As skateboarding continues to gain influence in sports and fashion, more female executives are breaking into the historically male-dominated business. While they are still in the minority, these women say hiring is less about gender and more about who’s right for the job.
“Honestly, I don’t feel gender is a huge influencer in how we hire, and I don’t think it is for [other] skate companies either,” said Yasemin Oktay-Hume, director of marketing communications for Lake Forest, Calif.-based Sole Technology. “It’s about having a passion and a drive in the world of skateboarding.”
A passion for the sport is growing rapidly among women outside of the office, too, noted Sole Technology CEO Pierre André Senizergues, who cited a recent study released by Women’s Health that showed women’s skateboarding had the highest increase in participation from 2006 to 2007, growing by 17.4 percent. In 2007, females made up 26.6 percent of the total skateboarding population, according to a National Sporting Goods Association survey.
“If you get the job done and you love it, and you believe in and live the culture, then you’re good to go,” said Oktay-Hume.
But that hasn’t always been the case, according to Robin Fleming, skate marketing manager at Vans (she’s responsible for all operations surrounding Vans’ skate teams, including royalties, events and product). She said she was shocked when she landed her management position with the company in 1998. “I remember telling my friends, ‘Can you believe it? I got the job, and they’re going to let me keep my uterus,’” she joked. “As far as my job goes, I just think, ‘Do it well and don’t take anything personally from the guys.’”
Kelley Meidroth, senior marketing manager for DVS, a division of Torrance, Calif.-based Podium Distribution, agreed that skateboarding’s corporate climb hasn’t always been easy for women. “I’ve worked really hard over the past 13 years in the action-sports industry to get to a management position, and I can’t say I haven’t wished I were a man from time to time,” Meidroth said.
But as the category has won a wider audience across both genders, women have gained greater acceptance in the business.
“Ten years ago, skateboarding was barely on the map as a sport,” Oktay-Hume said. “Now, mainstream media is accepting the sport more, whether it’s through televising the X-Games or through shows like MTV’s ‘Life with Ryan’ [featuring pro skateboarder Ryan Sheckler]. All the programming generated around action sports grows interest among [both men and women].”
Oktay-Hume, who started her career working at a skateboard shop right out of high school, joined Sole Technology as a receptionist 14 years ago, when the company was just a four-person operation. (Sole Technology now employs more than 400 people; roughly 160 of whom are women.) Oktay-Hume quickly moved up to various sales and marketing jobs, and now works to leverage Sole Technology’s partnerships with companies across a broad range of categories, including toy manufacturers. “As the company grew, there were these pockets of opportunity for people like me to develop different areas of the business,” she said.
Also fueling the need for women employees has been the skate category’s growing fashion push, as well as efforts to create product for the sport’s burgeoning female audience.
“When we introduced our Etnies girls’ collection in 1999, we wanted to capture the independent, creative and fun-spirited girl,” said Senizergues. “This involved working with our women designers and team riders, who exemplify these qualities, to develop products that girls want. That’s not to say we only have women contributing to these efforts, but I would say they are the driving force.”
DVS also boasts three female designers, who focus specifically on girls’ product, according to Meidroth.
Ravi Khanna, a trend researcher at The Future Laboratory, a brand consultancy in London, said it would behoove any company to take the same approach when expanding its women’s footwear, apparel and performance gear. “I’d argue that a woman knows a woman best,” Khanna said. “It’s easier for a woman to design footwear or clothing for a woman, especially in a male-dominated sport.”
However, skateboarding skills aren’t necessarily required for the job. Vans’ Fleming watched the sport grow out of the streets of California where she grew up, but she never rode a skateboard.
According to skateboard photographer Allen Ying, who has toured with skate brands including Nike SB and Zoo York, the acceptance of nonskateboarding females such as Fleming says a lot about how the skate culture has evolved.
“A lot of smaller skateboard companies will hire their buddies who they used to skate with — not because they’re necessarily the most qualified for the job,” said Ying. “If a woman doesn’t skate and she’s in this industry, it’s because she knows this business inside and out.”
“I take my cues from the skaters,” Fleming said, “especially since I don’t skate. It doesn’t make sense to come into skating and not listen to them.”
While working for years in the music industry touring with punk bands, Fleming frequently crossed paths with the skateboarding industry before it finally “chose” her.
“I don’t think you plan to get into skateboarding as a woman,” she said. “It sweeps you in and it either works for you or it spits you out.”
Though the playing field is still far from equal — Meidroth said there are three men to every one woman working at Podium, and Oktay-Hume estimated the ratio is nine-to-one at skate parks — these female skate execs say the gender gap is shrinking.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of chest bumping in skateboarding and in the action-sports category in general, but from our perspective, it’s not about ‘I need to take a bigger piece of the pie from you’ anymore,” Fleming said. “We all just want to get a bigger pie cooking.”