Fostering a woman-friendly atmosphere in powerlifting clubs

This article was originally written for So She Lifts

When I first walked into Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club in 2009 I had no idea what powerlifting really was, or that it would become such a big part of my life. Back then I was one of maybe 2 or 3 female powerlifters there, plus maybe 2 or 3 female weightlifters. In the 7 years since, powerlifting has exploded in popularity among women. In 2011 I was one of three women who took part in the British Powerlifting’s (then known as the GBPF) All-England Championships; in 2016 the women’s event is being held separately to the men’s as there just isn’t enough room & time to host both over the same weekend.

I’ve seen a lot of parallels in the explosion of popularity of powerlifting among women, with what I do for my day job. Since 1999 I’ve worked in the tech industry as a developer. While there have always been female developers (in fact the first programmers were almost exclusively women) the software industry became progressively more male-dominated in the 80s and 90s. Similarly, powerlifting since its inception in the 1970s has been very male-dominated. From the 2000s onwards female developers have become more commonplace, and there have been concrete attempts to foster more female-friendly communities in tech and software development. So when I noticed a surge in popularity in powerlifting amongst women at the powerlifting gym I train at, and at GBPF competitions, it felt like similar forces were at work.

I have a lot anecdotal experience of how the tech & software industry has attempted to attract more women. As a veteran female developer I’ve been asked more than once by my employers how they can get more women to apply for jobs (and, admittedly, I do resent the fact that this seems to be a task given to women, when correcting the gender imbalance in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility). But what about powerlifting? After seven years of lifting and six years of competing, I suppose I am something of a veteran (at least compared to some). Obviously many women are attracted to powerlifting already, but how can you encourage more women to take up the sport and — more importantly — keep coming back?

I have to add a disclaimer here that while I am heavily involved in my gym, I am not the gym owner nor a member of the board. BGWLC is an unusual gym in that is it not a business; instead it is a charity run by a committee of members and I don’t actually sit on the committee (through choice). So while I do have a hand in what goes on at the gym, I’m not in any way solely responsible — the gym is a team effort, and all credit has to go to the board of trustees, members and volunteers who make great things happen there.

But whether you’re a gym business owner, a volunteer for a sports charity or group, or just someone who attends a gym and has an interest in what goes on there — if you care about having a more diverse group of people lifting then maybe this article can give you some hints and ideas.

Encouraging diversity is everyone’s responsibility

When I asked the women at BGWLC what makes the gym a great place for women, they all mentioned the attitude of the male members of the gym. Encouraging diversity is everyone’s job, not just that of the minorities you’re targeting.

There are lots of things everyone can do to make the gym a more welcoming and inclusive environment. An easy one is to tone down sexualised comments and actions. Leering at women in the gym is not acceptable — people are here to learn and train, not hook up. You don’t need to call your buddy a “pussy” for not making that lift (no, “pussy” is not short for “pusillanimous”). If you can’t deal with not calling other people a pussy at the gym, then maybe this gym isn’t for you.

If you think someone needs tips or advice on how to lift, ask before advising. A simple “Hey, can I give you a tip?” takes a second; and if the person don’t want advice, take it graciously. Be open to giving spots, especially if it’s for a weight you might think is “too light” to need spotting — that 30kg squat might be a huge amount for them!

It’s not only about women supporting women. The boys are really supportive too. They spot me with my poverty bench! — RS, BGWLC member

Making a space more diverse is all about reasonable adjustments, and these are things everyone can do. If a member can’t bring themselves to make adjustments like this, then maybe your gym is not for them. And if you’re running the gym but don’t want to make these changes, then that’s OK — but running a gym for you and people like you isn’t a long-term business plan. A successful business has a wide reach and a diverse set of clients.

Your social media presence is key

It’s 2016 so most people are going to find out about your gym via your website and social media. In fact I’d say media like Facebook and Instagram are overtaking a website in terms of importance. So it’s essential that your social media presence projects a friendly and inclusive image.

It might seems like a small thing, but the colours you use for website can be really important. How many gym websites have you seen that are black/red/silver and feature images of snarling wolves or bulldogs? Some people might think they look cool, but to others aggressive images can be offputting. When I was building the BGWLC website I was keen to use a more “neutral” colour (I used the signature BGWLC green) and feature equal numbers of male & female lifters in the main banner image.

