The Evolution of Women’s Snowboarding | Gear Archives
*Editor’s Note: This piece was originally featured in the Winter issue of TransWorld Business.
* Update: While Nitro Snowboards was the first to release a ‘women’s specific’ board, the Petra Mussig racer board, in the early ’90s, Checker Pig followed suit with the Lisa Vinciguerra freestyle board, and Sims was the first brand to properly launch a full-scale women’s campaign featuring Shannon Dunn, many brands have since built off the foundation these companies established. For more history on early women’s snowboarding, check out this gem from 1995, straight from Transworld Snowboarding’s archives.
In my twenties, I didn't think much about being a minority in my newfound sport of snowboarding. Fresh out of college, life was nothing more than powder fields and good beer. My CB jacket and freshman fifteen (I was still rockin' it then) kept me warm during life-changing Pacific Northwest dumps. I could lace my linerless Northwaves tight enough to make due—much tighter than my L.L. Bean Duck Boots. And my board—a Lib Tech Matt Cummins pro model, you know, the one with the bus, surfboards, and rolling sets of waves on it—well, let's just say it got the job done.
Fast-forward a few, ahem, decades and my role as a female snowboarder definitely has me singing a new tune. My 100-plus days on snow has sadly shrunk, and I spend as much time on the bunny hill "doing the family thing" as I do shredding Teton pow. I prefer soft, easy-turning boards to the stiffer planks of my youth and warm, comfy boots and a puffy are the staples in my gear bag. In fact, I secretly liked to fantasize that the women's snowboard movement progressed itself for me. That was, until I caught up with those who really spearheaded the evolution of women in snowboarding and realized I wasn't the only woman who's changing role as a snowboarder paralleled the advancements in the industry.
The Big Shift
Long before "feminism" and "gender equality" were cliché, female snowboarders were charging the slopes with whatever worked. "There wasn't a need for women-specific equipment back then," says Donna Carpenter, president and co-owner of Burton. "We had a piece of wood with a rope on the end and rubber straps that we tried to fit our boots under." Snowboarding was a unisex sport with as many women participants as there were men. But then it grew fast, taking on a male-dominated culture.
Still, we shimmied our way into the mix, riding second-generation gear that was ill proportioned for female bodies. Barrett Christy, women's product and marketing manager for Mervin Manufacturing, recalls, "I was riding 80s bindings with my 90s K2 Hardcore—a board obviously not built for me. I didn't catch up with the times until the mid 90s. I went from big, stiff, and heavy to a much lighter board. It really opened my eyes to snowboarding not being a struggle."
Melissa Longfellow, former co-editor of Fresh and Tasty Magazine—now considered a "vintage" women's snowboard mag that started in Cambridge, Massachusetts—remembers the effort to convince manufacturers to make women's boards. "They argued that we could ride smaller boards made for small dudes. So we ended up riding big, wide, stiff boards that were impossible to turn."
Despite the obstacles, and with a contagious enthusiasm, we MacGyvered our way through until market demand started making sense to brands. "Things were shifting pretty quickly," says Longfellow, "With two seasons of Fresh and Tasty under our belt , Burton had created both a women's clothing and a hardgoods line. We were like, 'F*** ya! Finally!'" Our collective voice was heard, as Sims, Burton, Mervin, and K2 rolled out female-specific boards with our role models' names on them. Longfellow remembers the apex when her magazine was maxing with women's boards. "We had to shrink the pictures down super small to fit something like thirty boards on a page, so we could get them all in and still afford to print," she recalls.
Icons like Shannon Dunn, Barrett Christy, and Victoria Jealouse graced the pages of our favorite mags. Annie Fast, former editor-in-chief for Transworld Snowboarding explains, "My role [in the early 2000s] was making sure that what was happening on the slopes was represented in the mag. It was men snowboarding with women and that's how I wanted to show it." But even with this major shift in consciousness, there were still gender hang-ups. "One of the hurdles we faced was the circular conversation that there were not enough photos of women in the mag," recalls Fast. She explains photographers wouldn't submit them for fear of not being printed. So Fast dedicated herself to incentivizing photographers to provide great representation of women's photos in the magazine.
