Women-Only Gyms and Workout Areas

womenonlyA reader (thanks, Jean!) sent us a link to this news article about a Vancouver gym that is phasing out its women-only workout area.  The article begins with one members take on women-only areas in the gym:

If men have a right to grunt and strut, then women should have the right to ignore them and quietly get on with a workout in another room.

I’ve blogged here about the virtues of women-only races before. I argued that they are neither sexist and that they are good for women.  What I did not argue, however, is that we have a right to them. They’re great for some of us, and I think they’re an especially good entry-point into racing when mixed events might seem more intimidating to someone starting out.

So it was interesting to me that my first reaction to this kerfuffle over the closing of the women-only section at that gym was that it wasn’t a battle I would think worth fighting.  The main issue for the women at the gym seems to be that men make a lot of noise and don’t clean off the equipment; women are more courteous than that, they say.  Therefore, women ought to have their own section and let the men do what they do.

I just don’t buy that argument.  I agree with the manager of a nearby gym, also interviewed for the article. He says,

The stereotypical musclehead who yells, moans and throws weights to the floor isn’t welcome in any respectable health club… That’s your worst crowd. They’re hard on equipment. They scare people. If you’re talking about that stereotypical guy, that’s who gyms are trying to steer away from.

It’s not just women who want to avoid these kinds of gym users.  There are lots of “co-ed” gyms where everyone — male and female alike — respects the atmosphere, behaves in a manner that takes others into account, look after the equipment and leave it clean and accessible for the next person, and so forth.

I’m also skeptical about women-only sections in gyms because I can’t see how any gym could afford to equip them to the exact same standard as the shared workout areas. I picture light weights, inferior equipment, mostly cardio machines, mats, stability balls, and bosus. I’m not saying there is no place for this kind of equipment, but when we load up a women’s area with it, we send a certain kind of message about the way women work out, in contrast to the way men work out.

And that’s just not the case. Lots and lots of women need the squat rack, the bench press, the pull-up bar, and standard 45 pound barbells with the full range of plates. To relegate women to a smaller area of the gym with different equipment (again, I’m just assuming that there would less or lighter because otherwise, the economics of it just wouldn’t make sense).

According to a spokesperson for the gym, lots of women are wondering what the point of the separate section is.  She said lots of members were asking for “a more open and inclusive training area that is gender neutral.”

But what of the women who joined the club because they liked the idea of a separate workout area. Besides feeling more comfortable away from groans, grunts, and sweaty equipment, some women feel less likely to be ogled when they workout in a separate space. And they in general find it less intimidating. One member said:

I don’t want to seem sexist, but some women including myself would prefer not to be watched, cat-called or have their form corrected by a man, and I think that since that area was promised to us when we signed our contract with the gym it’s really unfair to take it away.

But is it really unfair?  I’m not sure I would agree. We all feel bad when we lose something we once had, but assuming the club is aiming for a comfortable environment for all, it doesn’t strike me that anyone has a right to a separate area to work out in just because they had it at some point.  Economically, the gym needs to think about how best to use the space.

I’ve only ever worked in mixed spaces, and I have observed that for the most part men are as likely to be respectful as women.  They are also eager to help (sometimes they are too eager, but mostly they wait until you ask a question). And though it might take a few times to get comfortable in a mixed space, once you are comfortable the range of options available make it well worth it.

I know too that there are some women-only gyms. I have no objection to them and I don’t think they’re sexist. But I would be interested to know whether they are as well-equipped as inclusive gyms, or if they emphasize a certain kind of equipment that caters more “to the ladies.”  I find that assumptions that women ought to work out in certain less intensive ways do women a disservice.  But if that’s the only way to get some women out there hitting the iron, then it’s a good place to start.

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, yoga enthusiast, vegan, knitter, runner.

25 thoughts on “Women-Only Gyms and Workout Areas

  1. catherine w says:

    HI Tracy– interesting food for thought. I used to go to an all-women’s club, Healthworks. I liked it because it was was non-smelly (sounds fussy, but you know how some gyms can reek), had really well-maintained high-quality machines and facilities, and also seemed to welcome a great variety of women of different sizes, ages, colors, interests. I enjoyed the vibe. In the end, I canceled because it got too expensive to justify. I switched to a university gym (BU), which was had great and many more facilities. Surprisingly (to me), I think I like it better. Working out among lots of folks (men and boys and children included) who have much more diverse activities (squash, basketball, dance, climbing, diving) is energizing. I don’t miss the women’s club a bit.

    • Tracy I says:

      I love the Y for that reason. The membership (at least at the Y I belong to) is so diverse, as is the range of activities available–something for everyone. But it’s interesting what you say about your positive experience at the all-women gym. It sounds as if it had good equipment and a nice atmosphter.

