April 20th 2018 I achieved the highest qualification in the Canadian Ski Instructors' Alliance, the notoriously difficult to achieve Level 4. I wrote previously here about the moment my life path became clear and I committed to an endeavour that would be at best, of significance for a brief flicker of time to a very tiny subset of an obscure community on the far fringe of the skiing world. And yet, it was the single greatest accomplishment of my adult life to date.
When I started the process four years prior I could not have imagined what a difficult journey I was committing too. It took absolutely everything I had within me to give. All of my spare time, every ounce of strength I can muster out of this tiny body, more courage than I knew I had and a great deal of personal sacrifice. However, it's starting to sound like the build up to a classic heroes journey type story. You know the type... Athlete attempts big goal, triumph over adversity bla bla bla... boring!
You see, Skiing is not a terribly difficult thing to do. Basically, you are sliding with gravity on a slippery surface downhill. Penguins do it all the time. How on earth did we get to the point that it should take someone four years of meticulous attention, to every nuance of the equipment and every obscure sensation generated by the interplay of that equipment, the body and Newtonian physics, to be awarded a little blue pin? Not worth considering. It's too late for that now. Furthermore, it would be terribly premature to delve into the vortex of nomenclature and wild gesticulating required to describe how one achieves Level 4 standard. That's Level 4 examiner territory and I dare not get involved in that messy business.
What I think is interesting, is the question of whats next. When one is in the habit of intentional seeking out difficult life goals, the achieving of which, awards little practical utility, it becomes ever more important to up the anti. Otherwise the goal would be insufficiently shiny to warrant the great effort and possible risk involved in it's achievement. So that considered, what could be more shiny for a Ski Instructor than the Level 4????
The obvious answer is to get on the Interski Demo Team. Every four years, (four years appears to be a pattern here), the educational bodies of the ski nations of the world get together for a congress. Each nation puts together a team comprised of the best representatives of their technique and teaching philosophy. To get on the team you have to be the best of the best. That goal certainly has potential.
Here's the thing. Chasing goals in the name of mastering a discipline and by extension the self, while very rewarding, is often very lonely. I am at a stage in my life where I have climbed many a proverbial peak and have gained deep insight into who I am and what I am capable of. In ancient India the first yogi's would retreat into caves at the foothills of the Himalayas to engage in solitary practice to gain deep mastery over the self and profound spiritual insight. This was all well and good but useless to the rest of the world until one of them bothered to write it down.
I feel compelled to support others on that same quest for the self. I'm itching to build something in the snow sports industry that helps grow an even smaller subsection of the ski instructing community, Women in skiing at the elite level. Hey, that makes for a super cool acronym, women in skiing elite or the WISE. ;)
Here are the stats. In 2017 the CSIA membership was 20,409 active (dues paid) members. Of that 0.01% are women with the Level 4 qualification which roughly works out to 59 across the country. That is not a typo, that is the real number. And, that is just the number of females with the qualification who have paid their dues not the number that are actively teaching in the industry part or full time. While I do not know the number of female Level 4's teaching across the country I do know that in the Bow Valley, in 2017 there were 4. Now, with myself added to the club that makes a whoping 5.
How does that compare to the total number of Level 4's you might be wondering. In 2017 there was a total of 507 Level 4, 12% women. It is a staggeringly low representation! Comparatively, the number of female Level 3's is a lot higher at 7% or 1,429 but still really low in total. The Women in Skiing initiative launched by the CSIA in 2014 seams to have had an impact increasing attendance at the Level 3 & 4 courses and exams. However, the drop off of women from Level 3 to 4, I think, raises the biggest question. Why?
Everyone has their own opinions about this and usually the first default assumption is women leave the ski industry to have children. I am suspicious of this because like all good assumptions, "it makes an ass out of you and me." (That little gem was imparted to me by a previous boss and I have never forgotten it.). There is danger in assumptions. Often they stop further though on the subject and can blind entire populations of people from seeing the real truth.
In the modern western world there are a few trends that oppose this assumption. One, women are waiting longer to have children. Two, if they have children they are choosing to remain in the workforce far more often than ever before. Three, there are more women than ever who are deciding not to have children at all. Why then, in the Ski Instructing world, are women still so under represented at the highest level of qualification?
One of my clients from the UK was telling me about the big effort currently underway to discover what causes wage disparity between Men & Women. One example that was interesting was in regards to Uber drivers. It turned out male Uber drivers in the UK make more money than female drivers. It was a bit baffling why this might be the case, so the government hired statisticians to investigate. It turned out male Uber drivers speed more often than female drivers causing them to gain more fares in a typical day. Let's not be blindsided by what appears to be the obvious, that this due to a fundamental difference between men and women's comfort level with risk. I personally believe that sort of thinking is total and utter bull shit not to mention destructive to the conversation on creating equality. But that's a different blog post.
