Tackling Inequalities In Physical Activity

By Dr. Stephanie Coen

A crucial note—this study was not limited to the cis-gender population, but of the 52 people who volunteered to participate in my research during the study period, all self-identified this way (although there was some sexual diversity). It will be important for future work to purposefully explore the experiences of gender-diverse individuals in the gym. You can read more about the academic nitty gritty here.

As women, most of us have at least one gym story. Some less-than-savoury thing that made us feel awkward, uncomfortable, out-of-place in the gym. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here are some case-in-point examples in a recent magazine articleWe need to keep telling our stories. But I want to suggest that to make material changes in what happens on the gym floor, we need to put our focus on the problematic web of gender relations that catches us all. That’s not as convoluted as it sounds, I promise.

Let me explain.

Kath Browne, an academic at Maynooth University in Ireland, developed a concept called ‘genderism’ to describe how the minutest of social cues and interactions work to rigidly categorize people by gender in particular places—often in ways that have negative consequences for those who seemingly transgress ideas of what women and men should be like. Dr. Browne’s work on women who are mistaken for men in women’s public bathrooms shows how women who do not apparently ‘fit’ the expected category of ‘woman’ in public bathrooms are confronted with questioning glances and hostile remarks from other women. They’re made out-of-place. Now, these off-handed gestures and side-comments are not so little; they are actually become a way of policing gender and defining who is legitimate in particular places. ‘Genderism’ is about the processes that create social hierarchies among and between groups of men, women, and gender-diverse people. It is more complex than men versus women.

So what if we apply this idea of ‘genderism’ to the gym?

That’s where my research comes in. I interviewed 52 women and men in a Canadian city about their experiences in the gym. I also asked them to draw about how they feel in the gym and then tell me about it, and to keep journals for a week about the positive and negative aspects of their time in the gym. 

My goal was to identify the ‘genderist’ processes in the gym that affect what we do (the exercises we perform, how we workout) and how we move about the gym (the spaces we occupy, how we navigate through the gym). From a health standpoint, my concern was that although gyms are increasingly common places to engage in physical activity, they may also be places that (re)define gender in ways that pigeonhole women and men into certain gendered ways of working out—and this may limit the health opportunities we derive from gym-based physical activity. By identifying such ‘genderist’ processes, we can disrupt them, and make gyms more inclusive places for all.

Here’s what I found:

1. Wider aesthetic ideals about when men’s and women’s bodies translate into the gym and constrain our physical activity practices.

I talk about this process as ‘embodying gender ideals.’ These notions drove women and men to respectively divide their exercise routines along a cardiovascular/strength training binary. And those I spoke with were well-aware of how this affected them. For example, one man said to me “my gender, you know, predisposes me to wanting to do more of the heavy lifting kind of stuff,” while a woman told me “I don’t wanna build too much muscle, I just wanna tone, I kind of stick to the lower weights.” This pressure even drove some people to take up activities they disliked. For example, a woman, in her journal wrote, “asked myself ‘why do I pick this machine’ because I really don’t like it. Then it dawned on me—someone told me it was good for my inner thighs.” Indeed, this was so strong that when I asked participants in my study if they would do things differently if they were to imagine themselves as another gender, most were quick keep with gender stereotypes, as one woman put it, “I’d probably work out—so funny that I can’t even believe it would come out of my mouth—I’d probably work out harder. Which is ridiculous as soon as it comes out, because what is, what is—a penis won’t make me work harder.” This shows how gendered pressures are always operating in the background, but with very real material consequences for how men and women differentially practiced physical activities in the gym.

2. The gender police are outAnd sometimes we are the police.

Most of the people I spoke with described feeling socially sanctioned by others for crossing what one woman called “the gendered lines”—the social and material boundaries separating men’s and women’s activities and spaces in the gym. Women and men understood these gendered lines to delineate, as one women said, “a separation where women are supposed to be and where men are supposed to be.” Men and women responded to pressures to conform to more normatively gendered behaviours in the gym by limiting the range of activities and spaces they were prepared to engage in. This often took on a form of self-policing, as a way to protect against potentially punitive consequences. One man shared with me how he strategically limited himself to certain activities, for fear of reprisal:

“Gender definitely defines the stereotypes of what people do at the gym. You could even go as far as to say what people are allowed to do at the gym, depending on what the norm is. I try not to constrain myself to those things, but there are, you know, typical female exercises or activities that I don’t—I don’t want to do. But it’s not because I don’t want to do them. I wouldn’t mind doing them. But, uh, it’s just because I feel like I can’t.”

