The European Outdoor Group (EOG) has been in discussion in the last six months with the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition (OIWC), an American organization that seeks to promote gender diversity in the outdoor industry, to explore opportunities to expand its initiatives in Europe. Officials of the EOG indicated that nothing has been decided yet, however, and that the discussions are still going on.

Women were a special focus at the European Outdoor Summit (EOS) organized by the EOG and the Outdoor Industries Association of the U.K. (OIA) in Sheffield, England last month. Deanne Buck, a former lawyer who became executive director of OIWC three years ago, was among the speakers. She presented the work of her association, which has received a grant of $1.5 million from REI, the large U.S. outdoor retailer, to spark innovation through women's leadership in the industry. It has also persuaded 45 outdoor industry chief executives so far to make a public “pledge” to promote gender diversity in their companies. The signatories include the CEOs of Outdoor Research, Patagonia, The North Face, Wolverine Worldwide and many other firms.

The action of the U.S. outdoor industry shows that Americans are determined to change things with regard to the place of women in the sector, said Mark Held, secretary general of the EOG, during the conference. He suggested that the promotion of women's leadership should be part of a badly needed innovation process in a European outdoor industry that is not growing as fast as before, and the audience responded favorably: Nearly 40 people raised their hands when Held asked who in the room wished to see the OIWC's work replicated in Europe.

Held spoke after an intense panel discussion on the subject conducted during the EOS, featuring among others Buck and Sally McCoy, the chief executive of Camelbak. The panelists noted that women can bring an element of passion into the leadership of the company and that their input is very important, as women are directly or indirectly responsible for about 80 percent of the outdoor apparel products purchased in the stores.

McCoy deplored the fact that there are only a few female engineers who can develop outdoor equipment, so it is important to “develop the pipeline” within the human resources department. At the same time, the general environment of the outdoor industry is not appealing to women because men are most frequently in leadership positions. Men are also prominently featured in expeditions and other outdoor-related marketing messages, and research indicates that women are less confident than men in applying for jobs. There is still an unconscious bias against women in the sector, one of the panelists stated.

Burton Snowboards, the leading supplier of boardsports apparel, was described as a good example of how men and women can work together successfully in a company. Under the leadership of Donna Carpenter, wife of Jake Burton and co-owner of Burton, the brand developed a specific business plan for the women's market from the beginning.

The debate continued after a presentation given by Ulrike Luckmann, one of the two authors of our recently published report on the women's sports market. She reiterated the fact that many companies are developing the wrong products and the wrong marketing messages for the female customer because the decisions are made by men who don't understand the female customer.

To make her point, Luckmann showed images of advertisements, logos and sports magazines that tend to turn women off. She compared them with other images, like those of Kari Traa's ads, that do appeal to women. She noted that only 25 out of the 125 pages of a recent edition of the German Outdoor Magazine concerned women. The editor of the magazine is a man, she pointed out, adding that the fashion industry does a much better job of addressing women through the media. She showed the cover of a couple of American magazines, Outside and Women's Adventure, with women on the front.

Too often, women cannot identify with a brand, and yet they represent a big potential market for any brand, if for no other reason than they love shopping. “Women are the new China,” said Luckmann, repeating a statement made in an interview by Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Daimler, referring to what he intended to do to make the Mercedes brand more appealing to women.

She noted that Nike has been addressing women since 1990 with targeted advertising, and that the brand's latest women-oriented campaign is very inspirational. One of the people in the audience said that most brands in the outdoor sector are too small to have a specific marketing budget for women, but Luckmann pointed to the successful actions taken by brands like Deuter and Peak Performance in this area.

Luckmann said that brands should develop more innovative designs and work more closely with retailers - through clinics and in other ways - to address the different types of female consumers that they are targeting. As she did in a speech at the OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen last July, she described the six types of sports women that she has analyzed in her report.

She also stressed that the salespeople in the store must treat women with respect, or else they will never come back, and they will spread the negative publicity among their peers.

More in the report on the women's market written by Ulrike Luckmann and Karen Laubach, which is available to our subscribers at a 40 percent discount. It concentrates on the German sports market, but it has universal value.