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Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012: Burton president highlights importance of hiring, retaining women

Donna Carpenter, Burton's president and the keynote speaker at this year's Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition breakfast at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, shared her perspective on why getting women into the outdoor workforce isn't only smart business, it's critical for the future of the industry.


Throughout the month of February, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 19-22. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Getting more women into the outdoor workforce isn’t only smart business, it’s critical for the future of the industry, Burton Snowboards President Donna Carpenter told a crowd gathered for the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition breakfast at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, Jan. 21.

“We need more women for the sake of our companies and the long-term health of our industry,” Burton said. “If you take anything away today, it should be that more women leaders equals more money.”

Carpenter summarized what Burton’s done to address gender equality among its employees and amp up its women’s marketing campaigns. She cited research showing companies with women leaders are more transparent, better governed and more profitable.

Carpenter recounted that 10 years ago, when her husband, Jake, was in a room with about 25 of Burton’s global directors, he realized only three were women. “He knew instinctively in his gut as an entrepreneur that we had a problem,” she said. “How could we be recruiting the best talent if we were missing half the pool?”

She began problem solving in steps. “The first thing to look at was, how did we get to be male-dominated?” she asked. “When we started the company 30 years ago, there were a lot of women, including in key sales, product and marketing roles. So what happened?”

She attributed some of the inequity to a period of rapid growth during which the company pulled talent from hardgoods companies in the skate, surf and bike industries, most of whom were male. She also interviewed about four dozen former and current female employees, as well as some men, to uncover the opportunities and challenges in hiring, retaining and promoting women.

“I learned that we had a recruiting problem, but that was just the tip of the iceberg,” Carpenter said. “We weren’t attracting more women because there were no role models, especially when it comes to balancing a career and a family. Younger women said they were having fun, but they had a sense that if they wanted a senior position, it wasn’t going to be at Burton.”

She next identified several issues affecting retention, especially maternity leave: “Women said they were sometimes afraid to tell their managers they were pregnant.” On behalf of those managers, she pointed out, “It wasn’t so much sexism as cluelessness.”

Career development also played a role. “Women almost unanimously told me they craved a mentor, male or female,” Carpenter said. So she created a women’s leadership initiative that’s still active at Burton, instituted professional coaching and started a voluntary mentoring organization, the last two of which are now open to all employees. Two years later, Carpenter said, 62 percent of women at Burton had been promoted or taken a different opportunity in the company.

Additional measures included a biannual women’s leadership day with outside speakers, more proactive recruiting, better training of hiring managers and internships for women engineers. A snowboard buddy program encouraged newbies to learn to ride.

Burton instituted a longer maternity leave and introduced paternity leave, added a room for new moms to pump breast milk and sanctioned flex time. It also created a travel policy for parents; Burton would pay for a caretaker to either travel with an employee who had a child under 18 months old or stay in the employee’s home to provide childcare.

The result? “At first there was a backlash,” Carpenter admitted, “especially on those women’s ride and leadership days. But the men came to understand that the changes we were making to accommodate women made us a better place to work for everybody.”

Burton placed an emphasis on women’s marketing. Erecting a creative wall between men’s and women’s product development teams was key, Carpenter said, as “we had been guilty of shrinking and pinking.”

It’s important to include women in marketing decisions about women. “You’re not going to create authenticity in the women’s market unless you have women at the table driving those decisions,” Carpenter said. “Men who miss the market are not sexist pigs, they’re just oblivious idiots.”

At present, Burton’s proportion of female employees is 50 percent in entry-level jobs and 35 percent at the director level, Carpenter said. “I understand that transforming a culture and changing the structure to meet the needs of women is not an easy thing to do, especially in difficult economic times. But advancing more women is a strategic imperative if we’re going to continue to grow.”

Carpenter issued a challenge: “It’s up to all of us to work together to get more women in our companies.”

–Cindy Hirschfeld