Female Skateboarders Still Striving For Even Footing With Male Peers

The number of female skateboarders has grown in recent years. But pro female skaters still see inequalities in pay and sponsorship opportunities in comparison to their male counterparts.

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Apr 5 2017, 4:35pm

Photos © Ian Logan

In the 1970's, Hermosa Beach local Cindy Whitehead was one of the best professional American female vert skateboarders for pool riding and half-pipe. Sponsored by Simms, she was the first female skater to have her own two-page article and centerfold in a skateboarding magazine. She went on to become a Skateboarding Hall of Fame inductee and sought-after fashion stylist who specializes in sports. Whitehead was a prominent skater at a time when female skaters were considered afterthoughts.

Today, despite being in the periphery of the industry for decades, female skaters have grown in numbers—notice the girls now riding in local skateparks. Women skaters are competing in the 2020 Olympics. Australian teen and skating pro Poppy Starr Olsen gave her own TEDx talk in 2014. In Jordyn Barrett, Powell has a female pro skater on its team for the first time in a long time. Lizzie Armanto is on the cover of April's Thrasher magazine with her own centerfold, and she has parts in new Birdhouse and Thrasher videos.

It has taken a push, but things are happening. Organizations, and advocates like Whitehead, have worked hard to help female skaters gain the visibility, support, and money they need to progress, compete, and "do epic shit," a philosophy Whitehead lives by.

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Whitehead says her company, Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word (GN4LW) is "a movement and a brand."

"It's a movement because we stand behind any and all female skaters, not just the one we have on our team," she said. "We support everyone. We have girls that call us and say, 'Hey, I need advice. I got this job doing a commercial and they want to pay me this, do you think that's fair?' I'm not an agent, but I work in that end of the industry. I can make a phone call for you and find out."

Cindy Whitehead started GN4LW to help promote and inspire female skateboarders. Photos © Ian Logan

GN4LW works to elevate female pro skateboarding on their website, at skate competitions, and in the retail market. The company collaborates with Dwindle Distribution and Dusters California on seven skateboards designed and marketed for females. The boards are sold in big stores like Zumiez, giving girls front row exposure and access.

Whitehead also recently released It's Not About Pretty, the first all-female skateboarding photography book, and one she put together with her husband, photographer Ian Logan. The hardcover book is 144 pages long and features 65 different female skaters—riding pools, park, street, downhill, vert and cruising—with ages ranging from five to just over 50. "It shows us that someone cares," Starr Olsen said. "It also shows girls starting to skate that there are different styles of skating and that there is something for everyone."

Female skaters have long fought for gender equality in everything from contest availability and sponsorship opportunities to prize money and travel allowances. While freestyle legend Patti McGee was on the cover of LIFE in 1965, women historically have always had to speak up for themselves. Cara-Beth Burnside's Thrasher cover in 1989 foreshadowed the push from her generation. But in 2002, Burnside, Jen O'Brien, and Mimi Knoop still had to visit ESPN to tell X Games executives how they felt about the absence of women in the biggest televised skateboarding competition in the world. As a result of the visit, Americans were finally able to watch pro women skate on TV in the women's vert demonstration at the 2002 X Games in Philadelphia. In 2006, Burnside threatened not to compete at the X Games unless women received equal prize money to the men. ESPN relented.

Nevertheless, men still dominate magazine covers, videos, and mainstream media, fueling the perception that men still rule the industry and making brands less likely to give women a shot. That perception trickles down to affect all female skaters, regardless of age.

Ten-year-old Minna Stess—one of the youngest skaters to ever ride a megaramp—joked about an encounter she recently had at a skate park with a boy skater: "He like asked me if I was a boy or a girl and I said, 'I'm a girl.' And then I saw him again, he was like, 'are you a boy or a girl?' And I told him, 'I already answered that question.' I saw him at the canteen at Woodward and I was with a bunch of friends and I went up to him with a bunch of girls and went, 'are you a boy or a girl,' and they're (her friends) like 'OHHHHHHH.'"

But times may be changing. Last November, Transworld Skateboarding featured their first female on the cover, Armanto. The magazine's girls issue showed Generation Z readers that female pros are getting bigger air, and pulling off more tricks, than ever. Urban Outfitters' UO 2017 fashion line is called "Skate Girls," and integrates a five-episode web series on their Urban Outfitters Television YouTube page directed by Steve Berra featuring Los Angeles skaters instead of models.

"Good marketing helps to break down stereotypes of skaters and makes younger girls think they should give it a go," Olsen said. "I definitely think if more companies started supporting and marketing pro girls it would improve it for everyone."

GN4LW works with Dwindle, the biggest skateboarding company out there. But Whitehead thinks the industry as a whole is missing out on a golden opportunity. "We're not valuing the female pros as much as men and the funny thing is these girls on the average are getting more mainstream coverage than the guys are," she said. "The guys are getting it within the skate world, but the girls are getting it in the mainstream world and doesn't that hit an even bigger audience and encourage even more people to skate who then go in and buy those boards?"

