Breaking into the ‘old boys club’
February 15, 2006
Alex Halperin was “slingin’ soup” at the Sundeck restaurant in 1978 when the happy-go-lucky ski bum made a fateful decision, one that would change the face of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol forever.Halperin was the first woman to get hired by the Ajax patrol, which was labeled at the time as “the last bastion of male supremacy” by a national magazine.Twenty-eight years later she looks back, laughs and claims she was naive about the fuss her decision would spark.”Had I known what I was getting into I never would have done it,” said Halperin. “It never occurred to me this was controversial.”Halperin had a tough first season. She won’t offer many details because she doesn’t want to dwell on the negative or open old wounds with guys who later became friends.”I don’t think they want to hear it again, but they were brutal,” she said.
It started as soon as Halperin showed up for an on-mountain test of her ski skills. Patrol veterans hid her ski boots so she would be at a disadvantage in an unfamiliar rental pair.The skullduggery failed. Halperin was hired, along with three men that season, and joined one of the most exclusive and prestigious groups in the ski world.”She was pretty amazing because she just skied the pants off all the guys,” said Sue Smedstad, a vice president for the Aspen Skiing Corp. at the time.It was customary for all rookies to face hazing and special tests from the veterans, but Halperin was subjected to more because of her gender. She said Wally Obermeyer, a young patroller at the time, saw that treatment and told her, “You can either let 26 guys change you or you can change them.”She passed every test they threw at her, tolerated being slighted and never complained to management. “I didn’t want to be a tattletale,” she said.By March of that first winter, Halperin had gained grudging acceptance from most of the men on the patrol. They figured that if she was part of the group, their lives were potentially in her hands so they trained her “how to pull somebody out of an avalanche,” as she put it.
Halperin probably passed her biggest test – and earned the most respect – by showing up for a second season.”There were some guys who felt it was the end of the patrol when they hired a woman, but they still worked with me,” Halperin said. “These guys are professionals.”Another woman was hired that second season and two more the winter after that. Halperin stuck around for five seasons before pursuing a career in graphic design and publishing. She is now publisher of Aspen Peak magazine.She calls her time on the patrol “one of the best experiences of my life” and is proud to have contributed in a groundbreaking way.”People will still introduce me as the first woman on the Aspen Mountain ski patrol,” she said.Tim Cooney, an Ajax patroller who was hired the same year as Halperin and became a quick friend and supporter, credits her with “shattering the glass ceiling” that existed for women at the patrol there. By the mid-1980s, it wasn’t uncommon to see women on the patrol at Ajax or at most other ski areas, he said.Cooney believes the ski industry has evolved over the last quarter-century into one of the more progressive areas of employment for women.Katie Fry agrees. She was director of the ski school at Aspen Highlands until being recruited by her bosses for a promotion this winter.”It was extremely flattering. I didn’t see it coming,” said Fry, who is now director of all four ski schools in the company.As such, Fry oversees ski school programs and operations involving 1,200 employees, as well as the budget and marketing for the department, one of the largest within the Skico.Fry said she’s never experienced gender bias at the Skico and didn’t detect jealousy among her male counterparts when she was promoted; she replaced Rich Burkley, who is now general manager of operations for the Skico. She believes the Skico’s management has proven that the qualities of applicants, rather than their sex, is most important.Fry is one of the more visible female directors of a department within the Skico, but far from the only one. Of 34 senior management positions throughout the company, 12 are held by women, according to Jim Laing, vice president of human resources and retail operations. Among all department heads, managers and supervisors companywide, about 43 percent are women, he added.Women dominate departments such as sales, marketing and communications both at the Skico and throughout the industry. But women also hold positions at the Skico that were once the exclusive domain of men, like manager of lift operations at three of the four mountains.
In the bigger picture, roughly 40 percent of all ski and snowboard instructors in the Skico are women, Laing said. About 20 percent of the patrol is women.If there is a blemish on the Skico’s record, it is at the upper management level. A decade ago, three female vice presidents served on the executive committee at the same time. Now there are none.Skico Chief Executive Officer Pat O’Donnell declined a request to be interviewed for this story. He referred questions to Laing and Skico’s second-in-command, Chief Operating Officer Mike Kaplan.Kaplan said the lack of women in those senior posts as well as many top operations positions, like mountain managers, is a matter of timing. Many of the top positions in operations are held by men who have an average tenure of 25 years or more with the Skico. They ascended to the top of their fields and are holding onto their positions. That, naturally, creates a logjam that prevents other employees from rising, regardless of gender.”The top jobs in the ski industry are plum jobs and people don’t leave them,” agreed Kitty Boone, a former Skico marketing director and vice president.Many of the men who hold top positions throughout the industry worked their way up the ladder at a time when there were fewer women working in the ski industry and in the work force in general.”Historically there was a dearth of women coming into the industry, so they weren’t there to promote,” said Curt Bender, professor of the ski area operations program at Colorado Mountain College’s Leadville campus.Kaplan said more women are now entering the industry and working at the Skico. They are also earning promotions and are poised to be considered for top posts when they become available.”They are working their way through the pipeline,” he said.When asked if he foresees a woman becoming manager of one of the Skico’s four ski areas, Kaplan responded, “I think it is inevitable eventually.”
