We Are The 13% - WSLN Leads The Charge For Women
Features | Sep 01, 2018
We Are The 13% - WSLN Leads The Charge For Women

Annette O'Neil



Instructor, coach and champion Christy Frikken hardly needs an introduction. If you’ve been in the sport over the past 16 years—or watched formation skydiving podiums since 2007—you’ve certainly seen her. Unfortunately, dozens of major wins and one of the most highly respected names in 4-way coaching apparently only gets you so far.

“There are and have been, in my career, skydiving gigs that just outright said, ‘No, you can’t do this because you are a woman,’” said Frikken. “It is frustrating to be one of the top competitive humans in the world, skill-wise, and be told that you are unqualified for what is a very basic gig just because they don’t want to deal with a woman.”

“There’s a helplessness you feel when you are told something like that,” she continued, “because of the way the sport is structured—because we are contractors—and especially if you’re in a place without other people to turn to who would understand that frustration. I have had amazing, supportive male teammates throughout my career, and they’ll turn to me and say, ‘Christy, you don’t need or want that gig.’ They’re right. I have plenty of other opportunities—but I think being told, ‘No, that door is closed for you,’ for no other particular reason is shocking, and especially so that it can happen so flagrantly.”

“Once,” she continued, “I was told, ‘You can be a packer, but only if you don’t talk.’”

Clearly, the issue of disproportionately low female participation in skydiving is not just a woman’s issue. It’s a skydiving issue. Nearly half of the people who make a first-time tandem skydive are women, but that number drops to a paltry 13 percent of licensed skydivers and nine percent of skydiving instructors. Just four percent of tandem instructors are female. Of the students who go on to a licensing program, women comprise only 10 to 12 percent.

That fact has bothered 4-way FS legend and SDC Rhythm XP cornerstone JaNette Lefkowitz for a very long time.

“I’m sure that the fact that these women [making a first-time tandem jump] don’t see other women means that they’re probably not encouraged in the same way to become a licensed skydiver,” Lefkowitz noted. “It makes a big difference.”

A big difference, of course, can go both ways.

A Network of Women

At the end of 2015, Frikken and Lefkowitz were going about the business of smashing records and climbing podiums with SDC Rhythm XP when a student of theirs came to them with a proposition. “We had spoken with him a bunch about how to promote the sport and how to promote women in the sport,” Lefkowitz said. “He then approached us about an idea he had. He wanted to start a non-profit—that he would fund—that would focus on getting more women into skydiving.”

That particular idea found fertile soil in Frikken and Lefkowitz. As teammates, they’d already had plenty of conversations about precisely that topic. The three kicked around a bunch of ideas. Frikken and Lefkowitz felt very strongly that the most important goal was to help women create themselves as skydiving leaders in the sport. The strategy: to spread good information and to engender a network of women who could look to each other for inspiration, advice and encouragement.

With that, the Women’s Skydiving Leadership Network was born.

“Once it became a realistic thing we could do,” Frikken said, “the challenge became figuring out the approach. At the time, SIS [USPA’s Sisters in Skydiving program] was just starting up; we saw that as a wonderful way for women to express camaraderie. We saw the momentum that it had, and we wanted to design something that complemented SIS and had a similar goal but with a more professional focus, still reaching women at any level of their participation in the sport.” 

The team tipped their collective hat to the fact that the lack of women in skydiving leadership is far from a simple problem. If they wanted to have a long-term, sustainable, positive effect, they’d have to do some focus group research … and thus was born the Women’s Skydiving Leadership Network Kickoff Camp.

“We held an invitational boot camp in 2016,” Lefkowitz said, “and recruited 22 aspiring women leaders in skydiving. The event was meant to not only give them an opportunity to move further along their own paths, but also to give us some ideas about what kind of challenges women were facing and what might be causing such a big gap.”

Lefkowitz describes what happened over the course of the symposium as “magical.” The nine-day schedule bulged with toothsome educational commitments in all possible classrooms: air, wind tunnel, desk and social. Frikken, Lefkowitz and Brianne Thompson each dove into the deep end of the intensive, coaching participants in both the tunnel and the sky. Jen Sharp gave characteristically incisive lectures on coaching and ratings. Karen Lewis Dalton spoke on the subject of videography; Betsy Hoats on rigging.

“We all learned a ton,” Lefkowitz continued. “During one discussion, Betsy inspired each participant to stand up and actively state her goals. As they did, other women in the group would speak up and say, ‘I can help you with that.’ For example: Somebody said, ‘I would really like to get into video in 4-way,’ and I was like, ‘Great! My team needs somebody to fill in next week. Can you come to Chicago?’”

With each statement, more and more women got into the swing of it.

“There wasn’t a woman in the room who spoke up and didn’t find someone else there who could help her with that goal,” Lefkowitz said, grinning. “To me, that really showed the power of a good network of informed women, educated with good information.”

The camp met with inarguable success. The nascent WSLN team walked away with the feedback they were looking for, a flurry of ideas and—most importantly—a chance to listen to unmoderated experience. The participants walked away with immense value, too. Some of those women have gone on to become tunnel instructors; some, tandem and AFF instructors; some, competitors and athletes in FS, freestyle and wingsuiting. Some are running SIS events.

