March 31, 2022 Update: Alpine Canada has hired Karin Harjo as the head coach of its women’s alpine skiing team, making Harjo the only woman to currently lead a national ski team on the World Cup stage. (Read more about Harjo’s hiring here.)
Originally published: February, 14, 2022
When U.S. alpine skier Laurenne Ross contemplated what she wanted to do when she retired, coaching wasn’t initially on the list.
“I was kind of adamant that I wouldn’t fall into a coaching position,” said Ross, who spent a decade racing on the World Cup circuit before retiring last year. “There were a lot of reasons. Primarily the travel and the stress and not being able to be at home…. But also because the culture is pretty harsh and intense and misogynistic.”
Alpine skiing represents something of paradox.
In some ways, the sport is a beacon for gender equity. When it debuted at the Winter Olympics in 1936, and then launched a World Cup circuit in 1967, there were an equal number of men’s and women’s events – a rarity in the sport’s world. That gender parity has mostly held true over the years as both the World Cup and Olympic programs expanded.
And while prize money hasn’t always been equal, these days, female athletes receive near-equal winnings from race organizers on the World Cup circuit. In fact, the sport’s prize money list has been topped by a woman the last five seasons – something that the sport’s governing body loves to point out. American Mikaela Shiffrin held the title of highest earner for four straight years (2017-2020), while Swiss skier Lara Gut-Behrami took home the most winnings in 2021.
“In ski racing, we are very lucky as female athletes to experience the kind of gender equity that we do,” Ross said. “But if you look a little bit closer, you do see those discrepancies.”
You can count the number of female alpine skiing coaches on one hand (but no one is counting)
The most noticeable gender disparity in alpine skiing exists in the coaching ranks.
The U.S. ski team includes one of only a handful of female coaches: Karin Harjo, who works with the women’s speed team.
In 2016, Harjo became the first woman to set a World Cup slalom course. (And to be clear: she was the first woman to accomplish this in women’s skiing.)
“It’s been really cool to see how she handles herself in an extremely male-dominated environment,” said Alice Merryweather, a current member of the U.S. ski team who was taken out of Olympic contention after a serious crash last September. “She’s very well respected by all of the male coaches out there – which is everyone else. I think we’re really lucky to have her.”
“I loved working with Karin,” said Alice McKennis Duran, who retired from the U.S. ski team at the end of last season. “She was one of my favorite coaches ever, and certainly part of that was her being a female.”
It’s unclear exactly how many women coach on the World Cup circuit. In addition to Harjo, Norway has one woman on its coaching roster (Pernille Lindman). There’s also Eileen Shiffrin, the mother of Mikaela Shiffrin, who has coached and travelled with her daughter since she made her World Cup debut.
Beyond that, Merryweather drew a blank. “The fact I’m having a hard time says something.”
A representative for FIS – the international federation that oversees alpine skiing – said that there are “about 6/7” women coaching on the World Cup circuit, but the organization wouldn’t provide a full coaching roster – citing “privacy.” The organization also couldn’t provide a total number of coaches on the World Cup circuit, noting “it is a variable number depending on the budgets of the federations and the number of their employees.”
Needless to say, the number of women coaching is not large.
Alpine skiing is not alone in failing to hire and retain female coaches. Across the board, as women’s sports have become more popular – and profitable – the number of men in coaching roles has skyrocketed while the number of women has dwindled. For example, this year’s women’s Olympic hockey tournament includes a record 10 teams. But it will also be the first Olympic tournament in which there are zero female head coaches.
While broken coaching pipelines often carry blame in sports like soccer and hockey, skiing has a more complicated problem, one the sport hasn’t quite acknowledged, let alone start to solve.
Like Ross, McKennis Duran didn’t see herself coaching when she retired from skiing last spring. And yet, this winter, she can be found at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, helping young athletes learn the ropes.
But as she looks ahead to the future, even her current job coaching 10- and 11-year-olds doesn’t feel sustainable when she considers her family planning goals.
“It’s unfathomable,” McKennis Duran said. “I already work six days a week right now in the winter. Like, I’m not doing that and having kids. Part of me is like, ‘I’ll probably have to quit.'”
If her current job isn’t feasible, forget coaching at the World Cup level, where coaches spend upwards of six months on the road each year.
“If you want to have a family, and work on the World Cup, it’s going to be pretty much impossible – unless you want to leave your children at home.”
Many men have done just that.
“A lot of my male coaches have families and I’ve never met their kids,” McKennis Duran said. “It’s actually kind of sad.”
While some U.S. ski clubs are working to retain female coaches, McKennis Duran believes that ski culture needs a more seismic shift.
“Working with [women] to help them stay in the sport is really important because we’re just going to keep losing women, over and over and over again,” she said. “Something that needs to be recognized is that women are valuable in the sport.”
Alpine skiing’s horizontal cousin, cross-country skiing, has encountered this issue, too. The two sports have similarly demanding World Cup schedules that keep athletes and staff on the road for most of the year.