That’s good news for women like Nancy “Sully” Heard, who has been promoted several times since joining the Skico in 1992.Heard hungers to keep learning and advancing, and she she’s had an opportunity to talk to Kaplan and other supervisors about her goals. “There’s a lot going on in the company and a lot of opportunity,” she said.Hired as a team leader of a lift crew at the Silver Queen Gondola after working for Martin Marietta and General Motors, she was promoted to lift manager at Snowmass halfway through her second season. While attending department head meetings in the early 1990s, she saw that about 50 percent of the people in those positions were women. “I saw the opportunities would be there,” she said.In 1998 she applied for an opening as the manager of Mountain Photo in Snowmass. Her interview was so favorable that a new position was created for her as general manager of all four Mountain Photo operations. Heard considers her Skico career “a fairy tale” because it’s been so perfect and allowed her to pursue her passions of skiing and photography. Like Kaplan, she believes it is only a matter of time before a woman is promoted to mountain manager. “There are a number of women I think would be considered for mountain manager, and I think I’d be one of them,” she said.Fry said she is so busy learning the duties of her new job that she hasn’t had time to consider advancement. But she noted that “ski school experience has made it a natural progression” into management. And Fry said the Skico is superb about making training available for its employees to round out management skills. The only limitations for her have been her own schedule.
Through no fault of the Skico’s, it may never achieve equality in the number of women and men in top positions.Numerous interviews with past and present Skico employees show there is universal respect for Kaplan’s record of seeking the best qualified candidates for a job. But even if more women are in the industry than 25 years ago and they earn promotions when qualified, there still aren’t as many women in the running, particularly not on the operations side.Bender said that at any given time 10 to 15 percent of the students seeking a two-year associates degree in CMC’s ski area operations program are female. There are six women currently enrolled in the program out of 45 students.”We find ourselves pretty much matching the demographics of the industry,” he said.He sees the demographics of the program and the ski industry slowly changing to include more women. Ski areas realized their demographics didn’t match the population or their customer base some time ago, so they started hiring more qualified women without “arm twisting.””I don’t think they have to be pressured into it,” Bender said.
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To some degree, resorts do face official pressure to hire women, at least the ski areas that use public lands. They are considered contractors with the federal government, and all contractors must meet Affirmative Action requirements.Smedstad said that after President Johnson signed the Affirmative Action act in 1968, the president of the Ski Corp. at the time, DRC Brown, had company attorneys examine how it affected the firm. Although Brown “didn’t like government interference in private life,” he “went forward very aggressively and led the way” in the ski industry, according to Smedstad.The Skico continues to track compliance with Affirmative Action, according to Laing. “It’s not something that drives our actions at all,” he said.Smedstad said Brown himself “was pretty gender-blind.” She served as a vice president starting in the 1970s, when women were as rare at upper levels of management in the industry as a comb at a convention of bald guys. Smedstad said she felt strongly supported throughout most of her tenure.By 1970 more women were being interviewed for positions and hired when qualified at the Ski Corp.”We always looked really good [in the number of women hired],” said Smedstad. “Affirmative Action was something we embraced but it was sometimes tough going. There were those male bastions.”For example, women were commonly hired as instructors in the ski school but weren’t promoted because of the glass ceiling, she said.Fry’s recruitment and promotion indicate that has changed, but even she expressed disappointment that only three of 12 applicants for her old job at Highlands were women.Bender said female graduates from his program have moved onto careers driving snowcats at resorts like Copper Mountain and Beaver Creek. Women have also gotten onto snowmaking crews. However, fields like shop mechanics remain tough for women to crack in significant numbers, he said. At the Skico, one woman works as a snowcat mechanic and at least one woman is on the snowmaking crew, Laing said.”I think the ski industry is very much an old boys’ club,” said Killeen Brettmann, another former Skico vice president. She said she didn’t experience discrimination or other gender-based problems with bosses or male counterparts while in the communications, special events and sponsorship departments of the Skico. But she suspects that taking a job in operations would have been another issue because those areas are so male-dominated. The isolation and pressure on a woman to prove she can handle the work would be challenging.Operations jobs simply don’t appeal to many women. “It’s a pretty physically grueling side to the business,” said Brettmann.Boone also noted that some women have chosen raising a family over a career in the ski industry. “When you work in the winter, it’s all hands on deck,” she said. “The resort business can be 24/7 business if you let it.”
For a multitude of reasons, it remains rare in the ski industry to find women running a ski area or even major departments like the patrol or ski school. “You talk about it as the exception as opposed to the rule,” acknowledged Kaplan.Pam Murphy, a 31-year veteran of the ski industry, is a prime exception. She rose through the ranks of public relations and marketing into operations at California’s Mammoth Mountain. In 1998, she was promoted to general manager of operations for the resort, which typically logs the second-highest number of skier and snowboarder visits per season in the United States. As such, she was the first general manager of a major ski area.”It was definitely acknowledged in our industry as a pretty big deal,” Murphy said.Like Skico’s Fry, Murphy believes she attained her position based on her qualifications. Gender neither helped nor hurt. “You have to perform. If you’re performing, you’ll get noticed,” she said.She believes the industry is responding by providing more opportunities for women. Out of 100 department heads at Mammoth, between one-quarter and one-third are women, Murphy noted. That is up from about 5 percent a decade ago.Murphy excelled as general manager and after only three years was promoted to a senior vice president position. She hopes her experience helps pave the way for other women or inspire them to go after tough jobs.”I feel like I’ve helped break down barriers in the ski industry,” she said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org