A 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.