Gender bias dominates the sneaker industry — here's what women sneakerheads are doing to change that

A fashion staple and cultural symbol, sneakers are worn by millions worldwide and arguably indicative of one's knowledge behind the history of the timeless trend. From the days of waiting hours outside the Nike store to cop a coveted pair of Air Jordans to now obsessively entering your name in every raffle on the SNKRS app in hopes of seeing the "Got 'Em" message across the screen, sneakers are an extremely popular fashion element that goes far beyond being an everyday piece of footwear.

For an industry that could reach a global resale market of $30 billion by 2030, why does it seem like women are excluded from taking part? After all, women are often the artists behind some of the most coveted drops, but shoes are rarely available in women's sizes or constructed to fit a woman's foot.

The demand for inclusive sizing shouldn't be a contentious topic, but even with the growth of women-led social media accounts, podcasts and campaigns dedicated to ensuring they have a say, women are still fighting tirelessly to be considered for a seat at the table.

Titi Finlay is the social media manager at Laced and a Nike Air Max 90 guest designer whose crusade to eliminate gender bias in sneaker sizing saw considerable attention toward the end of 2020. On Nov. 23, the London-based creative posted a message to her Instagram calling on brands to give women just as much attention in the sneaker community as they do men.

"We don’t want women’s exclusives. We want inclusive sizing," read all nine colored tiles. To say the message started a long-overdue dialogue would be an understatement.

"These conversations were happening in small pockets of female sneaker culture already," Finlay told Yahoo Sports. "There have been women who have been pioneering this for so long, but no one was listening. We want to lead by example and show why we're here."

No more 'first' and/or 'only' women in popular culture

Shoes can also be a phenomenal way to start conversation or find out more about someone's personal style. For Ari Chambers, that's how her love of sneakers began.

"I grew more enthusiastic seeing how the players of the WNBA would mix and match their kicks with their fits," she told Yahoo Sports. "It’s so dope to see the pride they have in their sneakers. I also think player sneaker deals are cool ... especially the potential for them getting a signature shoe in the future. I think stereotypes that insinuate men being the only entity in any space are outdated and ridiculous. We, as women, have owned this space and share joy within it."

The HighlightHER founder doesn't claim to be an OG in the community, but perhaps that's what makes her rise and influence that much more incredible to watch. Chambers was recently named to Foot Locker's inaugural "Sole List," recognizing individuals honoring the next generation of Black innovators shaping sneaker culture. While the distinction is laudable, Chambers admits even more must be accomplished to eliminate the stigma that men are the final decision makers moving forward.

Ari Chambers was named to Foot Locker's inaugural
Ari Chambers was named to Foot Locker's inaugural "Sole List" as a Black innovator shaping sneaker culture. (Photo by Lamar Carter)

"I won’t be happy until there are no more 'first' and/or 'only' women in places. Shoutout to the pioneers who continue to break barriers and shatter the ceiling," she said. "We’re in 2021, we should be able to look to our left and our right and see another woman, to see another minority. Our job isn’t to prove people wrong. Our job isn’t to prove people we’re supposed to be here. It’s factual that we’re supposed to be here. So we’re just going to keep confidently and audaciously presenting ourselves, our way, and our presence will continue to be undeniable."

Nike, Adidas, Under Armour participation

Finlay, Chambers and countless other women are holding their own while championing for more inclusion. Nevertheless, the makers behind these envied kicks must also make a concerted effort in not only facilitating more exclusive drops for women, but also allowing them to have a voice in the design, construction and promotion of said shoe. According to Finlay, executives at the helm of household names are already taking action.

"In the months since my post went viral, the good news is that brands are listening," she said. "Obviously, the changes won't happen overnight. But, I'm in active conversations with individuals and talking about it more will hopefully continue to bring more awareness as the year progresses."

Celebrating women doing their part to advance the sneaker community is at the core of Finlay's brand, so that's why she has a vested interest in holding these brands accountable. Rather than spewing negativity about their lack of effort, Finlay argues that next steps should include constructive conversations about erasing narratives that only men understand the mechanics behind sneakers and streetwear.

Social media manager and sneaker influencer Titi Finlay is confident brands will have inclusive sneaker sizing by the end of this year. (Photo by Titi Finlay)
Social media manager and sneaker influencer Titi Finlay is confident brands will have inclusive sneaker sizing by the end of this year. (Photo by Titi Finlay)

"The change will come when brands start accommodating to consumer needs and the only way improvements can occur is if they hire a more diverse staff. The community is doing their part already by speaking out across their platform. Now, it's up to the brands to follow suit," Finlay said.

"You can't put female sneaker culture in a box. Every single person is different and everyone's come into it a different way and that's what makes us unique. You have the young girl in her 20s still discovering her personal style and on the other hand, a suburban mother with three kids who collects them as a hobby. I love that about us. Everyone has a personal story on why they fell in love with sneakers."

Under Armour has already taken a step forward in producing gear aimed directly at women. In September 2020, the Baltimore-based company launched its first basketball sneaker designed solely for women. With well-known WNBA stars like Chiney Ogwumike and Sabrina Ionescu signed to partnerships with Adidas and Nike, respectively, we can only hope they will also follow suit with the return of signature basketball shoes for women.

If brands want to show solidarity with an entire gender that vastly contributes to their yearly profits, they must do better at storytelling and ultimately creating shoes in different size runs and colorways that highlight the female aesthetic. Chambers emphasizes one more step: listen to people of color.

"Everyone wants to talk about the culture, but we are the culture. You can’t ignore Black women when it comes to cultural relevance. That’s the reality of the situation," Chambers said. "I promise it’s not a situation where we need to 'bet' on women. It’s INVEST in women. HEAR women. SEE women. INCLUDE women. That’s why I’m honored that Foot Locker included me in their inaugural Class of 2021 Sole List — I hope it inspires other women to continue to bring their originality, flavor and unique stories to the sneaker space."

When reached for comment, Nike declined to comment for this story.

Women's History Month on Yahoo Sports (Amber Matusmoto)
Women's History Month on Yahoo Sports (Amber Matusmoto)

More from Yahoo Sports: