Once upon a time, when women went shopping for a new pair of skis, there was only one approach: buy a shorter pair of men's skis and hope for the best. Oh, how things have changed.

Women skiers represent over 42 percent of the 16 million skiers who frequent American ski resorts. Even though they embody a significant portion of affluent consumers, only 24 percent of ski manufacturers market skis to them. Why is that?

Most alpine skis have been designed with male skiers in mind and marketed as "unisex" skis until recently. You'll still find this to be the case in many rental and smaller ski shops because unisex skis are easier to stock and sell to a wider range of skiers, even though they may not fit the needs of many who buy them. It wasn't until the popularity of shaped skis that women's skis really came into their own. Today, most major ski manufacturers feature women's entry level and intermediate skis that have been designed, tested, and evaluated by women skiers. So, what do you get when you buy a pair of women's skis?

It's no secret there are big differences between the male and female anatomy. As a general rule men are heavier, taller, and stronger than their female counterparts. Men also carry their weight higher with their center of gravity above their navels. Women tend to be lighter and their center of gravity centers around their hips, causing them to sit back on the tails of their skis - things that can make turning a pair of unisex skis difficult.

Since women tend to be lighter than men, they often find that it's difficult to initiate turns. By choosing a softer ski built for women, it will flex and turn easier than a stiffer unisex ski. To compensate for a lower center of gravity, women's bindings are typically mounted several centimeters forward of the usual mounting position.

Beyond cosmetics, the structure of contemporary women's skis differs significantly from unisex skis. The first thing you'll notice is their lighter weight. The modern shaped ski is generally made with either a wood or foam core. The core is the part of the ski that gives the ski "substance" and helps to manage torsional rigidity and flex. Foam cores used in women's skis are lighter and help the ski to flex more during turns. As a general rule, women should choose a shorter ski than their male counterpart. While cutting back on ski length compromises stability at high speeds, it makes the ski easier to turn.

Many women's skis on the market also feature a more radical "side-cut." The side-cut of the ski is the difference between the width of the tips and tails of the ski, compared to the "waist", or the area directly under the ski boot. More pronounced side-cuts result in a distinctive "hour glass" shape of the ski. Skiing on a softer ski with a pronounced side-cut makes the ski easier to turn and carve short-radius turns - the main benefit of skiing on a shaped ski.

As women move up in ability, most will find that they are looking for the same thing of their male counterparts: a slightly longer ski that tracks straighter at higher speeds, is relatively stiff and holds better on groomed and firm snow. These are the characteristics of the unisex ski.

Should you look into buying a women's ski? If you're a beginning to advance intermediate skier and ski less than 20 days a year, a true women's ski could be for you. However, if you've moved up into the ranks of the advanced skier and enjoy cutting up powder, crud, and barreling through an occasional race course, then you'll probably be better off with a unisex ski. Regardless of what type of ski you choose, it's always a good idea to take a pair out for a spin before you spend your hard-earned cash.