martial arts

Doing my part to #BreakTheBias on International Women’s Day

I’m putting this year’s International Women’s Day theme into action at Taekwondo tonight by leading the warm-up and taking a group of black belts through their patterns.

Years ago, I wrote about how I wanted to step up more often at TKD, how I wanted to train to be seen. I have been working on that slowly and steadily but things have been complicated by injuries and family stuff and a damn pandemic so I haven’t quite built the momentum that I had imagined when I wrote that post.

I have gotten less self-conscious about being called on to demonstrate something – although, after years of being visibly stressed when I was called on, I think my instructors got out of the habit of asking me very often. *

I have definitely been able to push myself a bit harder when sparring or doing drills – I’ve mostly gotten over feeling odd about those things.

But I haven’t really gotten used to the idea of leading the warms-up and patterns practice. I have done it a few times but not often enough for it to be easy or to feel routine. And while I had planned, back in the fall, to alternate classes with some of the other students who lead the warm-ups, it never quite worked out.

So it was one of those things that I was theoretically willing and able to do but I never quite got around to doing very often. Cut to a few weeks ago when Master D asked me if I would lead the class on Women’s Day and suddenly everything clicked.

I realized that in order to feel more comfortable leading the class I needed to not only lead more often but lead several times in a row and I needed to prepare a lesson plan so I wasn’t fighting my ADHD to remember what to do next while I was standing in front a group of my peers.

So, instead of just taking the class on Women’s Day, I offered to take the class every Tuesday in March. That way I would know in advance and I could plan the classes and I could practice 5 weeks in a row and get used the whole thing. Not only would this help me train to be seen but it would help me build some skills for my next belt test (a 4th degree black belt is expected to be able to instruct.)

So, what does all of this have to do with breaking the bias for International Women’s Day?

When I think of bias in the martial arts, I usually think of the external biases that might limit or affect women as they practice. We might encounter varying degrees of sexism. We might be treated differently than our male peers. We may not be in decision-making roles.

And I also think of the social biases that we bring with us – the expectation that we have to be “nice” or “good”, the sense that any sort of aggressive or competitiveness is inappropriate in a woman, the idea what we should step back so the men can take charge. We carry those things subconsciously even when we consciously reject them.

But I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to how my actions or behaviours could be reinforcing some of the biases that might impede women in TKD.

Obviously, I fight some biases already – just my presence in class is pushing back against the idea that martial arts are for men , and I also work hard to encourage the other women in class, particularly the young women, not to disparage their efforts and I remind them to see themselves as fighters and as equals to the other students.

But by stepping back when it was time for someone to lead the class, I am contributing to the idea that most women don’t take charge in these situations. My actions (or lack there of) can add to the bias against women taking on a full role in the martial arts.

If I don’t lead classes, if I don’t do demonstrations, if I don’t develop my skills, if I don’t own my TKD knowledge, I am reinforcing a bias and contributing to negative stereotypes about women in the martial arts. *

And I refuse to do that any longer.

My reluctance to lead classes and to do demonstrations are not actually about me buying into stereotypes, they are a complex mix of internalized socialization, previous negative experiences with physical activity, ADHD-related challenges with learning physical skills, and a stubborn perfectionist streak. But, whatever the additional reasons, the result is the same – by giving into to my reluctance, I am not helping women to be more visible. I am not showing that women can be part of all aspects of martial arts.

I can do better than that.

In the photo below, I am surrounded with signs from this year’s IWD campaign that show the ways that I am committing to breaking the bias. By stepping up in front of the TKD class, I am forging positive visibility of women, I am challenging gender stereotypes, discrimination, & bias, I am helping to forge a gender equal world, and I am working to maintain a gender equal mindset.

And I am starting all of that by pushing back against my own reluctance and accepting the responsibility of being seen.

Ki-YA!

A photo of me in my dobok (a white Taekwondo uniform), my hair is pulled back into a bandana and I am smiling/smirking a little.  My arms are in front of me, crossed at the wrist to make an X.
A photo of me in my dobok (a white Taekwondo uniform), my hair is pulled back into a bandana and I am smiling/smirking a little. My arms are in front of me, crossed at the wrist to make an X. In TKD, this gesture is his gesture is a defensive block but in this case it is the IWD symbol for this year’s theme of ‘Break The Bias’. Behind me, on a green wall are 4 printed signs that all say ‘International Women’s Day’ in the upper right corner and #BreakTheBias in white letters in purple box at the bottom of the page. The signs read ‘I will maintain a gender equal mindset’ ‘I will challenge gender stereotypes, discrimination & bias’ ‘I will help forge a gender equal world’ and ‘ I will forge positive visibility of women’ photo credit – J. Drodge

**I want to be clear here. I do NOT think that it is EVERY female martial artist’s responsibility to do all of these things. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they always have to be flag bearers for their whole gender. This is about me, what I know I am capable of, and the responsibility that I feel to break biases. You may feel different responsibilities as a martial artist and I am not trying to tell you how to proceed. Many male students don’t feel the need to step to the front of the room and it would be different type of bias for me to suggest that every female needs to take that step. I’m doing what makes sense for me, please do the same for yourself.

* There is a whole point to be made here about the structural/inherent biases that prevent instructors from asking women to be demonstrators, the lifetime of biases that have prevented women from having the experiences/ growing the skills to be at ease with demonstrating, the resulting uncertainty that makes them turn down opportunities to demonstrate, the instructors’ reluctance to make female students uncomfortable by continuing to ask that then perpetuates the issue because the women don’t grow in that specific confidence and skill set. There a biases string through the whole thing but there is more to it than that. Anyway, that could be a whole other post.

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