Fostering family: Ski resort lauds woman leader in male-dominated industry
The highest elevation in Deirdra Walsh’s home state — Missouri — is 1,772 feet, but that is not the only reason her ascension to Northstar’s vice president and general manager position is worthy of note.
The snowsports industry has been, and continues to be, dominated by men. So much so that a 2016 sociological study of “skiing, gender and nature in British Columbia, Canada” suggested the mountain terrain itself, “shapes gendered power relations.”
Missouri’s creeks and forests certainly shaped Walsh’s identity and career path, she explained, but the landscape demanded internal and external exploration as opposed to subscriptions to social constructs.
“On the weekends, my mom would say ‘Just go out and explore,'” Walsh said, adding that she and her nine other siblings were beckoned back from their outdoor adventures by bell.
Walsh said her large, Irish Catholic family also gave her “the degree of calm” necessary to manage any business, but especially a ski resort.
“I grew up with a lot of chaos that is just natural when you have a large family,” Walsh said. “The flip side of that is a family with a level of loyalty and closeness that I’ve been able to bring on with me in my journey.”
Walsh said her family’s culture also helped her imagine and cultivate a workplace that encourages and celebrates collaboration.
“There’s an appreciation for team and perspective that comes together when you’re a part of a big family,” Walsh said.
Walsh said collaboration was key in order to reopen the following winter after the sudden resort-wide closures in March 2020.
“We took a thoughtful, innovative approach to what our business will look like,” Walsh said. “As a leader, I appreciate all the things that went into that decision to (reopen and) end up with a great production.”
Walsh said she is honored to steward a conduit to the outdoors at this time.
“What we do has never been more important,” Walsh said. “To be able to provide whatever the outdoors means to people, a place of respite, of connection, of fun, of challenges — to be able to offer that to any of our pass holders has brought so much meaning to the industry in Northstar.”
Resort life during a pandemic
According to Northstar’s senior manager of health and safety, Kelsey Everton, the resort’s newest general manager made it through three quarters of a season before the pandemic shut resorts down in March 2020.
Everton said the holistic values women bring to the workplace are the kind of values needed to navigate the multifaceted pressures of the pandemic.
Walsh said empathy has always been an essential quality in a successful leader, but is paramount amid COVID-19.
Everton said the women leaders she knows are particularly adept at helping individuals identify their skillset, passion and optimizing their strengths on behalf of the community.
The need for well rounded leadership still requires women to prove themselves, Everton said, often times by doing double the work.
“It’s no secret that it’s been a male-oriented realm. It’s hard to articulate why, but probably has something to do with the sense of tough conditions,” Everton said, referring to the mountain’s daily grind, in the cold, interrupted by crises and tragedies. “It’s tough.”
Everton said she has been both criticized and coached for “leading with emotions before.”
“Whether it was specific to being a female and it was inadvertent, I have been criticized for leading with emotions before,” Everton said, adding that she appreciates the productive intention behind coaching as opposed to criticism. “I have had both.”
As senior manager of Northstar’s Health and Safety Department, Everton said she works to prevent injuries, deal with the fallout of traumatic events and improve the employee experience overall.
“To be able to do that here in Tahoe, in the mountains — a place I came to realize I wanted to be forever — is so unique, and the health and safety role gives you a connection point with so many people,” Everton said. “We joke around that Northstar is our home, and this is our family. I’m making a difference for our family.”
A bigger look at the industry
According to 2021 membership surveys and registration with the National Ski Patrol, 23% of the 31,027 registered ski patrollers nationwide are women.
Vail declined to share any demographic data collected on its 20,0000-plus employees, but Susan Whitman, Vail’s communications director for the Tahoe region, said Walsh is one of eight female general managers Vail employs across 37 ski resorts.
Whitman said Vail’s commitment to diversity existed before they announced “Be Inclusive” as another customer value in October 2020 following racial tensions that sparked nationwide over the summer.
“Not only is it important to champion women in our industry, but to create a more inclusive industry for all minorities,” Whitman said. “We’re doing a lot to embrace all of our own diversity — every one of us has a different story — but we have a lot to do when it comes to racial diversity in our sport.”
Whitman said Vail supports women seeking to rise in the company ranks through a program called POWDER — Providing Opportunities to Women through Diversity, Equality and Respect.
Tom Fortune, vice president and general manager of Heavenly Mountain Resort, said he is grateful for Walsh’s input and collaborative work alongside of Heavenly and Kirkwood’s general managers.
“She is such an asset to not only Northstar, but our industry and region,” Fortune said. “Deirdra has laser focus and determination. … I admire how she bravely led her team and resort throughout a pandemic during just her second season in the role.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Tribune.
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