When I heard this I had an aha moment. It's the fact that no one knew this was the reason male Uber drivers were making more than women until a statistician figured it out is precisely why the disparity existed. I am certainly not suggesting that female Uber drivers should speed. However, if I was a female Uber driver, and day after day I saw that men were making more money than me and there was no clear explanation for why I would start to question if it was me, in the sense of, as a woman I am somehow different in a way I can't change.
But shit! If it's just a matter of speeding I would be massively relieved. I would know that I could do something about that. Again, I am not suggesting female Uber drivers should speed. But they could use the knowledge that their male counterparts do to their advantage maybe b posting on their profiles that they have had no speeding tickets, that they have a proven track record of being a very safe driver and in so doing get more repeat clients rather than more overall fares. Anyway... knowledge is power.
I have done an awful lot of thinking about why there are so few women in the Snow Sports industry, especially at the elite level. The big elephant in the room is, you make very little money at it. However, there is a great deal of transparency as Snow Schools about wage tiers, bonus programs so I believe male and female instructors are equally poor. A couple ways instructors overcome this is to have a high paying summer jobs to supplement their low income in the winter or a partner who makes a full time salary. High paying seasonal work in tourist towns is very hard to come by except in construction, labour or government position like working for Parks Canada. A lot of my male colleagues work in construction or general labour in the summer. The women in the Bow Valley who are full time Level 4 Ski Instructors work either for Parks Canada, in Labour or Business Administration. Hmmmm.....???
There is another financial obstacle worth taking a look at. By a certain point in a Snow Sports Instructors career there is a cost benefit calculation that becomes hard to ignore. You can max out your earning potential as a full time ski instructor working at a snow sports resort. There is an opportunity to make more money as a Level 4 training other instructors, however, it costs a lot to take the courses, time off work to train and to buy all the gear you need. Most people would be utterly horrified were I to share how much money I have spent in the pursuit of the Level 4. I could do that because I have savings from a previous life. A female ski instructor who doesn't have savings and does not have a high paying summer job or a partner who makes a decent salary simply might not be able to afford the leap to Level 4.
That was a bit of a segue. Back to the question of whats next? I don't want my next goal to be just about me. I would like to be part of a team working together to build something significant. But how to choose a signifiant goal that calls upon the collective will, talent, drive and resourcefulness of a group of people driven by a common passion?
When I am trying to get an idea of how to structure my lesson for the day I no longer bother asking clients what they want to work on. Instead, I ask them to imagine that they could spend four years focusing the majority of their time on developing their skiing. I ask them, what would you like to be able to do at the end of that four years. The answer I get from that is much more interesting and sets the target I then work backwards from to construct day one of that journey lesson plan. So if me and this hypothetical team of like minded individuals had four years to work towards an ambitions skiing goal what might it be?
How about the first 50% female Interski Demo team?
I'm just going to let that sentence sit there admidst a lot of white space...
I'm not talking about affirmative action here. I mean 50% of the candidates are female because they make the cut ahead of everyone else. To my knowledge the largest contingent of females on the Interski Demo Team for Canada has been 3 out of 10. Every good goal has a timeframe attached to it. Let's say bringing this about in approximately four years. (Again four years. What's up with that?) So, by Interski 2023, 50% of the best Ski Instructors in Canada will be females.
The plan would be to reach out to the 59 female Level 4's, because you need to be a Level 4 to be a candidate. It it makes even more sense to reach out to the 7,403 female Level 3's. You can still try out for Interski as a Level 3 you just have to pass the Level 4 exam before 2023. I would propose that female Level 3's not even worry about Level 4. Shoot for Interski and the Level 4 will just come as part of that progression. I'm calling it project WISE and this is my official call to action.
To all of my female ski instructing colleagues both Level 3 & 4, let's give this a try. Worst case, a bunch of us get to be way better skiers. Maybe we add a handful more female Level 4's to the total count. And maybe, just maybe, we make skiing history. I don't presume to know what the shape of it will be a team effort.
Just to name a few of you who have not yet been to Interski:
Misayo, Sophie, Jen, Alex, Stephanie, Jenny, Ai, Sophia, Kate, Katie, Kat, Ginny. And, of course all the female CASI level 3's and 4's... Manuela, Tanya, Laura, Avril. Ladies, in the comments please add whoever I am missing.
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!