Life as a female ski instructor: What it takes to get to the top
Jenny Burrows is a level-four skiing instructor, one of the best-regarded skiers and skiing-instructor trainers in Canada. That’s an accolade that is hard to get, especially if you’re a woman.
When it comes to getting qualified as a skiing instructor, the Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance figures tell the story of a profession that is dominated by men at the top.
The CSIA say they have four levels of certification, level 1 being the entry level for instructors. At this level it is a 50-50 split between males and females.
At level 2 it starts to be a 60-40 split in favour of the men. At level 3, only 7 percent are female and at level 4, their highest level of certification, only 0.01 percent of their membership are female.
Jenny is in the 0.01 percent, but why does this matter? Moving up the levels is linked to promotion and moving up the paygrade. It’s different from the other categories because it means she can teach skiing instructors how to instruct.
Jenny teaches at the Lake Louise ski resort in Alberta and has succeeded in a profession where other women disappear once they reach a certain level, so what’s the secret to her success?
Jenny says, “Choosing to remain in ski teaching and build a career out of it has been really challenging. Managing a healthy balance between work-family-personal life has been key. Lake Louise has been super supportive in helping me achieve this by offering flexibility in time off and daycare for the children. The team I work with are among the most professional, caring, open-minded humans I've had the pleasure of working with. We always push each other to be the best skiers and teachers we can be.”
And along with a supportive employer and colleagues, it’s her love of skiing and teaching that has driven her forward.
“My passion is for teaching, and seeing the light in someone's eyes when they understand something for the first time, is really special. I really want to see the sport of skiing grow.”
Jenny says the industry is changing and the ski school nowadays is a healthy split of both men and women, but it was not this way when she first joined 15 years ago.
“Unlike other teaching professions that are heavily female-dominated, ski teaching felt like a boys club,” she said.
“It is difficult to put a finger on exactly what was difficult about being in the ski school at that time. Sometimes I felt that everyone was comparing themselves to others, which can be quite a toxic environment for training. As a female in that environment, I didn't want to join in and felt like a bit of an intruder when we went skiing together. I recall, even some guests at the time would speak directly to my male colleagues instead of to me, even though I was the senior instructor on an event.”
Realising the need for a supportive environment where women can learn to ski and improve their technique, the Lake Louise ski resort introduced a Ladies’ Day program for the public. Jenny says it has helped change that atmosphere and “enables women to practice their skiing and learn in a non-judgmental environment.”
And Jenny says the female instructors she works with have also been getting together at Lake Louise to share information, skills and advice in the hope to progress more of them towards level four.
“In the ski school, we do some informal “girl sessions” and enjoy the fun and camaraderie that was sorely missing in my early years of teaching.”
The Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance has been taking steps to try to address the issue of a lack of female instructors reaching the top level. It’s launched a women-in-skiing committee that is carrying out research to explore strategies to retain and increase female membership within CSIA and has recently adopted a Gender Equity policy.
It says more women are showing up to the exams wanting to be instructors. “In 2016-2017 we had an increase of 222 female members. An increase of 14% of women attending the Level 2 training program. A 74% increase in women attending the Level 3 evaluation/assessment portion. We had an increase of 8% in women attending the Level 4 training course.”
Jenny might be a rarity, but she’s also an example of what can be achieved. She says things are changing and she is optimistic about the future.
“I hope to show other young women that a career in ski teaching is possible. By finding a ski school that is able to support them and challenge them, they will have every opportunity for success. Having a team you enjoy working with makes this job a joy.”
And she is clear about how important it is to support other women on their journey
“I hope to continue to build on my successes and encourage more women to push to pursue careers in ski teaching and instructor training within the CSIA."
This article was written to celebrate International Women's Day by Emma Thomas. Emma is currently on an 11-week instructor course in Lake Louise with EA Ski & Snowboard Training.