Former pro skateboarder Dennis Martinez sounded a similar note. "There's more marketing and more power and more money put into the males," he said. "That's a given, that's a 100 percent given, that's not just in skateboarding, that's in any action sport, anything that's happening out there. That needs to change. I look at UFC fighting and that title bout with Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey. They were the main title ticket. That was impressive. That's what needs to happen with our female skaters today."

Bod Boyle, former pro skater and president of Dwindle Distribution, said that "hardgoods companies for many years were centered around two things: creative and progressive skateboarding, and a group or riders who bond, respect, and traveled well together. The makeup of many teams in the past made it hard, for not only women to break into, but even international (male) riders.

"It's only been the last 10 years that riders who have not traditionally been based and live in the USA have truly broke this mold and received the support and recognition they deserve from the USA based industry. It's one of the driving forces of skateboarding as a culture, the DIY spirit to 'build your own, whether it's a spot, company, zine, etc. We have now been seeing this with women centric brands for a few years."

Australian skater Poppy Star Olsen gave a Tedx talk in 2014. Photos © Ian Logan

A life career in skateboarding really means taking the contest route, however, and the disparity in prize money still hurts female skaters. "It stinks, I don't think it's fair," Stess said. "I think everyone should be treated equal no matter who they are or what they are. Everyone should be treated the same in terms of skateboarding."

While the X Games have been hip to equal pay since 2008, it's not standard everywhere. This year, Olsen won $500 at the Australian Bowl Riding Championships, which she was stoked about since last year the girls got nothing. The men's winner, by contrast, pocketed $5,000. The Bowl-A-Rama this year had a $15,000 prize for men and $2,000 for women.

Getting sponsored isn't easy if you don't get exposure. The more coverage you get, the more you're worth. The DIY nature of skating can be seen in the way women have used social media, Instagram specifically, to promote themselves when brands have been reluctant to do so. And beyond promotion, social media may be giving women skaters a voice. Try #skatergirl.

The market is there. It used to be skate with the boys or don't skate at all, but not anymore. "I had someone in male dominated skateboarding tell me the other day, there's just not enough girls to have those contests in [foreign countries], and I was like, 'really'?" Whitehead said. "'I'm going to tell you 10 girls that live in that country right now that are on my Instagram that I watch daily, and one of them is sponsored by Nike Russia, so don't tell me that's there's not 10 girls in Russia 'cause there are and I can name them. I have photos and video of them.' They're looking at me like I'm insane and I'm like, that's the power of the Internet, that's why we love it."

The women are starting to earn respect within the male skating community for their abilities, something that didn't always come easily. "I think it's kinda cool," said Charlie Blair, current pro skater for Powell. "I like how girls are about it—you got Lizzie Armanto, Allysha Le Bergato, Julz Lynn, a bunch of females, and they're all shredders. They keep up with the boys. I skated against Lizzie and she whooped my ass in a contest."

Given the same opportunities as men, women have shown the same ability. In 2009, Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins became the first female to land a 540 McTwist.

"I think it's only a matter of three years to where women are going to be considered equal and also their skateboard ability is going to be at a level that is respectable that is worth the amount of money the men are making," said pro skater Julz Lynn. "That's really honestly what it is, these men are doing things on these extreme levels where the females are just barely touching that caliber of skateboarding right now and getting into it."

Stess has been skating with the boys until only recently. "For her, it's just you go skate, you skate with the boys, you beat the boys, you move on," said her mother, Moniz. Stess confided her role models are Vanessa Torres, Arianna Carmona, and Lacey Baker. When girls see other females skating, they get the confidence they need to jump on a board. Non-profits like the annual Encinitas amateur and the pro all-female event Exposure have been crucial, too, for female self-esteem and a place to compete.

When Whitehead turned pro there were hardly any female role models. Things have changed. "I looked in the magazine and I saw picture of girls mainly doing freestyle and bank wall stuff and I was like, 'oh that's cool," she said. "There's other girls out there. I wonder if I'll meet them." She befriended pro skater Judy Oyama from Santa Cruz and they helped push each other and learn new tricks.

Now Whitehead hopes her book helps push other girls to get on a board and compete. "If we could have the mainstream world look at this book and go, 'Wow, we had no idea that all these girls were doing these amazing things,' maybe somebody at Pepsi, Coke, Tide, or Dove sees that and goes 'why aren't we tapping into this? Why aren't we coming to these girls and supporting them?'" she said. "'It would look great for us, and great for them.' Maybe that helps, maybe when they see 144 pages full of beautiful rad girls skateboarding, they'll start thinking."

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*Correction: A previous version of this article said 10-year old skater Minna Stess was a pro skater. She is still an amateur. Also, the article originally stated that Stess was the youngest skater to ride on a megaramp. She is ONE of the youngest to ever ride on a megaramp.