And, as things progressed, it wasn't just the print mags riding the women's wave. Pro snowboarder Annie Boulanger recounts the "hell ya" moment when she received support from her team manager at Salomon to film in the backcountry with the boys. "I wanted to stop doing contests and was hoping everyday that the right crew would invite me to film with them," she says. "Salomon was the first of my sponsors to believe in me and throw down to help me achieve my goal." Trailing forerunners like Jealouse, Boulanger was given the opportunity to film with Absinthe Films—something she had been working towards for years. "I was ecstatic! It was such an exiting moment, yet scary at the same time," she says on her evolution into backcountry riding.
Boards Built for Bodies
Christy's first discussions with Mervin didn't revolve around women's boards. "It wasn't like I was the first girl to come along," she says. "They were building boards for human bodies [not men or women]." With designers already toying with shapes for smaller riders like Jamie Lynn, Christy's pro-model was born in 1996—a small, lightweight ride, with longer contact points and a tighter tip-to-tail radius. Her board offered female riders the same stability as a longer board, but in a scaled-down chassis. Similarly, over at Burton, Jealouse and Dunn helped develop the first Feelgood—the longest running women's-specific snowboard in the industry.
And then, many years later, we began the camber debate.
Some may argue that Lib Tech's banana technology was the first of its kind, followed by a plethora of rockered options by other companies. But I'll leave that one to the archivists because—however it shakes out—the introduction of rockered boards simply made snowboarding more accessible. "Getting ladies off camber and onto all the other bend options has done wonders for confidence and progression," says Clarissa Finks, women's hardgoods category manager for Burton. For ladies who put more weight on the look and feel of the board, rather than the techie details, this advancement simply increases the stoke. But for the gear heads among us, many companies offers a complete array or rocker-camber blends to suit all abilities and riding styles. In fact, Gnu's BTX and Burton's Flying V technologies are consistently awarded top honors in Transworld's annual Good Wood board-test.
And gone are the days of handing our new board to our boyfriend so that he can "break it in" before we actually like it. Burton's Infinite Ride technology does that for us, assuring the flex is consistent. This allows women to choose a board based on the flex pattern they like—one that will not change over time as the board ages. Burton Team Rider Kelly Clark notes, "Being comfortable on your product is what anyone wants," regardless of expertise.
Boots and Backcountry
We all agree on one thing: While it's not necessarily the technology that woos women snowboarders to the slopes, it does make the sport more fun. And, truth be told, nobody's having it when her feet are uncomfortable.
Enter snowboard boot warmth technology, with features developed from direct experiences on snow. "I was riding with Nicola Thost," says Carpenter. "Her feet were cold. And I asked, 'Have your feet always been cold?' She said, 'Yes, for ten years now." It was then that Carpenter realized the physiology of a woman's foot was different than a man's, and that Burton needed to develop women's products with more than just fit in mind. Deeluxe and ThirtyTwo are some of the brands that join Burton in that innovation category, creating various models of women's boots that tailor to a lady's foot, giving added warmth.
As for fit, brands like Thirty Two and Burton call in the troops, sampling feet from all over the globe. Finks explains their research and development for a proper women's fit spanned two years, five continents, and 250-plus pairs of women's feet— a project that resulted in "a totally dialed-in women's-specific boot fit." Elements of fit include patented tongue technologies for calf-size accommodation, customizable heat-molded liners found in boots made by ThirtyTwo, Deeluxe, and Burton, and the V-Cork footbed (for dampening and arch support) found in Van's Aura Boot.
Kate Kerns, buyer and retail manager for Mountain Wave in Breckenridge, says women make up about 40 percent of the local shop's customers. One notable trend Kerns admits is important for her female snowboard customers is a vast array of women's sizing. "When you have a woman buying things, you understand there is a need for the smallest [and biggest] women's sizes."
