top of page

women in the ski instructing world, specifically big mountain 

a Think Piece by Harriet Parnis 

Author Views Disclaimer: 

I want to start this piece by reminding whoever is reading that I am an individual, drawing on my own experiences as a white British female living in BC, Canada. I would like you to understand there will be generalisations and there will always be anomalies, and this Think Piece is purely based on my own experiences and research. I am using the binary terms “male” and “female” as I haven’t spoken to anyone about “women in the ski instructing world” who identifies as non-binary, however when I refer to “female”, I intend to include anyone that does not identify as male. Furthermore, I am not intending to exclude anyone who identifies as non-binary or something other than male or female.

The ski instructing industry has always been and continues to be white-male dominated, why? Going through my Level 4 process got me thinking more deeply on this topic; what’s missing for women, and what can we do to address proportional gender inequality? 


Unveiling Invisible Biases

Equality means giving everyone exactly the same resources or opportunities. Equity involves giving each person the resources and opportunities they need to achieve an equal outcome by understanding that each person has different circumstances and starting points.


I am all for equality, and I believe that equity is how we will achieve equality. After all, equality is the ultimate goal, where we create and foster a culture in which organisations and work places don’t have to do anything that is gender specific. However, maybe what is being delivered right now is already gender-specific… to men…

"Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued.  If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman… in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population." (Caroline Ciardo-Perez)

Caroline Ciardo-Perez has written a fantastic book “Invisible Women” (& produced an equally great podcast, “Visible Women”) which really highlighted to me that, despite females making up 50% of the population we suffer an invisible bias where women have been excluded from the very foundations of the world we live in. So why would the ski industry be any different? 


In fact, there is (finally) more and more research and support which shows that women are “not just little men”, as kiwi researcher Stacy Sims states. In a world built by and designed for men, women shouldn’t just have to “fit in” and forego their own needs because it works for men. There is high awareness that the ski industry is lacking high-level female instructors in comparison to male instructors, and there is a high willingness to change, yet nothing is changing.

Insights and the Challenges Women Face

It is not new information that girls often leave organised sport in their teens. Is it because around the age of 14 it starts to get increasingly competitive, and if you’re not in the top performers, then the motivation to continue drops? Is it because the enjoyment is lost in favour of technical and tactical development in the sport at this stage? Perhaps we need to challenge girls developmentally and they’re actually not being pushed enough because of a coaches hesitancy to push a girls’ boundaries? Or are we pushing them too much, resulting in fear or injury and the loss of love for the sport? Maybe it’s a social problem; their peers drop out which snowballs to more drop outs? As adults, do women change paths away from ski instruction because of other reasons such as injury, child care or pregnancy?


The participation in Whistler Freeride Club is a great example of how coaches are able to challenge and push the girls’ boundaries which is keeping them involved. There is a steady participation of girls throughout the age groups who have now created a ‘community’ to remain a part of and to grow together with. The challenge the club is trying to solve brings us back to “women in the ski instructing world”; how can the club get more high-performing female instructors to coach these young women, who could be the next cohort of great coaches?


What I’m trying to encourage in this ‘Think Piece’, is that we shouldn’t be always treating everybody the same. People learn and build confidence in different environments. We’ve identified that for some women, having gender-specific training is a really beneficial step in order to gain the confidence to go to mixed-gender training sessions. I actually think that the mixed-gender training sessions I’ve been to have been an amazing way to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Maybe my experiences to date, which have made me who I am today (having two sporty and competitive older brothers perhaps?) have resulted in having the drive of “if he can do it, why can’t I?”


But I don’t always want to be pushed, sometimes I want to be reassured and inspired by people who are just like me - women. I want to have female role models. I want to find people that make my goal realistic and achievable, and in turn, this drives my self-motivation rather than external peer pressure and comparisons. This is one of the reasons I started the Instagram account Ski Like Her, in a quest to find and support women posting videos of themselves, not just shredding in perfect conditions like heli-ski powder or immaculate corduroy, but enjoying themselves having fun, imperfectly in crud, slush, ice, chalk - you name it! 


With all this being said, my goal as part of the team developing the PSIC Big Mountain pathway is to provide opportunities to have an equal proportion of men and women to reach the same goal, and we have to recognise different pathways to do that. If 40% of Level 2 candidates are female, I want 40% of Level 4 candidates to be female too, not letting that drop to 15-20% as it currently stands in other instructor organisations. How do we do that?


Promoting Gender Equity: Actional Steps

How do we tackle gender disproportion in instructor certification pathways? We have to ensure we have a culture of inclusivity, but we have to foster that culture for a snowball effect to make it a reality. As it stands, if we don’t do anything, then we will end up exactly where we were; trying to fix the problem rather than providing a solution from the start to prevent it. That might mean offering different opportunities and experiences to different groups of people, whether it be age, gender, race or nationality. This piece is not intended to be anti-male. Women also hold these gender biases and behaviours, we are all part of the problem and until something changes we all reinforce the existing structures.