It’s important to note that gender policing disadvantaged everyone. Both men and women described constraints on their gym participation because of it. This ‘genderist’ process worked to re-draw firm and polarized boundaries between women and men in the gym, not only in relation to the types of exercises practiced, but how women and men behaved with the gym. For example, one woman described how if she were to be assertive about etiquette and equipment sharing she would be negatively categorized in gendered terms: “I watch even my male friends walk into the gym and their shoulders are back and their heads tall and they walk up to a rack—and if they’re unhappy with how things are going, if people are being like disorganized, they’ll go and call them out… But if I were to do this, I would be a ‘bitch’.” This led her, despite being one of the most experienced weight-lifting women I spoke with, to feel like she was “tip toeing around and like almost apologizing.”


3. We all feel crowded out, but women especially so.

The men and women I spoke with described a collection of gym practices that fit together to maintain a gendered hierarchy of space. Both men and women often talked about a particularly ‘amplified’ flavour of masculinity that disproportionately took up space, and made some gym-goers want to “get it done as quick as possible and then leave” or altogether avoid “where the big guys generally hang out at.” Even a self-described “burly man who’s 6’1 and 240” felt the negative effects of this type of masculinity: “Nice guys. But they’re strong and it’s intense. So it kind of changes the mentality in there and I’m a little, ok, well, I’m not intimidated, but I’m kind of, it’s busy and there’s a lot of energy…It kind of makes me want to turn around and leave, to be honest.” Women, however, additionally described undertaking various actions to minimize their consumption of time and space in the gym, with several sharing the sentiment that “my attitude is stay over out of their way and then I don’t feel like I’m a nuisance.” Women also detailed an array of micro-aggressions on the part of men that could literally crowd or rush them out. For instance, a number of women perceived that men seeking access to equipment approached women prior to approaching men in the same space, as one woman explained: “I will have just gotten on to a squat rack or the bench and there’ll be other guys on all the other racks or whatever, I’m the only one approached and asked how much longer I have. So there’s this pressure to get off.

4. Gender binaries get broken.

Some people I spoke with vigorously rejected the gendered lines of the gym and even strategically designed their workouts to this end. For some women, this was about expressing their femininity on their own terms. One woman, for example, enthusiastically described her plan to perform a 315-pound deadlift wearing a tutu as a way to reclaim the derogatory notion “you lift like a girl” with the response, “‘yes, I do, and I lift 315 pounds’.” A few men, too, spoke of the potential for more flexible gender categories in the gym, with one man locating himself “somewhere in the middle, roughly” between “doing more the man, masculine type activities or exercises in the gym” and “feminine side.”

Overall, my research shows that ‘genderism’ in the gym helps to set the stage for the normalization of gender differences in how we exercise. ‘Genderist’ processes work to embed hierarchical gender relations in the gym environment in ways that influence where we go and what we do. Because of this, although gyms are potentially sites for health promotion, they are also places where gendered inequities in health opportunities emerge and are sustained.

But what do we do about this?

My study makes clear that tackling gender inequities in physical activity is not as simple as women versus men. Men also experienced limitations on their gym participation due the gendered nature of the gym. I say, therefore, that improving gender equity in the gym requires that we go beyond engaging only women, to comprehensively contending with the ‘genderist’ processes that work to keep the “gendered lines” in place. From this perspective, gender-specific gyms or women’s only training spaces in co-ed gyms are not a sufficient solution for gender equity. (Editor’s note: While they are not a sufficient long-term solution, creating safe spaces for people should be a priority while working towards the goal of total gender equity, across all gender identities.) Such approaches leave our current state of gender relations intact, rather than transforming the very gender relations that come to define those spaces.

One way forward may be what’s called ‘gender-transformative’ interventions—this is an approach to health that focuses on transforming gender relations in ways that benefit the health of women and men. In the gym, this could involve, for instance, communications campaigns—on-site or on social media—that aim to disrupt gender hierarchies by drawing attention to some of the commonalities and aspects of shared experience articulated among the men and women in my study. Another option could be to spatially challenge “the gendered lines” by interspersing traditionally gendered activities throughout the gym, as suggested by two of my research participants, to “allow men and women to sort of merge a little bit more.” It would be especially important for such initiatives to avoid co-opting aspects of masculinities and femininities in ways that reinforce harmful stereotypes, in particular the potential pitfall of framing men as ‘bad guys’ in the gym.

Indeed, a gender-transformed gym may be more welcoming to participants who previously disengaged precisely due to these very gender dynamics, getting us closer to our goal of “strength for all.”


The full academic journal article on which this post reports can be found here (If you do not have full-text access, and would like a copy, please free to email scoen[at]uwo.ca):

Coen, S. E., Rosenberg, M. W., and Davidson, J. (2018). “It’s gym, like g-y-m not J-i-m:” Exploring the role of place in the gendering of physical activity. Social Science & Medicine, 196, 29-26. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953617306536





Dr. Stephanie Coen is a postdoctoral associate in geography at Western University in London, Ontario (Canada) and a recreational powerlifter. Her research focuses on the role of place and environment in the gendering of physical activity. Her passion for health equity drives her research. She can be found tweeting at @steph_coen. 

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