In what is emerging as the Year of Women, the outdoor industry is leading the charge in elevating more women into leadership positions.
With women unleashing their power in Hollywood and technology industries grappling to advance women into top offices, outdoor businesses — which gather this week in Denver for the newly blended Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show — are boasting progress in promoting women.
“You can’t be succeeding in the women’s market if it’s just guys around the table,” said Donna Carpenter, the chief executive of Burton Snowboards who has prioritized gender equity with a goal of 51 percent women leaders in her company, 51 percent of Burton’s sales to women and more than half of all snowboarders being women. “You have to have women in strategic decision making. The outdoor industry has an opportunity here to say, ‘Hey, we take this seriously.’ ”
“We’ve got to band together an industry,” she said. “We can flex our muscle here if we do this as an industry-wide initiative.”
Two years ago, Boulder’s Camber Outdoors, a 22-year-old group promoting women’s equality in the outdoor industry, launched its own CEO Pledge, with about a dozen companies committed to bolster leadership opportunities for women. Since 2015, more than 75 outdoor company executives have committed to attract, retain and advance more women as a cornerstone business strategy, including bosses from Burton, W.L. Gore, CamelBak, Specialized, SRAM, Patagonia, REI and Arc’teryx.
The tech industry has struggled to elevate more women into leadership positions. Apple in November reported that its worldwide workforce in 2017 was 68 percent male and 32 percent female, roughly the same breakdown as 2016 but an increase in the number of women working for the tech giant over the previous three years. The cybersecurity world, scrambling to fill almost 2 million jobs by 2022, is eyeing women to grow more diverse teams that can identify and fight unknown threats.
Camber released a report Monday describing how the work has unfolded in the $887 billion outdoor industry, with executives describing the internal policies they’ve used to recruit women and keep the female employees they have moving up the corporate ladder. CamelBak has increased the number of women engineering its gear from zero to 30 percent of the total by developing relationships with schools. Burton boosted retention of workers in jobs that require a lot of travel with an infant-travel policy that covers care — in-home or on the road — for the first 18 months of a child’s life.
The outdoor industry’s growing push to advance more women dovetails the industry’s unified effort to become a social, political and economic force capable of swaying public policy. The outdoor industry can and should be a role model for all other industries, Camber Outdoors executive director Deanne Buck said.
“I think a lot of the efforts we are seeing right now in other industries, the ‘how to get there’ is the centerpiece. If a company or industry is always trying to solve the problem, versus working toward a common end state, then success will always be defined on where the problem is versus where you are in the journey toward a collective vision,” Buck said, noting that other businesses and industries beyond the outdoors have adopted programs similar to the CEO Pledge.
While many companies find women leaders in their search to sell more stuff to women, other companies, like Burton, are more than a decade into the advancement of female decision makers.
“I don’t envy companies who are only now finding themselves in this moment,” said Carpenter, who 14 years ago started the Burton’s Women’s Leadership Initiative to help balance the push to sell more women’s gear by having more women making decisions at the company.
Burton’s 36-year-old Burton Open competition has always offered equal prize money to men and women. Years ago Carpenter noticed the company sold a snowboard for little boys, but not girls. She pushed for a girl-friendly ride and, in the first year, sales soared 250 percent beyond projections.
But hiring women isn’t about selling to women, she said.
“This has even another component, which is talent,” Carpenter said. “You want the most talented women in the country to say ‘Hey, I can make a career in the outdoor business.’ And if you don’t have diversity, you are not going to have innovation and you are not going to be able to recruit the best talent.”
The outdoor industry’s efforts to recruit more women bosses is not that different from any other industry. And really, the industry is not that different from any other, with armies of engineers designing advanced equipment like skis, bikes and high-end clothing instead of, say, televisions, computers or phones.
“It really is a tech industry wrapped in fun,” Buck said.
But it is different, with its growing slate of female chieftains proving it is able to make the cultural shift that challenges its tech counterparts.
“This industry has said ‘yes’ to women and has done the hard work with really having a road map,” Buck said. “And the work is continuing. My hope is that in five years we look back and say the outdoor industry figured it out when no one else could and has 50 percent of women in leadership.”