Women’s Specific: Are female-focused skis necessity or preference?

Changes in skiing technology—think the first parabolic shapes, fat widths and rocker—usually bring excitement, not controversy. That is, until you consider women’s specific gear.

More than a decade after the women’s specific market was introduced, the overwhelming majority of skis are marketed as smaller, prettier and easier to ski, and are strongly skewed to a very recreational demographic. And while a few companies have recently introduced longer and more powerful women’s-specific models, the majority are producing easy-turning, under-175cm boards that don’t align with the manner in which many women are skiing.

Rachel Wood on the women's-specific DPS Yvette 112RP. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Rachel Wood on the women’s-specific DPS Yvette 112RP. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

“It’s a weird dichotomy,” says pro skier Elyse Saugstad. “There should be such a thing as women’s gear. But if you really take a look, most companies pay very little attention to women’s skis and skiing. A former sponsor of mine said there was no initiative to market women’s skiing.”

Ski and snowboard retailers reported $3.4 billion in sales in 2011-12, with $1 billion of that spent by women, according to Snowsports Industries of America. Those numbers are large enough to catch marketers’ eyes, but some highly regarded athletes, including Saugstad, feel that most ski companies employ a high–profile, yet stereotypical, one-size-fits-all approach for women. “For whatever reason, they just decided not to spend the time, money, or effort on it,” she says, referring to that previous sponsor. “So, you end up seeing the ‘shrink it and pink it’ with a lot of companies.”

The skewing of marketing dollars and ad campaigns to sell less aggressive models, some top female freeskiers say, can be frustrating. Leah Evans, a ski coach and professional big-mountain skier founded Girls Do Ski camps seven years ago to promote female participation and advancement in the sport. “With so many skis for sale, especially at the advanced levels, it is literally just a different graphic and a shorter length, but now there’s this whole culture developing around it,” she says, attributing the fixation her athletes have on women’s lengths or colors to the marketing push. “People are getting so caught up in what they should and shouldn’t have, when the goal is just to get out there and have fun.”

Dr. Thomas Olson, director of research and education at Howard Head Sports Medicine Centers in Vail, Colo., says that the fun factor should be the primary ski-selecting concern for the average recreational skier. But, Olson adds, there is little biomechanical gain to be had from using a ski that is marketed as female specific, whether the skier is at a recreational or advanced level.

Olson says that biomechanical research does conclude that women have more posterior weight when in the athletic stance than men. Therefore, moving the mounting point of a binding forward, he says, is the most impactful change, biomechanically, that women can make in their skis. That, in effect, makes any ski female-specific, regardless of length, stiffness or other traits.

But Leah Fielding, of WomensGearGuide.com, advocates that the vast majority of women use smaller, lighter gear. Fielding questions whether women who charge really need longer skis, with less muscle mass and body weight than men, and cites increased female injuries, specifically to the ACL, of four to six times the rate of men. Olson, however, points out that those statistics are drawn from sports such as soccer and not alpine skiing. “From a medical standpoint,” he says, “there is no research that I am aware of showing a difference in injury rates from women’s-specific gear or unisex gear.”

Different brands tackle the gender issue differently. Völkl, for example, says they pull feedback from beginners to athlete icons like Ingrid Backstrom, factoring that input into the weight, mounting point, sidecut and flex of women’s-specific models. If some women want a bigger, more powerful ski, however, marketing manager Geoff Curtis suggests choosing whatever fits—women’s specific or unisex. “We are just dealing with averages,” he says. “There are many different types of skiers and bodies.”

DPS, on the other hand, says that its women’s-specific models are different from the unisex models only in top sheet, recommended mounting point and length. “We engaged our peers—female skiers who charge—and found they want the same shapes and flex patterns as we offer in the rest of our line,” said Stephan Drake, who founded DPS and designs the skis. “A lot of women’s skis are watered down,” he adds. “Companies assume women are not strong or skiing aggressively.”