  2. VickyTH says:

    This is spot-on. I chose my gym specifically because it was an all-inclusive facility that did not have a women’s section. The gyms with women’s sections that I have visited were not adequately stocked with equipment, but rather had small, pink dumbells, machines and cardio equipment. The real equipment was in the main area. The only women in the women’s section seemed apathetic and were listlessly cycling on recumbent bikes. It turned me off completely.

    I go to the gym as an athlete and a decent human being. If men and women can’t act like both of those then they don’t belong in any high-quality gym. Management needs to develop ways of educating members and correcting abberant behaviour, not throwing up walls to ignore the problem.

    My experience is that proper orientation for new members can help a lot to overcome shyness. Most of the men at the gym are very supportive of women using the equipment and are happy to help new members out. When we separate people, we isolate those who need help and motivation from those best able to provide it.

  3. kuri says:

    When I lived in Ottawa, I had a Goodlife membership and some of the locations were women-only. Depending on what I happened to be doing and where I was on a given day, I’d work out at different locations. There’s a significant Ethiopian/Somalian population in Ottawa, and I noticed that the women-only facility has a lot of women from that community, some in sport versions of the hijab, some not. The mixed sex facilities were all white.

    At one of the women only locations, there was a gentleman who was trying to ‘inspect’ the facility for his wife because he wasn’t certain it was really women only. He was prevented from doing so and the clerk explained pretty neatly that if they let him in past the reception desk, then it wouldn’t be women only.

    As it was a commercial gym, their were more machines than free weights and I’d probably find all Goodlife facilities unsuited to the sort of workouts I prefer now (which favour free weights), but I still feel that it was a really good thing that the women only facilities were providing a safe space for these women to work out. Yes, it would be nice if no woman felt that she couldn’t exercise in a mixed gender environment. But that’s not the way the world is, and I’d rather provide a space where all women, regardless of background, feel comfortable to exercise, to improve their health outcomes and to find community amongst one another than to wait for the entire world to be structured in an ideal manner.

    • kuri says:

      Anyway, to sum up, I think wanting no gender segregation is fine for me, but I want to recognize that I have some racial and cultural privilege that allows me that.

      However, if the women’s facilities at Goodlife were significantly different than the mixed gender ones, I may feel differently.

  4. Terra says:

    My gym added a women-only area, adjacent to the locker room, that’s much as you describe. The equipment consists mainly of an old Nautilus circuit, a pair of treadmills, and a pair of ellipticals. For free weights, there are two benches and a rack of dumbbells up to 20#. Body bars and kettle bells migrate in and out as needed. There are no barbells at all, let alone power cages. Once in a great while I’ll do some cardio in there because there are no TVs, but in general I don’t approve. If it were “separate but equal”, that would be one thing, but as you say, it clearly conveys a message that women are expected to work out differently, less intensely, than men. It gets a fair amount of use – and I’m especially sorry to say that, given that the main weight room is not a hostile environment.

    I’m not sure if I would use a women-only area, or join a women-only gym, even if it were properly equipped for serious strength training. I like a mixed environment, and I like having men around me who can lift more than I can because it gives me something to shoot for. I can respect that some women may be uncomfortable working out around men – but sticking them with light weights and lots of cardio machine isn’t helpful or fair.

  5. Lisa says:

    I think that if you really wanted a women-only gym, and you signed a contract for a women-only gym, and you are now being told that your gym is co-ed, that you should at least be allowed to cancel your contract without charge.

    Also, I’d love to see “co-ed gyms” actually serve co-ed populations. E.g., for a lot of machines, I have to adjust levers to their shortest setting and I’m 5’8″ (machines seem to be meant for people 5’7 and up). Many women are shorter than that, and using machines at settings too big for them is dangerous and/or inefficient. I’ve also NEVER seen any globo gym actually own a single women’s lifting bar (which is really important for grip width! Especially for deadlifts!)

    • Tracy I says:

      I agree that if you signed up for a women’s only gym and they decided to change that, you should be allowed to cancel without penalty. I’ve also never seen women’s lifting bars. I didn’t know until recently that they even had such a thing, and a smaller grip would be so nice.

      • VickyTH says:

        The women’s bars are about 10lbs lighter (which makes no real difference, but is good to know when calculating the weight you want to add) and the grip is much smaller. Makes a huge difference in deadlifts and rows, as well as Olympic lifts.

      • Robert says:

        I agree women’s only work out areas are mainly unfair to all. while men pay the same membership fees for use of the gym as women do. Because of there Gender they are banned and are not allowed to use all the space and equipment as women are allowed to use. Women have a choice as to what areas they want to be in and men are told what areas they may be in.. So if half the area space is women’s only then men should only be paying half the membership cost for what is actually available to there Gender based confines. Just not fair for all. I would use the whole gym if allowed.