Here are some generalisations I’ve been thinking about:

  • Women need to feel part of a community to progress, whereas men progress to be part of a community.

  • Both men and women experience imposter syndrome, but I think women experience it at different levels and internalise it differently. I can only give my lived experiences and recall the accounts of others I’ve spoken to, however studies have shown that in any setting the minority group experiences it more frequently than the majority group. Therefore, in the ski instructor industry it is more likely to be women that experience feelings of imposter syndrome. 

  • Women want to be asked when it comes to opportunities in their progression journey, they rarely put themselves forward. Once they’ve been asked, they will probably need asking again (and maybe again!)

  • Mentorship and sponsorship programs have been shown to be incredibly effective in retaining engagement and longevity as well as encouraging progression and motivation - is there a way we can maximise this? I’ve had the privilege to experience being both a mentor for, and mentee of, a female in the snowsports industry. Being a mentee reignited my passion and drive for self-development, it gave me a sense of shared confidence between us. Being a mentor has been so fulfilling and given me reassurance that I actually do have sound knowledge and experience to share with another woman in the sport.


So what actions could we take?

  • Group-specific training and courses - can we create a system where there are opportunities for different demographic groups, and where people are comfortable to ask to be included in these demographic groups?

  • Mentorship programs - achievable steps and guidance from someone more experienced in order to reach goals. In addition, we should be encouraging people to become mentors, which demonstrates and reinforces that you also have experience worth sharing with others.

  • Advocacy or sponsorship - where someone else promotes a person or cause. They see an opportunity to elevate a person (of a minority group specifically) to help them see they’re competent by putting them in positions they might not have put themself in.

  • Peer connection - how can we keep groups meaningfully connected who are going through the same development processes and similar experiences?

  • Education - prepare instructors at all levels in the learning and psychology of different groups and individuals.

  • Role models - these role models have to be accessible. If there isn’t representation that is accessible, the role model is less effective.


Ann Schorling from Jackson Hole, WY wrote her thesis on “Increasing gender equity in snowsports instruction at Big Sky, Montana” and identified some great findings as well as solutions. For one, she discovered that creating a gender balance in groups, where everyone has the same goal, had a positive effect on the development of all participants. Additionally, she realised the strength of “affinity training” where, for example, all women training sessions were well received, but also found that these opportunities only help professional development if the trainer is female too. 


Schorling also touched on some interesting points about gender bias in assigned lessons at snow school. Perhaps these assignments not only hinder the opportunities for self-development (how can someone train for their Level 3 when they’re constantly teaching nervous beginners and children on the magic carpet), but also play into the imposter syndrome of professional progression. Although they might hate to admit it, typically, ski schools receive and fulfil the stereotypical “female requested” lessons where the instructor needs to be “kind and patient” vs the “challenging and technical” lessons typically assigned to men. To become a Level 3+ you need a certain drive of “challenge and technique” and if this isn’t supported in our daily work life, we may not feel worthy which, in turn, leads to experiencing imposter syndrome.

Activating Change in the Ski Instructing World

Some people really thrive in mentor-mentee relationships, but these shouldn’t be forced, because not everyone does. Some people are committed to training sessions and groups however, some people prefer to get mileage in individually. Some women want gender-specific training sessions, and some won’t feel it benefits them. Instead of limiting choices, we can offer different solutions depending on what people need. We are all individuals.


I am passionate in ensuring that women, no matter their age or experience, feel comfortable working through all levels of instructor certifications. We belong at the top too, and we need to come together to activate solutions that halt gender disproportion before it begins. I worry that the PSIC Big Mountain certification pathway will just become a “boys club” however, I’d like to think we’re on the right path with 75% of the first candidates to pass being female. Nonetheless, I am anxious that if we get complacent, we will lose this positive momentum and things will return to how they have been in the ski instruction world since forever.


I am in no way an expert, nor a professional psychologist. I am not saying my thoughts and ideas are “right” but I am confidently saying I’m “not wrong”. I am a female skier living and breathing the sport of skiing and I am an active participant of the ski community here in Whistler. I am also by no means the first person to point out the gender imbalance in skiing and this acknowledgement needs to be followed by collective action. This is a subject we need to be conscious of and work out what we can do to build an inclusive and inspiring environment where goals are realistic, attainable and we can achieve “equality”.

This piece is intended to provoke discussion, idea sharing, and help develop actions for positive change. We encourage you to engage via the comments below.

bottom of page