So what should powerful female skiers do? “I like to mix between women’s and unisex,” says ski mountaineering Kim Havell. “All-terrain skiing, I use women’s specific. For deep powder, I go unisex.” Still, Havell wants more brands to embrace strong female athletes. “[Shorter, softer women’s gear] doesn’t help perception of our equal capability in the sport,” she adds.

Havell, Evans and many of their peers say more could be done to market and promote the more aggressive end of the spectrum, which would grow the sport more than promotions that may patronize hard-charging women. Evans says the evolution, though slow, is moving in that direction: “I think this, as a process, is just about normalizing female skiing.”

This story first appeared in the January 2014 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Comments

  1. I’m just not tall enough or rectangular shaped enough for men’s skis and gear. I guess I’m not doing my part for women’s EQUALITY?

  2. Women’s skis are always a though issue. I’ve never tried a women’s ski that I liked more than the actual comparable men’s version – unless the women’s version is the same as the men’s but with different graphics. i tend to prefer stiffer, heftier skis. I have never minded using men’s skis in the past, except sometimes they didn’t dome quite as short as I would like. An example of this was the Volkl katana about 6-7 years ago. At 5’3″, the shortest ski was a bit long for me (i think it was around 176 cm) – perfect in Alaska, but a bit too long for the tight technical terrain we have here in Crested Butte. however, much of this has changed now that rocker has gone mainstream. 176 or 178 is a fine length for me for a rocker ski, and that length is not hard to find.

    it is clear that the ski industry has ignored the strong female skier as a whole for many years, until very recently. but, frankly i’m not sure it matters all that much. as long as ski companies are making some of their heftier skis a bit shorter in length, i don’t see the need to make it w’s specific by just slapping a pink graphic on it. some ski companies are making some higher-end skis the same as men’s, but with slightly different size increments (and again, different graphics). but, again, I’m not sure this is necessary either. why not just make the same skis, with the diverse size increments, and make them unisex? that way they are accessible to all genders depending on their needs – including adolescents who sometimes run into the same problems as women…..

    I am curious to hear the opinions from other strong female skiers.

  3. Monique Mudama says:

    (why is this showing as if it’s in capslock? Ugh)

    tHIS IS WHAT DRIVES ME NUTS:

    “Fielding questions whether women who charge really need longer skis, with less muscle mass and body weight than men”

    Look, not all of us have less body weight than men. I really wish that manufacturers didn’t assume all women are lighter than men, or at least would put a disclaimer like “if you weigh more than X, you should try our skis that are not women-specific.”

    • Volklgirl says:

      Absolutely! I weigh as much or more than most men I know, but I certainly don’t have the muscle mass that the men have. So, a bit softer flex is nice for me, but the shorter lengths of most women’s skis just isn’t. Volkl dropping the longest length of the original Aura (177) was one of their stupider moves for stronger women, I think. No, mr. Sales Rep, the shorter lengths are NOT just as stable as the longer lengths, so stop spewing that crap to us just because we’re women.

      I LOVE the idea of unisex skis with recommended height and weight ranges. Genius!!

  4. 5’0″ 115 lbs, ski instructor, AGGRESSIVE SKIER

    Skis
    On Piste 85 or less underfoot
    -I prefer the men’s version because the women’s versions are not stiff enough to charge/Carve the groomers, but I have trouble finding a length short enough in the Men’s version

    All Mountain/Off Piste/Powder 90 + underfoot
    -I like the women ski options (Volkl Aura, Black Diamond Element)
    -Please stop putting sexy women graphics on my skis….who is that for?

    Boots
    -make a narrower heel pocket for women boots! Not Just for me, but all of my women recreational skiers, heel lift is a huge problem consistently!

    My boot: 22, 93 last, 130flex…still needed foam injected liners to fill space and foot bed
    -Retail Price for Boot, liner, Footbeds = $1700 🙁 and a pain in the butt to get on and off!

