Is Parkour an Exclusive Boys’ Club?

Maybe…but maybe not. Figuring out how many women are actually in the sport will provide a baseline from which to investigate this larger question.

Figure 1. Google images search results for “parkour” September, 2017. What do you notice?

A quick Google search for images associated with the word “parkour” reveals the above screen capture: epic silhouettes of male figures performing [mostly] daring feats of unthinkable athleticism. The images evoke a very masculine super-hero vibe, which is a decent representation of the most common stereotypes associated with parkour: danger, muscle, and men.*

But for those of us who train and teach parkour, and indeed, who embrace its principles as a lifestyle, these click bait-y images are misleading and harmful to the reputation of our discipline. Anyone can do parkour. Yes, even your grandmother. My mom is a non-athletic grandmother (sorry, Mom) and she attended her first parkour class at the age of 60. Parkour is about becoming familiar with your current physical capabilities [whatever those may be] and learning to use your body to overcome obstacles at whatever level is safely challenging and physically possible for you.

Figure 2. Proof of my mom doing parkour at Primal Fitness in Washington, DC in 2012.

When I first started training parkour, I could not perform a solid push-up to save my life. I had never been capable of doing this, and never dreamed that one day I would be able to do pull-ups using only three fingers on each hand. Building strength felt slow at first, but it was a seamless and inherent part of building a parkour practice; nobody just wakes up from a sedentary lifestyle one day, decides to do a backflip, and lives to tell the tale. Rather than doing isolated repetitions on a machine, I was learning to vault over wooden boxes, balance on hand railings, and climb up vertical walls.

As I became more entrenched in the parkour community, began coaching classes at Parkour Visions in Seattle, and attending jams (large gatherings of parkour practitioners who descend on a single location to jump on all the things) I realized that there were not many people who looked like me. The parkour community seemed more male-focused the more I learned about it.

Figure 3. (B)East Coast parkour jam in Washington, DC hosted by American Parkour. I’m the only visible female (shoulder-length blonde hair) on the far-right. There were 18 others by my count, out of 148 participants.

Curiosity about how many other women there are in parkour lead me to a research project involving photographs from parkour jams like the one above. Meticulously counting faces and assigning gender to sweaty parkour jam participants is not a method I would recommend adopting for future research. Unfortunately, this seemed to be the most appropriate way to develop an estimate of women who are active in parkour, as jam participation is a mark of one’s inclusion or active role in the community. Of course, there are many more women and girls who attend classes at parkour gyms who do not attend jams, but there are similarly young boys and men who also do not attend.

So what is the gender break-down of parkour jam participants? 13.8%. That means less than two women (on average) out of ten people training parkour. I presented the results of this study at the Art of Retreat in 2016, which is an annual gathering of parkour leaders and enthusiasts focused on the pedagogy, sociology, and politics of our sport. Reactions were mixed.

Figure 4. Gender distribution of participants at national and international parkour jams in the United States.

Some were surprised that the numbers were so low. Out of 1,936 jam participants over a five-year period, only 268 were women. Others who attended the workshop said they thought the numbers would be even lower. Since women comprise slightly higher than 50% of the population in the United States, there is no reason we should be seeing this big of a gap.

Discussions that ensued revealed that women tend to have a nuanced sense of what it means to be under-represented in the discipline, each with our own stories about feeling marginalized and suffering from the imposter syndrome. In contrast, the male participants expressed a wide variety of questions and concerns about the topic. Some were well-versed in approaches that worked well for female parkour students. Others had strong opinions that seemed rooted in defensiveness; most notably a controversial distaste for women-only parkour classes and meet-ups.

The reasons that so few women are attracted to parkour and stay involved in the community once they begin to practice are myriad and complex. What are the barriers to entry, and what can we do to increase recruitment and retention of women and girls in the sport?

This is the obvious next question that must be answered on the path toward greater female representation, and will be the topic of my next post. For now, let’s just absorb that number (13.8%) and commit to increasing it.

Figure 5. Google images search results for “women parkour” September, 2017.** What do you notice? Are the movement styles different? Framing and representation of identities? Words showing up as companion search terms to “women parkour” such as: “hot”, “free spirit”, “body”, “art”, and “fashion”? We’ve got a long ways to go.

*The Freedom in Motion Gym Blog (FiMfo) published an article to which I contributed, entitled “De-bunking Parkour Myths: How common misconceptions are holding you back from fun and fitness”. If you still think parkour isn’t for you — you should go and read that article. Right now.

**To see more images of women doing parkour, check out Julie Angel’s See&Do photo gallery, and visit the Women’s Parkour Movement website.