I'm a woman with an athletic build. For years I have purchased and used gear for men (including ski boots and inline skates), thinking that it is better made. But is there really a performance edge in gender-specific gear? Think I can rp it up by making the switch? Diane Highland Park, New Jersey
Fortunately, that has—for the most part—changed. Today some boot companies make footwear that is only for women—designed on a women's last, which is narrower in the heel and has a slightly different arch than a men's last. Most outdoor apparel makers are also paying closer attention to how women like their clothes to fit, and designing them accordingly. Some women-specific pack makers are designing their bags specifically to complement the shape of a woman's back.
To part two of your question: What will help my performance? I think that whatever fits best, that's what. That's particularly true of footwear, but I think also holds for clothing and other gear. Take skis. For several years now, women have been able to purchase skis made just for them. Generally, these skis have a touch more flex (due to the fact the average woman has less muscle mass than the average man), are lighter, and have the binding mounts a little forward for easier turning. Now, you may not want or need those features—maybe you ski well and perform well on a man's ski. And that's fine. But you do have the option, and some women will find that a ski, such as Atomic's B:9 ($650 with Device 412 bindings; www.atomicsnow.com), makes them a better skier.
Quality-wise, though, no difference. The men's stuff and women's stuff uses the same materials and same manufacturing methods. I will accept the notion that a "lighter" ski is not as rugged, but if you take into account who is using the ski, that ceases to matter. Besides, when was the last time you saw anybody break a ski?