who rated themselves "experts" were women. "Women, most likely, are not disproportionally less adept at skiing than men, but this sandbagging on self-reported ability levels calls for a different marketing message," the study says.
And that's exactly what the industry is doing when they put a women's label on a ski--creating a marketing message. What they aren't doing is creating a ski that performs specifically for men or women. The label says nothing about the product; it's about the message.
Jen Gurecki, who founded the all-women ski brand Coalition Snow in 2013, says she has never looked at the female anatomy when designing skis. Bucking the notion that women have a lower center of gravity, Coalition considers length, waist width, and core materials in their development process and construction, just like any other ski. What sets Coalition's skis apart are is that they a company made of and for women.
“We are a women's brand because we, as women, are designing for the things we want and we actively only engage other women in the design process,” says Gurecki. “We're not including men in our design process, in our marketing, or in our brand. It's not part of what we do.”
Men and women are different--that's true on and off the mountain. We think differently, we act differently, we communicate differently. But when a storm settles in the mountains, the skis on our feet are planks of wood that don't care what gender we are.The brand also has a strong feminine aesthetic. "Pretty not passive," says Gurecki. "We don't have grim reapers, but I don't need another fucking butterfly ski. Women's equipment has always been a watered-down version of men's. We wanted more and better choices."
For Gurecki, a Coalition ski is given a women's label not because of the way it is constructed but by how her company decides to present it to the market. So often, if a ski isn't labeled expressly for women, it's assumed to be for men. Take off the top sheet (or don't) and the ski is a tool that works for anyone, regardless of gender.
Men and women are different--that's true on and off the mountain. We think differently, we act differently, we communicate differently. But when a storm settles in the mountains, the skis on our feet are planks of wood that don't care what gender we are. Whether a 5-foot-2 man is looking for a green carbon ski or a 6-foot-2 woman prefers a red metal ski, or somewhere in between, we should buy skis because they suit our height, weight, experience, and style of skiing. A gender label will not tell you anything about how the ski will perform. Let's just call them skis, offer extended sizes in a variety of top sheets, and cut the gender label all together.
This story originally published in the December issue of POWDER (46.4).