  6. Tali says:

    I work out at a female only gym and the community of folks there is amazing. There are a lot of women who come in wearing religious head scarves, coverings or other modesty items, and when they leave the change room they are able to wear whatever makes them most comfortable for their workout without having to worry about men being around. As well, I find the female-only space is a great place for women to start working out for the first time – often, in this case, women are sensitive about their bodies and size are intimidated to work out in front of men (because they worry about being desirable to them—uugggh, this makes me so upset but its true). There are two problems in this case: there are definitely NOT ENOUGH free weights for women; there is a strong emphasis on the elliptical and other stereotypical “girly” machines. Also, this is a chain gym I am talking about, and in my city it appears that there is only one maintenance worker, and it’s a male! So, when he is in-house doing repairs, it definitely changes the mood and some women (like the population who wear burka’s, for example) are intimidated by his presence. But the up’s definitely outweigh the downs.

    • Tracy I says:

      I can see the merit of women’s only gyms that are adequately equipped more than of women’s only sections of inclusive gyms that are under-equipped relative to the common space. It’s amazing that they cannot find a woman who does repair work. Has anyone said anything to them? There ARE women in the trades!

  7. There don’t seem to be “men’s only” gyms or sections that are formally designated as such. As a fitness professional, I would rather see women getting into the weight room and making their presence all the more normal there and everywhere in the gym instead of heading into the women’s only section and keeping the separation.

  8. Actually, I don’t know who these women are who get catcalls and leered at. I’ve been going to gyms for 28 years, and I have never seen nor experienced that. I think it’s the young men who feel intimidated, as they tend to work out in pairs or packs. Once (a VERY long time ago), some guy did approach me during my workout and asked, “come here often?” I said, “yes, I do. Obviously you don’t.” That was the end of the conversation!

    I find the big bodybuilder men very helpful. If someone like that is doing an exercise that I have not done and would like to try, I just go up to them and ask them to show me how to do it. They’re always happy to show me. Women have to stop being scared and intimidated by men. They’re not scary. They’re people, too.

    • Thanks, Savita, I was thinking the same thing. I’ve belonged to many different gyms in my life and I’ve never had a problem with leered at or made to feel uncomfortable by men. Of course there are rude and obnoxious men sometimes but there are also rude and obnoxious women too. I think if you are nervous or intimidated by the free weights area you might want to get a personal trainer show you the ropes for a few sessions. With knowledge comes confidence!

  9. Jean says:

    I don’t work out in indoor gyms on equipment. So can’t add much. Just finding the comments and observations, particularily on the religious women who do need to feel comfortable in women-only gym rooms. It’s great to have these changes among population in exercise.. (Now if we could see these same said women, cycling in Canadian cities more often…)

    (I couldn’t resist flagging this news item to Tracy. :))

  10. Heather says:

    I chose a women only gym because it was the closest to my home and I knew that if it wasn’t within walking distance I would never go. The gym is fully equipped, functional and friendly with a variety of great classes. It is clean. What I love is that my membership allows me to go to all the affiliate gyms most of which are mixed so I’ve noticed how free I feel in the women’s only gym, just doing my own thing, not worrying about how I look, no gaze. When I was first starting out, I was totally sedentary and very self conscious, I felt incompetent and stupid. Now that I have gained strength and confidence, I don’t mind working out in the mixed gym from time to time although I still prefer the women’s only gym where the is a very wide range of age groups and abilities. There are mothers dropping off babies at the gym’s daycare, pregnant women, older women just starting out, middle-aged women looking very fit, younger women lifting heavy weights, etc. All this is very inspiring! At this stage of my athletic development, this is what works for me.

  11. Jane says:

    My last gym (not my current one since I relocated) had a women’s only section. Yes it did have some lighter weights free weights but it mainly just copied what was in the co-ed part of the gym. I tended to use the women’s only side treadmils first mainly due to their location. I could people watch the entire section from the treadmill unlike on the co-ed side. Overall I liked having it not for me but a lot of the people who used it because it was women’s only. They felt more comfortable being there and if it was all co-ed they may have not worked out at all.

    Also I am currently living in the Detriot area. There are some gyms here that have a separate women’s section which is awesome because there is a large segment of women down here who can only freely work out in that kind of gym.

  12. noqualia says:

    I have definitely worked out in gyms where women were leered at while on cardio equipment.

    I also belonged to a gym where there was a women’s-only section. It had a smaller selection of Nautilus equipment, and cardio equipment. This gym was largely attended by college guys and I think the women’s only section felt like a refuge to a lot of the patrons. I used whichever had an open treadmill.

  13. Helen says:

    The gym I go to has a separate “ladies area” which is empty most of the time but occasionally used by some women who like to sit on the machines and text – I use the area to do my stretching after my weight training workout as there is more space and soft mats. The women are usually in the cardio classes and they hog the treadmills and elipticals. I am the only female who is regularly in the “co ed” weights area.

    I have been going to gym weights room, on and off for nearly 30 years now and I never had any problems whatsoever. In fact, the men are usually helpful and I see no reason why I should miss out on the buffed eye candy!

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