There was a picture of Anna [Macnab, GBPF British powerlifting team member] on the website, so I knew there would be some women there! — KT, BGWLC member

On our Instagram account we try to feature women and men equally, and we make an effort to feature plenty of beginners and lifters of all shapes and sizes, not just the strongest and most swole. You might think only featuring the strongest and leanest lifters makes your gym look like it’s the best around, but it can make also less confident & newer lifters think your gym is not a place for them. At the end of the day, your gym needs new members to survive and grow, so you don’t want to discourage anyone.

Stay away from gym memes in your professional presence. Memes are hugely popular but they can also be hugely problematic. If you must use them, consider them carefully. Never use memes which feature women with their heads cut out of the picture — instead show women as whole people, not objectified bodies. You can read more on this here.

Finally, be reactive on social media. People who are curious about trying your gym might feel too shy to pop in & talk to you about it, or even to talk on the phone. Answer emails or messages on social media promptly, and in a friendly manner. This goes extra if you’re responding publicly comments on social media — don’t mock or belittle people, and if someone posts a negative comment on one of your pictures or statuses, react in a dignified manner.

I loved the [Facebook] video that was used to promote the event. I also loved the amount of noticeably male non-lifters commenting with “is her form right?”, and the calm dignified responses from the club!” — RT, BGWLC member

Have decent facilities for women

This might seem like the most basic thing to say but… have women’s changing facilities available! I have taken part in powerlifting competitions in venues where there is a men’s changing room, but none for women. I also know of one female lifter who is the only woman at her club, and has to change in a Portakabin. It’s so simple: have women’s facilities. They don’t have to be fancy, they just have to exist on a par with the men’s facilities.

Provide sanitary supplies, or set up a Tampon Club. Hang a mirror in the changing rooms. Put up some hooks for people to hang their gear on. Little things make the biggest differences.

Consider running women-only sessions for new (and new to your gym) lifters

At BGWLC we have been running a series of women-only introduction sessions for women interested in giving lifting a try. They have been very successful, averaging 7–9 people in each session. Providing women-only sessions was one of the conditions of us receiving council funding, but it’s also been good for business. Many women out there are interested in giving barbell training a try, but can feel shy about walking into a gym if they don’t know where to start.

The aim of these sessions is to give women the ability to talk into a weights room (whether ours or another gym’s) and feel confident they know what they’re doing. The ultimate aim is not to segregate women into their own classes. So far the sessions have been very well-received and we’ve gained some new regular attendees. Plus, most importantly, lots of fun was had and new friends made!

Don’t make assumptions about why women want to try lifting

There are lots of reasons for taking up weight training, and there are lots of benefits to doing it. But it’s safer not to assume you know why a woman wants to give it a try. Don’t assume that everyone wants to lose weight or get a sexy butt. If someone asks you about those things, then by all means go ahead and give the right advice! But it’s safest to only assume a woman is lifting because she wants to get stronger.

For our Introduction to Strength Training sessions at BGWLC, we kept the message really simple — You are stronger than you think. We didn’t want to tie the sessions in with weight loss, nutrition, appearance etc. All those things are totally valid reasons to want to lift weights, but they’re not everyone’s reasons.

Additionally, be careful with food and nutrition talk. Many women suffer from disordered eating patterns and may find unwanted nutrition advice difficult to handle. Again, if someone asks for nutrition advice then by all means go ahead & give it, but never give that sort of advice out unprompted. Additionally you should never assume you can tell what someone does or doesn’t eat by their appearance.

Have measures in place if things go wrong

For people to feel safe & supported at your gym it’s really important to have measures in place if things go wrong. Have a system where if — for example — someone feels uncomfortable with another member’s behaviour, they know they will be listened to and the matter investigated. Dismissing behaviour or attitudes as “just horseplay” or “just how they are” isn’t good enough. Consider making a basic code of conduct part of your membership sign-up process, and make it clear what will happen if the code of conduct is not adhered to.

Even more diversity

The ideas above are for fostering a more women-friendly space, but ultimately having a diverse environment means being open to all. Many strength gyms can not only seem intimidating to women, but also LGBT people (especially trans people, who also face discrimination in the competitive sporting world). I hope that by presenting an image of our gym as open to women of all abilities and backgrounds, we will start to attract more members from other marginalised groups. At the risk of sounding mercenary: not only is this great for social equality, but more reach is good for business!

A big thank you has to go to all the members of Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club for helping me write this article (and making the gym a great place).

Find out more about Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club at our website, Instagram and Facebook page.

Read more about me at my blog: Laura Lifts