“Definitely still not that many female coaches,” said 2018 Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall, who is serving as a cross-country skiing analyst for NBC Olympics during the 2022 Winter Olympics. “And the higher up you go, the thinner that [number] gets.”
But while Randall would like to see the number of women increase, she’s not ready to step into the role herself, at least not yet.
“I love the act of coaching, but the lifestyle is so demanding, especially with a young child,” she said. “I spent a lot of my life away [from home] and I’m not going to do that now with a family.”
What happens when women aren’t making decisions about women’s skiing?
In addition to the very unbalanced coaching landscape, there is also the fact that on both the men’s and women’s World Cup circuits, every person making decisions on behalf of FIS is a man.
During Lindsey Vonn‘s storied career, she fought to be allowed to enter a race against men – a request that FIS denied multiple times. When FIS ruled against Vonn in 2012, the organization’s Secretary General Sarah Lewis told reporters, “It’s called the men’s World Cup and the ladies’ World Cup. The men race the men’s World Cup and the ladies race the ladies’ World Cup.”
Ten years later, that statement highlights one change FIS finally, thankfully, made. Last year, as the result of an IOC gender equity review, the federation began using the word “women’s” in place of “ladies’.” But the gender divide remains, including in the way men’s and women’s events are organized.
Merryweather believes the lack of female representation in the sport has resulted in the women’s courses – especially those used for speed events – being watered down.
“It seems like they have completely different ideas of what downhill for men looks like compared to downhill for women,” she said. “They’ll shave all of our jumps down, they’ll end races early if a jump is too big.”
For the record, Merryweather isn’t pitching the idea of women skiing Kitzbuehel, the notorious and dangerous race on the men’s World Cup circuit.
“I have no interest in throwing myself down Kitzbuehel,” she said. “But I think there’s this weird conversation that the men’s courses have to be more difficult than the women’s.”
For Merryweather, the issue isn’t which slopes are safe and which ones aren’t, but who is making those decisions.
“Having some more female representation in there would help a lot,” she said. “Right now, it’s a lot of white guys being like, ‘No these women can’t ski that jump because it’s too big for them’ and they don’t actually know what our experience is.”
This gender imbalance also extends to more niche areas of the industry, from equipment suppliers to ski manufacturers to the people managing sponsorships.
“As an athlete, I never encountered [a woman], other than, like, the woman that works in the office and helps you get your new luggage,” said McKennis Duran. “It was always dominated by men, whether you were dealing with contracts or anything to do with organization of the races.”
“There are clearly certain roles that have always been assigned to certain genders,” Merryweather said.
Team physios, for example? Almost always women.
“There’s a reason why they’re called servicemen – it’s because they’re always men,” McKennis Duran quipped.
“You see that huge gender divide and it’s one of those things that you become accustomed to and almost blind to it,” McKennis Duran said. “It’s just the way it is.”
The “equal” prize money in alpine skiing? It’s not actually equal
Perhaps part of the reason gender disparities in alpine skiing are easy to ignore is because it is one of the rare sports in which prize money is equal for men and women.
Well, not exactly.
The sport has equal “minimum” prize money, but some races offer bonus money, most of which is allocated to men.
Still, the mostly-equal prize money conceals a much larger wage disparity.
“Our main income is through contracts” with sponsors, Ross explained.
“As an athlete ranked tenth in the world, being a female is a lot more difficult than being a male that’s ranked tenth in the world. You’re making a lot less money.”
Early in her career, Ross discovered that her ski sponsor was paying her half as much as a male athlete with a lower World Cup ranking.
But just because she knew she was being paid less didn’t mean she was able to do anything about it.
“You can’t raise the issue,” Ross said. “You are contractually obliged to not talk about your contracts.”
“Contracts between the men’s and women’s side, it doesn’t matter what type of gear we’re talking, the men’s [contract] is better than the women’s,” said Paula Moltzan, a U.S. tech specialist who made her Olympic debut in Beijing.
As for whether there are any protections for female athletes who want to have children and want continue ski racing? The type of protections Allyson Felix fought for when she gave birth?
“Absolutely not,” Ross said.
Alpine skiing’s gender paradox: Just because it’s better doesn’t make it ok
In the landscape of women’s sports, it is uncommon to find a sport like alpine skiing, where women are so visible in the sport but so invisible in decision making.
“As a female alpine skier, I feel like I do a female sport in a still male-dominated environment,” said Merryweather. “It doesn’t feel like it’s changing much.”
“It is not equal, but it is so much better than other sports,” said Ross. “But just because it’s better than other sports doesn’t make it ok. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent.”
That’s one of the reasons that – despite her initial opposition to the idea – you can now find Ross on the slopes her local mountain in Bend, Oregon, coaching 14- and 15-year-olds.
“The further along I got in my career, I realized I could make a difference. I wanted to at least try it and dip my toes in and see what it felt like.”
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC