Breaking Barriers—A Look at Women in the Sport on the 10th Anniversary of SIS
Features | Jun 07, 2021
Breaking Barriers—A Look at Women in the Sport on the 10th Anniversary of SIS

Shanon Searls

In 2021, the USPA Sisters in Skydiving program celebrates its 10th anniversary! From the start, SIS was enormously popular, and we hope to continue building this momentum and supporting females in our sport through the program’s second decade and beyond! Whether you are male or female, we invite you to learn more about the history of women in skydiving and join us in our goal to support female skydivers by pairing student or novice female jumpers with experienced women skydivers at their DZs or in their local areas to offer moral support, encouragement and guidance as they learn to skydive.

Where My Girls At?

Underrepresentation in skydiving is a hot topic, and it is certainly an important one. Women make up only a small percentage of USPA’s membership. In early March, USPA published its annual survey results which included a gender-distribution chart pulled from the membership database showing that only 13% of members identify as female. Although low, this figure exceeds the 7% and 8.9% female membership of the Airline Owners and Pilots Association and U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, respectively. The physical part of skydiving is non-discriminatory when it comes to gender, but for women, the journey to becoming a licensed skydiver can be particularly challenging in a sport that’s dominated by men. The exact reasons for female attrition are speculative; however, industry experts believe it happens for a multitude of reasons ranging from lack of confidence to lack of funding to more sensitive possibilities such as male aggression toward women. Another possible reason could be that women during this prime age of skydiving are also getting married, raising kids, establishing a career or helping aging parents—roles that men are less likely to take on.

Though only 13% of the membership, female skydivers tend to take on leadership roles, although it varies by position. Percentage of females exceed the average as judges, examiner course directors, AFF and coach examiners and members of the USPA Board of Directors (an elected position).

Females are most underrepresented as tandem instructors and examiners. Since USPA launched the tandem rating in 1995, it has issued an all-time total of 348 USPA Tandem Instructor ratings to females across the globe.

Jen Sharp, former DZO, current tandem examiner and USPA’s Director of Information Technology, co-created the Female Skydiving Instructor Network with the goal to support skydiving women in the pursuit of receiving instructional ratings. Sharp says, “I used this platform to tell my own story, and how even being small, I am able to be a tandem instructor. I have developed techniques that allow me to do the same job as a male instructor, just in a different way. This has inspired others to get their ratings, and now I get to tell their stories, as well.” Sharp was also the first female instructor to present at the Parachute Industry Association Symposium and has written multiple articles with a goal of supporting female skydiving instructors, even self-funding scholarships along the way.

Breaking Barriers

Women have been in skydiving right from the start, from the days of the barnstormers like Georgia Ann Thompson (aka Tiny Broadwick), who in 1913 was the first person—not simply the first woman—to freefall from a plane. However, it wasn’t until the end of World War II, as a small portion of returning paratroopers found that they enjoyed the experience of parachuting and wanted to continue, that parachuting came into its own as a hobby. Since returning World War II paratroopers were all men, it’s no surprise that parachuting as a sport skewed heavily male when USPA (then called “National Parachute Jumpers and Riggers”) was founded in 1946. 


Muriel Simbro stands atop the podium at the 1962 world meet.

Still, some trailblazing women became accomplished skydivers. Muriel Simbro, D-78 and the first woman to hold a D-license, was the women’s team leader at the 1962 World Parachuting Championships and also the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in a world meet. In 1964, Tee Taylor became the overall women’s world champion at a world meet. In 1967, formation skydiver Clarice Garrison spurred the change of lexicon from “10-man” to “10-way” by winning the first 10-way FS meet as a member of the Arvin Good Guys team. However, through the years, women remained a distinct minority. In 1974, females accounted for only 9.5 percent of a USPA membership of 16,511.

In future decades, women like Cheryl Stearns, who has now won 33 national accuracy landing championships and counting, enthusiastically joined the sport and excelled. However, the percentage of women in skydiving increased only at a snail’s pace.

The Birth of SIS

In 2011, then-USPA Executive Director Ed Scott recognized that female skydivers might benefit from connecting with one another and sharing experiences to help guide them in their journeys, no matter what the goal. Scott worked with then-Director of Sport Promotion, Nancy Koreen, to develop SIS as a female mentorship program that pairs students or novice female jumpers (Little Sisters) with experienced women skydivers (Big Sisters) at their DZs. Big Sisters who joined the program pledged their commitment to offer moral support, encouragement and guidance as their Little Sisters learned to skydive. The goal wasn’t necessarily to grow the 13% (although that would be a welcome side-effect), but instead to provide support to a community of female skydivers.

Scott said, “Many jumpers are surprised to learn that women make up only about 13 percent of USPA’s membership, because it seems like there are more women than that at their DZs. It could be that the women, though fewer, are more active skydivers, or it could be that their jumps seem to get more visibility. Women have always been active in skydiving, though at a vastly lower percentage in the early days of the 1950s and ’60s than now. Then, skydiving was a tough sport. In addition to using the same heavy, hard-opening and ground-pounding parachutes that the men used, women had to endure the overt sexism and discrimination that was prevalent in those days.” However, even today, women continue to endure sexism and bias. The mentorship and support that SIS provides can help combat this. 

Building Each Other Up

In addition to SIS, there are multiple female networks in the skydiving industry seeking to support females in skydiving. One is the Women’s Skydiving Network (originally the Women’s Skydiving Leadership Network), which Christy Frikken and JaNette Lefkowitz founded in 2016 to increase the number of women skydivers in leadership roles through mentorship and training. The network now comprises more than 3,000 women and in January 2021 named well-known skydiver and life coach Melanie Curtis as the organization’s executive director.

As the first-and-only female member of the Red Bull Air Force team, Amy Chmelecki is leading the charge for women in skydiving. With more than 14,000 jumps, 11 world records, 13 national titles and 7 world titles to her name, Chmelecki is also a co-captain of Project 19. This privately funded project is an effort to have women skydivers celebrate the 19th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote, by building a 100-way Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Women’s World Record for Largest Head-Down Formation Skydive. Originally scheduled for 2020, the centennial of the amendment’s ratification, it has now been rescheduled for 2022. Nevertheless, the effort received outstanding press attention in 2020, promoting females in skydiving in a major way.

Melissa Lowe, a PRO-rated skydiver with 23 world records who is also the founder of the competition 4-way vertical formation skydiving discipline, remembers how vastly male-dominated skydiving was when she first started. When new women would arrive to the drop zone, she’d welcome them with open arms. Lowe said, “I’ve always held this ‘it’s about collaboration, not competition’ attitude. In the beginning, I thought the best way to promote skydiving was to become an instructor. Since then, I’ve continued the path of female empowerment through leadership roles with the all-women’s freefly team Sugar Gliderz (2002-2006) and supported the Pink Mafia Sisters movement. I then became an organizer of the women’s vertical world record (2003-present) and am a member of the Highlight Pro Skydiving team (2019-present). Now, I am using my voice as a USPA National Director. Even though I do a lot of female-centered roles in the sport, I’ve always been about equality, and embrace working with everyone.”


Laura Golly packs up during the 2017 USPA Nationals.

But Girls Can’t Fly Parachutes

As we look at the 13%, many in the industry have considered the reasons behind the lack of participation in skydiving. One of the commonly perpetuated myths—girls can’t fly parachutes—might serve as an illustration for why females, who make up 50% of tandem students, aren’t as likely as men to earn their A licenses. What’s happening?

Industry professionals Laura Golly and Allison Reay, who then worked for canopy manufacturer Performance Designs, assisted by professional canopy-flight instructor Maxine Tate from Flight-1, worked to break down this myth by presenting the seminar “Girls Can’t Fly Parachutes” for the Parachute Industry Association Symposium in 2017. In the seminar, they addressed the fact that women excel in freefall competitions but rarely compete in canopy piloting. Then they examined why this might be, diving into the causes of false ideas such as “women aren’t strong enough to flare” or “women have poor depth perception” or even “women aren’t mechanically inclined to fly parachutes” and offered solutions for how to prevent them. The seminar also included information on the unique challenges of smaller (usually female) jumpers, who often experience a canopy downsizing progression that is much more aggressive than their male counterparts.

Since that first seminar, Golly, who is also a Big Sister, has presented the information at various industry gatherings around the world. She suggests that, “Instructors and S&TAs and people who are giving advice at drop zones need to set the tone and the idea that ‘women are not able to fly parachutes’ should not be part of the discussion at the drop zone.” Interested jumpers can find the Girls Can’t Fly Parachutes seminar on Performance Designs’ YouTube channel.

Jeannie Bartholomew, a professional skydiver, canopy pilot with multiple records to her name and canopy-flight instructor with Team Alter Ego, has been supporting the SIS program from the beginning with the goal of building strong and confident female canopy pilots. Bartholomew says, “Coming up as a swooper I didn’t have a ton of support from other female swoopers other than Kaz Sheeky. As I started my journey as a canopy coach, I saw the SIS program set up and realized I really wanted to help and encourage women to become more confident canopy pilots! SIS gave me the inspiration to create and hold the first all-girl canopy course in Canada at Skydive Burnaby in 2012. Since then, I’ve held almost 100 ‘Pink Courses.’ and I’ve seen a rise in women rocking their landings and, more importantly, being excited about flying parachutes! I’m happy to be a Big Sister and love being involved in the SIS program; watching my students succeed and find a new love for canopy flight is just as great a feeling as standing on the podium.”

What About the Dudes?

Let’s admit it, when only 13% of skydivers are women, it can be hard not to take notice when a new female shows up at the DZ. However, this can be extremely problematic when C-licensed Joe Schmoe is offering sub-par advice to AFF student Suzy-Q in hopes of catching her eye while she is just trying to learn how to exit stable and safely fly a parachute.


Jeannie Bartholomew swoops the Great Pyramids of Giza at the recent Sky Seekers Pyramids Boogie.

This is why many drop zones host SIS events just for females. However, some say that excluding the guys is counterproductive in supporting the ladies. Is this true? It’s hard to say. There can be pros and cons to inviting males to an event that is aimed at connecting females with other females in the sport to help support one another. If men are invited, this might take away from the “SIS” part of the event, and then it would just be a regular boogie. On the other hand, involving men in this type of event may help raise their awareness of the disparity between men and women in the sport and how they can be a part of minimizing that.

Sharp says, “One of the female gender’s best assets is the ability—actually almost the need—to collaborate, cooperate, network, socialize, inspire each other. So, that is mostly what I’m about. Not excluding men, but just finding ways to let women’s natural tendencies and different ways of accomplishing the same goals have a place in our sport.”

USPA supports SIS events with stickers, swag and other resources, but we do not control or regulate how the event is run. While membership in SIS is designed only for women, this doesn’t mean men can’t offer support to females in skydiving. Just treating the women at your DZ with respect can go a long way. Male skydivers can also help connect female skydivers and spread the word on SIS. See a newbie female skydiver at the DZ? Find ways to be respectful and supportive. Instead of offering her unsolicited advice, let her know that there are Big Sisters around who can help out or connect her with female instructors in the area. In other words, stop staring and let the ladies learn how to skydive in peace!

Continuing the Momentum

USPA believes that increasing the retention of females in skydiving is a noble goal, but first, we’re focusing on supporting the women who are already here. All too often, women skydivers quit for unfortunate reasons, and we as a community should do what we can to prevent that. Recently, the USPA Board of Directors adopted a values statement for the entire organization, the first sentence of which reads, “USPA is committed to promoting an atmosphere that allows our sport to be safe, inclusive and fun.” In a nutshell, this also sums up the goals of SIS. 

While female skydivers are still the minority, let’s not forget how women have directly helped skydiving become the sport that we all know and love today. Show your support for SIS this month and every month, because—to steal the title of an annual women-focused event at Skydive Elsinore in California—chicks rock!

 

If you are interested in joining the SIS program, please visit uspa.org/sis. The recently revamped webpage contains an updated database, allows Big and Little Sisters to register online and provides access to SIS resources (such as advice from the pros, event ideas and dive-flow charts).

Hosting a SIS event? We want to know about it! Send event details (including Facebook event links) to sportpromo@uspa.org or add it to our events page at uspa.org

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