It wasn’t long ago that if you gathered all the female mountain operations executives for a conference, you’d just hear a voice echo in an empty auditorium. In fact, if you held the meeting in the adjacent bar, you’d only need a stool or two.
While you still wouldn’t fill the hall today, you would need to pull a few tables together in that bar to gather the group. Slowly and steadily, women are weaving their way into the operations side of the mountain resort industry.
Not that it is easy.
“It takes patience,” says Bretton Woods director of operations Alexa Bernotavicz. “It’s a slow process getting the guys to see that you can and will handle things. You basically just have to get down in there with them and do it. In time, they see you as one of the team.”
And it takes some special skills. “You have to be able to drop trou in the cold snow and pee in the woods,” says Caroline Sherrer, who has worked the operations side at more than one resort.
In the recent past, gender roles at resorts broke down like this: women in service positions, ski school, marketing and front office. Men in ski patrol and operations like snowmaking, grooming, lift ops and anything mechanical.
Ski patrol was the first of the traditionally male departments where women started to appear as part of the team. Operations has come slower. And yet, women working on that side say what attracted them to it in the first place was something very, well, very female-associated: the feeling of family. “What really attracted me to it was the feeling of teamwork and of family,” says Sherrer of her years in operations at Steamboat.
LONG AND WINDING ROAD
So how does it go for women on that side? In most cases, females enter the industry in a classic female role and then discover the operations side. From there, it can be bumpy, tricky, sometimes smooth and sometimes infuriating. How you make it work seems to depend on your stamina, dedication and maybe a little bit of luck.
For Kelly Pawlak, the road to becoming Mount Snow’s first female GM in 2005 began with a simple thought: “I better get a job so I can afford a ski pass.” Pawlak started out in marketing, but found herself drawn to the operations side of the resort quickly. “I’ve always been good at fixing things,” she says. “If something needed a little extra attention or work, I was always saying, ‘let me take a stab at it,’” she says.
As she rose on the operations side, she did find it a challenge to be a female. Sometimes that challenge came from others, but often it came from within, and her own perhaps over-sensitivity to the need to prove herself.
“You know, I used to put up miles of fencing all by myself rather than ask for help, because in my head I was thinking, ‘don’t be a girl about it.’ But really, any guy would have asked for help with all that fencing, too,” she says. “It took some time for me to allow myself to not try to be superhuman. Now, I ask. I don’t need help with the fencing because I’m a girl. I need help because anyone would need help. I think that’s a good lesson for people to learn.”
Not that she has not felt in the minority at times. “When I first came over to operations, I’d walk into a meeting or into work and have a bunch of guys staring at me like … oh look: a girl. Now, it’s just not that way for me anymore. I’m just one of the team.”
Bernotavicz said her pathway started as a patroller at Wildcat Mountain, where she got a taste for operations, and acquired a mentor in resort executive Jim Bilotta. “He was the one who said to me, ‘gosh, you could be really good at this,’” she says. “He gave me the confidence to go after what I was interested in, even if there were not a lot of females on that side yet.”
At Wildcat, she became the first female operations manager, at a time when such an appointment would make the news. “We made a big deal of it,” she says. “It was really pretty cool.”
But as they heralded it in the media, she grappled with it a bit on the slopes. “I had walked into what was basically a masculine world,” she says. “Some of it was easy for me, because I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty and greasy. I’m not adverse to hard physical work.”
But the internal aspects of it all, she says, did challenge her for a while. “It’s hard to say if it was a ‘female trait’ thing or if it was just me questioning myself for a time,” she says. “I had to realize that we each could accept one another as we were; that I did not have to go all macho and be like, ‘I can do this alone!’ I had to realize I was part of a team, and as part of that team, I’d support others and be supported, too.”
It worked. She took over at Bretton Woods and felt from the start “that the guys respected me. It took time, but they did, and they do.”
Sherrer’s road was not as smooth. Hungry for a high level position in operations, she found herself passed over time and time again. Eventually, she left the ski industry and moved on. “It just seems like in so many places, I had to fight [for promotions she felt she deserved]. I’m not a fighter; I’m not usually angry. I didn’t like that. And in the end, I decided to move on.”
A MORE-TRAVELED ROAD?
Sherrer finds it sad that more women don’t make it on the operations side, and looks toward a day when it’s easier than it was for her.
That day may be coming. Di Hiibner’s path to becoming general manager of Alyeska Resort in Alaska started with one simple goal: “taking a winter off before I had to get a real job.” Today, as GM, she says, she faces little if any discrimination on the job.
“But Alaska is ahead of the eight ball,” she says. “No one really cares who you are if you do your job well.” Still, she says, she believes she does work “a little bit harder than all the guys just to be sure they notice I’m working hard. But no one is holding me back.”
What would women who’ve found success tell those who wish to? “I tell all the women who contact me the same thing—which is the same thing I’d tell any man,” says Hiibner. “Work hard, be on time, be available, be a good person, and you’ll move up. And surround yourself with talent—then you’ll look great.”
Pawlak, who admits to “absolutely wanting the GM job for years” and having to work hard for it (and sometimes be turned down and realizing that perhaps it wasn’t because she was a female, but rather because she was not ready yet), says women need to get over that they are women.
“Don’t throw around the female card,” she says of situations where you might be passed over for a promotion you feel you have earned. “No one wants to hear that bullshit. Just work hard and prove yourself.”
She feels more women need to do that, for the good of the industry. “We need some more women at this table,” she says. “Most women are too smart to get into this business. But we can do a lot of good here. And it’s fun. I love my life.”
Could she do it over again, Sherrer would do as Bernotavicz did: “Find a mentor, someone who is going to go to bat for you. Keep trying and persevere. Educate yourself. Take a risk management course, learn lift ops outside and in. And then use all that to move ahead.”
Because in the end, she says, it’s about more than being male or female. “It’s not about women; it’s about people who love this industry and want to dedicate themselves to it. As you probably know, this industry pays shit. We have to fill all our spots with people who love this world. Because that’s what they are here for: the love.”