Boots on the Ground

The individual success stories speak for themselves. Jumper ShawnaRae Marie Miliano, for instance, had a little more than 100 jumps when she walked into the Kickoff Camp; now, she’s on a 4-way team, manages a drop zone and is the U.S. Team manager for the World Parachuting Championships this fall in Australia. Jumper Nell Flemer came to the course; she is now a rigger, tunnel instructor and freefly competitor, running a monthly female flight night at iFly Rosemont in Chicago and pushing the company hard to hire more females on the instructor side. Jumper Courtney Lee also participated that first year; now, she’s managing WSLN.

“It has been really amazing to see stuff that they have done,” Frikken said, smiling. “We really knew we were on to something.”

After the Kickoff Camp, Lefkowitz and Frikken dug into a big debrief. Based on the feedback they received, they ideated a slate of programs aimed at reaching more women at more drop zones—especially smaller drop zones, where female leadership remains statistically much rarer.

“One thing [the kickoff camp] helped us understand,” Lefkowitz said, “is that one of the biggest things we can do to address the problem is to get good information out and foster this network of women.”

To do so, they needed to get boots on the ground. Frikken proposed an idea: to start a Mobile Mentorship program, whereby the WSLN would send females in leadership roles to any drop zone that asked, offering free coaching, advice and inspiration to the community’s female skydivers. Frikken created the first curriculum, integrating some of the tools that Rhythm has painstakingly developed over their years of competition. She then trained a team of female mentors on how to deliver that content. The program’s first deployment piggybacked SIS events; now, it also operates autonomously. (Today, there are 17 WSLN Mobile Mentors on the team, ready to go.) From there, Lefkowitz developed a tunnel curriculum along the same lines. Canopy education is next, as well as a high-end FS invitational organized by Lefkowitz.

Last December, the WSLN launched a video lecture series. It features prominent women in the sport sharing their expertise and insights in an online lecture format and is available and relevant to all skydivers, not just women. The WSLN team has been producing other videos geared toward answering questions about the quest for coach and tandem ratings in an upbeat, encouraging manner. 

“We produced a video I was really proud of, around becoming a tandem instructor,” Lefkowitz noted. “It addresses some of the issues and questions women might have about becoming one. The video has a handful of current women tandem instructors talking about the experience. It is really inspiring.”

The other component of the outreach needed to involve something comparably simple, yet essential: networking. WSLN’s outreach program, after all, actively recruits from smaller, more isolated drop zones. To that end, the WSLN team created two Facebook groups: one public, one for women skydivers only. At the time of writing, the latter had more than 2,300 participants.

“Here’s the real benefit of the online forum,” Frikken said, “and of the Mobile Mentor Team: If the network isn’t there, we will bring the network to you. You can participate long-distance if you have to.  We’re connecting people who are currently feeling alone. Maybe they’re tired of being the only woman at the drop zone, so they stop showing up. We’re giving them another option, even if it’s not in person.”

Changing the Conversation

In addition to the outreach effort, the WSLN sent out a torrent of postcard mailers announcing the organization’s newest and most exciting effort: a ratings scholarship drive. The WSLN recently brought on multi-rated female instructor Angie Aragon to run a series of coach and tandem rating courses for women only at drop zones across the country. WSLN is granting a full scholarship for one woman at each course, for a total of seven full tandem instructor rating course scholarships and 10 coach course scholarships. Every single woman attendee receives a partial scholarship, essentially halving her financial responsibility.

“If there is even just one woman in a professional position at a drop zone,” Lee said, “that female presence can change the whole game: how female customers, instructors and athletes are treated. It really only takes a couple of females at the helm for this change to start snowballing. It literally changes the conversation.”

According to Lefkowitz, once that snowball hits a critical mass, it becomes unstoppable. Research (from outside of skydiving) puts that figure at about 30 percent. “One or two women in leadership roles make a huge difference,” she explained, “but that still leaves a lot to be desired. With such small representation, you get stereotypes. ‘The woman’ does something this way, so then all women will be expected to do it that way. The more diversity of women we have in these roles, the more change you will see.”

WSLN has a big job ahead of them. They would love your help.

“The biggest thing other skydivers can do to help,” Lefkowitz said, “is helping us spread the word, and helping bring our Mobile Mentors and events to their drop zones. We are really happy to send a Mobile Mentor to any drop zone that has an interest in bringing a woman in to teach other women skills. We’re reaching out to drop zones and running events, but it is so much easier when somebody from inside a drop zone says, ‘I want that event here,’ and helps us facilitate.”

“As soon as someone pushes herself to get more continuing education and more experience—

to get that rating,” Frikken added, “then they just start giving back more and more to the sport. I’ve seen it over and over. It might be cliché, but here it is: If you want to give, do something for yourself first and then that gives you something to give. Getting involved in any of our programs is a great way to do that.”

“In any industry or endeavor,” Lefkowitz mused, “it is proven that diversity brings more new ideas and creativity. Diversity enhances any initiative it touches. The fact that skydiving is somehow missing a big portion of half of the population is a skydiver issue; it is not a woman’s issue. And we’re working hard to solve it.”

To learn more about getting involved with the Women’s Skydiving Leadership Network, view the WSLN lecture series, apply for a scholarship or view the course schedule, visit wsln.org. To bring a Mobile Mentor to your drop zone, email Courtney Lee at courtney@wsln.org.

About the Author

Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

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