  5. I see what you mean about caps… Strange software. I know perceptions is something, and marketing something, perhaps related, but physics is what determines how physical items behave. So we have, mass, velocity, force, stiffness, center of mass, and shape to deal with. the issue i think is that women do not all fit into a category and neither do men. in fact from there is considerable overlap between the groups. So aside from the suggestions in the article such as changing mount point and adjusting size appropriately, I don’t see any suggestsions as to what one would do differently. In fact, for all skiers, I would contend that one should adjust the mount point, and pick an appropriate length, in addition to stiffness, width, and sidecut for the particular strengths and weaknesses of the skier Women or Man. What is being suggested that should be done differently for women, is there a specialy unique sidecut being recommended for all female skiers? Particular stiffness, width. Seems to me that manufacturers should focus on providing lots of options regarding width, stiffness, sidecut, and length and give a few options for top sheet and call it good. Am I missing something, what specific change in ski design is being proposed specifically for women?

  6. Lucy here, associate editor at BCM. I’ve been following this thread and wanted to chime in…

    My take on things, it turns out, is a lot like yours. If biomechanical differences between men and women’s bodies can be accommodated with the aforementioned solutions (mount point, size), then why do we even have women’s specific skis?

    I think the problem with skis, and most athletic gear, is that the “normal” product is not accepted to have a gender-neutral use. A solution: make skis that account for (generally, but not always) smaller humans, i.e. women. With the range in width, flex, sidecut, etc. that already exists in men’s skis, it wouldn’t take much to throw in a few more size options.

    And to bring up those oft-remarked upon pink graphics. If the skis hold up and are pink? That rocks, and I want those skis. But if they’re bendy and short AND pink? Forget it. The first is celebratory, the latter is patronizing. The bottom line though, is that women need more diversity in skis, whether it’s a sizing, stiffness or graphics issue.

  7. Aspen-Snowmass Boot Guy says:

    A lot of interesting points, but one seems to be getting missed: Business. That largest segment of skiers classify themselves as Intermediate. For ski companies (or any company selling a physical product for that matter) to survive they need to move large numbers of units. As a dealer of 30 years, I can tell you, the same applies to us. Manufacturers are doing a much better job with women’s specific skis than they used to. I can understand the frustration of some women in that they want a solid, powerful ski and sometimes find it in a men’s model, but can’t get it in a short enough length. There are skis out there for women of all sizes and abilities, but you have to be able to try a bunch to find the one that is going to give you what you want. The best way to accomplish this is to find a good resort-based shop, close to the lifts and with a really good selection of demo skis, wait for a fresh snow day to approximate backcountry conditions and buy into their demo package. Most good shops will let you switch out as often as you like. Take one; maybe two runs on each model you are interested in and move on to the next. Once you find a model or two that is giving you what you want, try a length longer or shorter in the same model. Even if you don’t find the “perfect” ski, you will learn a great deal about what characteristics, flexes, shapes, materials and other things that you prefer. Ski shopping is tough. Relying on magazine reviews, other peoples’ opinions and the like don’t work, because they are not you. So: Try a TON of skis. (You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, would you?) It may take time, and you may not even find that magical pair of sticks, but hey: it’s all still skiing, and that is better than a sharp stick in the eye.

  8. As a 5’3″, 110 lb female, many mens skis are simply too big. Should I be relegated to kids skis then? I am not a child and I don’t ski like one, but many mens skis are simply too big.

  9. CO_Ski_Girl says:

    I’ve always avoided women’s skis because I have the perception that they’re floppy and intermediate at best. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I just can’t shake the fear that if I throw down several hundred dollars on a pair of skis, if they’re women’s skis they won’t respond the way I want them to. I have always skied on men’s skis, so I really need to be convinced that a woman’s ski is something worth looking at. I would love to have the female oriented design on top, but not enough to compromise responsiveness.

    I must admit, it’s not just skis where the industry tends to re-package men’s stuff as women’s, but all the gear. Begs the question, why don’t women start their own businesses developing female-specific equipment, since we aren’t really considered a primary customer target.

  10. This is stupid. In the”old days” the right ski, the right length, was fine. Women specific just marginalizes women more and oh–did I say it was stupid? I don’t want pink skis or blue skis–what a throwback–just skis, stupid marketers. “Womens” sleeping bags are another idiotic invention.

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