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Boardwomen: Lisa Whitaker

Lisa is an American skateboarder and founder of the Girls Skate Network, a website where you can find all things about women in skateboarding. Lisa explains the origins and purpose of the website, her childhood and skateboarding, as well as giving her opinions as to why the industry is growing to support women more, and how and why women and men have different coverage. 

How did you get in to skateboarding?
All the neighborhood kids on my street would go through phases. We all had freestyle BMX bikes for awhile, a couple weeks of pogo sticks, flag football and eventually skateboarding. When I was 12 or 13 I saw one of the older neighbors go off a launch ramp and I knew I wanted to do that. We all got into skateboarding for a while, but when everyone else moved onto the next phase I kept skating. I’ve been hooked since the first day I stepped on a board.

When you first started, did you get much support from guys?
I started skateboarding around 1988 when there were no skateparks around. For years I just skated with the neighborhood boys that I grew up with: I was never treated any different because I was a girl. In high school there were one or two older guys that vibed me, but for the most part the guys have always been supportive and I’ve never had a problem fitting in…but I know a lot of other girls that have had a much difference experience and haven’t received the same support. Not to say I would have been treated any different if I didn’t, but the fact that I loved filming skateboarding equally as much and always had a camera with me didn’t hurt making new skate friends.

What is the most important aspect of skateboarding for you?
Having fun with friends!

Was it difficult to get recognition as a girl in such a male dominant sport?
I was never looking for recognition, I just did it because I loved it. I competed in the 1st All Girl Skate Jam in 1997 where I was able to watch and skate with girls that were better than me for the first time.  I placed well and meet a lot of new people who are still really good friends today. I got noticed by Rookie Skateboards, they asked me to send them a video and added me to the team.  They helped me travel to bigger contests and I ended up getting a few more sponsors from getting out there and meeting more people.  I wasn’t out looking to get sponsored, it just happened.

Over the last 40-50 years, since Patti McGee became the first female pro skateboarder, how do you feel the industry has changed when it comes to women in skateboarding?
Most businesses are driven by supply and demand; skateboard companies are no different.  I feel the industry support has fluctuated with the demand for the most part, but there are a few exceptions. There are a lot of people behind some of the major companies that have always been supportive of the girls and may flow product to help out, but at the end of the day they are still trying to run a business and it has to make financial sense to do more. Etnies is a great example of a company that invested money into a girls program that was done right, but still failed.  They had a great team with top females from skate, snow, surf and bmx that they paid, helped with travel, made videos, did events and used the athletes in advertisements.  They did everything the girls had been asking for, but they were never able to sell enough girls product to support it.

In your opinion, why do you think men in board sports have generally achieved more recognition and support than women? Do you think maybe it has something to do with the stereotype of women needing to be ‘feminine’ and therefore they can’t skate and be lady-like at the same time?
The men pros are skating at the highest level, they have a bigger fan base, fill seats at events and sell product.  I believe the amount of exposure and pay is directly linked to these things and not specifically gender or even board sports. You can have 2  pros that skate at the same level, but if one is more marketable that the other and his endorsement sells more product his pay, demand for media coverage and recognition will be much higher. The girls have it a little harder because though the skill level has been progressing pretty quickly it still hasn’t caught up with the guys.  Also they have a much smaller potential fan base because there are a lot of guys who may like some of the girls skating, but won’t feel comfortable buying a skateboard with a female name on it or “girls” products. I do think fewer girls are encouraged to skate because of stereotypes, but I’ve seen that start to change over the last several years. Especially since there are a lot more skateparks opening all over the place.

If parents are taking their kids to a skatepark and only see boys the chances of them encouraging their daughter to skate is pretty slim, but if they see a few other girls skating the chances are much better. As more girls start to skate it just multiples and makes it less intimidating to start. It is always strange for me to think about skateboard as a business and for most people it isn’t and you don’t have to think about these things, just have fun skateboarding!  But if you are looking for recognition or to make a career out of it you have to play game. The girls who have figured out how to market themselves as feminine have been the most successful because they reach past the smaller group of core girls who skate and are marketable to a whole other level of girls that are just interested in the lifestyle.

What can be done to create more support and acknowledgment for women in skateboarding and board sports in general, for them to become equal competitors with men?
Support companies, products and events that support women. There were some girls complaining about the lack of industry support on a forum at a time when I knew of a couple companies making an effort and struggling. Out of curiosity I asked these girls what their current set up was and favorite brands. It was interesting to learn that none of them where supporting the brands with a girls team or product (at least with their wallet anyway). Same goes with contests and events.  I’ve seen contests with low spectator turn out for the women get canceled.  Once they are canceled all kinds of support for the girls seems to come out of the woodwork on social media and sometime bashing the company that canceled.

If all those people actually came out and filled seats at the contests and supported the brands that are putting on events it would be much more productive. As for the women becoming equal competitors with the men I have mixed feelings. After watching the Olympics I got to thinking, are there any other physical sports where men and women compete against each other? Should women skateboarders be compared to the men? Something to think about, but all the girls I know want to be good skateboarders, not just “good for a girl”. I love it when the girls skate along with the guys and there has been small handful that have held their own in a few contests with the men. I feel these girls have done the most for girls in skating and have opened some doors.

Do you think that if male pro skaters gave public support to women in the same sport there would be further interest and backing from skate teams and organizations? Or do you feel you do not particularly need the support of male skaters to gain impartiality in skateboarding?
There are a lot of male pros who support the women and some have done so publicly. I just watched the new Elissa Steamer Epicly Later’d today which was a whole episode of big name pros publicly supporting her. The biggest name in skateboarding, Tony Hawk, has also always publicly support the girls. Things like this and anything that increases visibility helps interest.

What is the purpose of Girls Skate Network?
The site was actually started in 2003 (formerly named The Side Project). I was trying to teach myself web design and needed sample content for my test site.  At the time I had been traveling to different contests and filming with the top female skateboarders, so that is what I had on my computer and ended up using. It wasn’t much but I had fun doing it and it was a good way to share what I had with my friends, so I left it up.  Shortly after I started receiving e-mails from girls around the world.  I’m not even sure how they were finding the site, but I was blown away by the response and realized it was something that was needed.

I remember when I was growing up my favorite skateboarders were Matt Hensley, Ed Tempelton and Mark Gonzales.  When I watched skate videos I never thought I couldn’t someday do those tricks because I was a girl, but seeing Lori Rigsby and Anita Tennesohn’s small part in Powell Peralta’s Public Domain affected me differently. I had already been trying to learn kickflips, but seeing Anita do one really made an impact and motivated me.  I was at a trade show shortly after I started the site and meet someone doing a girls skate magazine out of Canada, another had a girls board company in the Midwest and another with an online zine.  I couldn’t believe these things existed and I didn’t know about them.  At that point I decided my site would not only cover my friends, but be a central place where people could get information and expose all things girls skate related.

Do you think it has it reached out to female skaters and given them more confidence to push through and do what they want?
Yes, I still hear from girls around the world with stories of how the site has motivated them or opened their eyes to different things not seen in the mainstream media. One of the e-mails that still stand the most for me was from a young girl who wanted to skate, but her parents told her it was only for boys.  She found the site and showed her parents, they got her a skateboard the next day. E-mails like these are what have kept me motivated to do the site for the last 9+ years.

-Nina Hoogstraate

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