This holds true with boards, too, especially when it comes to backcountry travel. Kerns praises programs like SAFE-AS, a women's avalanche safety workshop series held at Copper Mountain, for making an intimidating category truly palatable for ladies. During last season, Mountain Wave's demo program showed splitboards in small sizes put to use. With consumer demand now backing this growing category, companies like Jones and Burton unveil smaller models sized specifically for women. Mountain Wave continues to offer these fringe women's-specific products, meeting the needs of a demographic and resulting in their growing ratio of women shoppers.
Look Good, Feel Good
"In the beginning it was cool to look like a guy, but then as I got better and more confident with who I was, I wanted to look cute and wear pants that were flattering," explains Olympic Silver Medalist, Gretchen Bleiler.
As Bleiler's career matured, she started working with Oakley (2001). "At the time, their outerwear was all missiles and rivets, man and war," she remembers, "That wasn't working for women." Together with designers, she helped the line turn a complete 180 by offering fashion-forward, innovative pieces. They dialed in colors, size breaks, and fits, and integrated recycled and recyclable materials into Bleiler's signature line in 2007. "It was a mutually beneficial relationship," she explains, "They wouldn't have necessarily taken the risk [with fashion or eco fabrics], if they didn't have me as catalyst."
Around the same time, Carolyn Campos of Volcom was passed the torch of Global Director of Women's Outerwear. Volcom then obtained their license for Gore-Tex, putting them on the map as a true technical outerwear brand.
Volcom's wide range of progressive fits in both jackets and pants give women room to display their personal style. For example, their Exquisite Fit (ESQ) has a tailored cut and an oval shaped hem, providing femininity without being restrictive. Combine that with stretch fabrics for a line that replicates the comfort of coveted street fashions, with a technical twist. "Women want outerwear that functions, and looks and fits great," explains Campos.
Style needs to be on point & technical features cannot be compromised.
Shaping the Future
As female riders mature, unveiling contemporary needs, women's programs have evolved to support them. Burton's Women's Leadership Initiative (WLI) does just that by creating a medium for women to advance their role in the company. "When you have women in positions with decision-making power, you're going to see the difference," explains Carpenter. Through mentoring programs, flexible maternity leave, and childcare subsidies, Burton supports women throughout their life changes. And in turn, this shifts their company culture. "When I started it [the WLI] fourteen years ago, less than ten percent of our leadership was women. Now we're just under forty percent," explains Carpenter. In fact, Burton recently promoted and hired two women to fill senior sales roles. Carpenter expects this "all-female, senior U.S. sales team to kick ass."
On a grassroots level, Oakley's Progression Session (OPS) series continues to back female riders' advancements on snow. Since the year 2000—and commencing with their "Droppin' In" camp at Loon Mountain—Oakley brings together riders, pro athlete coaches, and custom terrain parks for a weekend of pushing limits within the confines of a safe haven. OPS take the intimidating "boys club" feel out of the park experience, allowing both riders and skiers an outlet to try new things without being "on show." The friendships formed and the level of camaraderie that results from these sessions further stokes female athletes by fostering a sense of community—one they can take back to their home mountain.
Taking product discussions one step further, K2's Women's Rider's Alliance brings women together from different parts of the snowboard world to gain feedback on gear. Their roundtable meetings include women from all walks of life: a retail manager, a mother, or a professional rider. What resonates with one, in terms of graphics or feeling on snow, might not jive with another, given her background, riding style, or her current role as a rider. And how does K2 benefit from these gatherings? The collaborative result yields product that works for real people and makes snowboarding more attractive to more women.
"I am proud of the industry and how it has embraced women," says Kerns. Whatever your current position in life deems you—a mountain local, a desk-jockey, a mother, or a competitor—snowboarding continues to tug at your heartstrings with a community that has your back. "Women are still falling in love with snowboarding," adds Kerns, "which is what the whole industry needs."