I believe most coaches and gym owners want women (and all students) to feel comfortable and safe when training. It’s important to set a tone in your gym. How do you know if your gym is both safe for and accepting of women? How can you retain female students? This doesn’t require speeches and pronouncements. It doesn’t mean social media posts. You just simply ask, watch, and talk openly.
Don’t assume a woman will speak up if her environment is uncomfortable or if something has happened. It’s not an easy thing to talk about. Most women have had uncomfortable or inappropriate experiences throughout their lives. For decades, we’ve heard that we are too sensitive, we need to relax, or that we’re misinterpreting someone’s behavior.
Over time, the cumulative impact is a silence. Because women are not always heard, we often tolerate it and keep it to ourselves. Pay attention to what’s going on in your gym and reach out to us. This can feel awkward or strange if you aren’t used to it so here are some suggestions.
From the very first class/contact, talk to women about how they are feeling.
Some of these questions are reasonable to ask any student:
- How’s your time here going so far? What do you like or not like?
- Sometimes people, men and women, feel weird in the beginning. How much do you relate to that feeling? Can you tell me more about what feels weird, if anything? [a coach can then follow-up with other questions based on whether the weird feeling is typical or is related to gendered experiences]
- It’s important to me that my students treat each other equitably and appropriately. Has anyone in particular made you uncomfortable? What happened? I would like to address the behavior. May I talk with this person? I will keep an eye on that and intervene if I see it again. Thank you for letting me know.
****Please note that if you are not willing to address the behavior then you are not cultivating a positive training environment for anyone.****
It is imperative that a coach watches all interactions carefully, especially with females.
Watch how women are being touched or talked to. Are their bodies being intimately groped or touched, even surreptitiously or subtly? Intervene in the moment if you see something! If you’re not sure, ask!
How are male students talking to other students ABOUT women?
Less obvious things to consider.
Do they denigrate professional female BJJ practitioners?
Examples: Heteronormative statements made, such as: “You look gay rolling with that guy” or “Don’t lose to a girl!”
You can simply say “That’s not a cool thing to say. I don’t like that tone in my school.” or “We don’t say stuff like that here.” You don’t need a long lecture; immediate clear feedback is most effective.
How are male students talking TO and treating women?
Women are mistreated in different ways. Sometimes they are given the message that they are not as welcome. Often, lower ranked belts, without invitation, coach or comment on a female jiu-jitsu practitioner’s skill. They say things to women they would not to men of similar rank/size/experience.“You’re good for a girl.” “You should probably do it this way.” “Wow I really didn’t think you’d be able to tap me.” “Women aren’t as strong as men so it’s okay.”
It is paternalistic and patronizing. It feeds a culture where men are in charge of women. I hear coaches suggest that the solution to this is that the women being patronized should just smash or dominate the inappropriate commenter. This simply puts the onus of being treated appropriately on the woman. It is not necessarily a reasonable expectation of a coach. It leaves women feeling hung out to dry and mistreated. Coaches and gym owners shouldn’t be the only people paying attention.
If you hear students inappropriately give feedback,critique, or coach another student, intervene by saying something like, “Just focus on your own practice.” “Yes she’s good. She’s been training longer than you.”
It is incumbent upon gym owners and coaches to cultivate and maintain a safe and productive environment for all students. It does mean some special focus on women’s experiences and needs. Doing so will increase your student retention, decrease unhealthy and unhelpful experiences, and generate a reputation that will attract more students.
Jess Buckland is a purple belt training at Raptor Academy of Martial Arts in Central PA. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice and mom to a 13-year old. When she’s not training you can find her riding her bike, walking her dog, writing about jiu-jitsu or doing NYT crossword puzzles.