Improving Gender Diversity in Parkour

A guide for male community leaders

If you want a thriving women’s parkour scene in your city, female practitioners must be ready to lead, recruit, and show up. Uniting and growing a subset of your community must be led from within. However, that doesn’t mean male leaders can’t be involved in improving gender diversity in parkour. In fact, your support for subcommunities can go a long way towards building and retaining a diverse macro community.

A woman does a speed vault, silhouetted against the sky
The author vaulting over a barrier

But before discussing how, let’s talk about why a women’s subcommunity is important. While it’s possible to integrate individuals into your community (often this means the sisters or girlfriends of male practitioners), retention and identity can suffer if there isn’t a support network for them. For example, many women who joined the sport because of their partners cite problems with being seen as legitimate, making connections with other practitioners, being stereotyped as promiscuous, and, in the event of a split, not feeling comfortable training with the community anymore. But women who start without a male counterpart face challenges as well. Being the only woman in the room, especially as a beginner, can be intimidating and uncomfortable. Either too much attention or too little socialization can make the training environment feel threatening or unwelcoming.

So how do women build up a community that is supportive and welcoming? And how can men help without compromising the integrity of a female-centric space? Here are six imperatives for a marginalized subcommunity and notes on how established leaders can facilitate them.

Remember that women are not a homogenous group, so while this article highlights some ways to combat common issues, always consider what’s appropriate for your specific community. When in doubt, ask.

To have a strong women’s subcommunity, women must be responsible for:

· Developing their own support network. For this to be possible, you must make enough space at the table/on the coaching staff/in the friend group so that no woman has to fail or quit in order for another to succeed. Do not pit anyone against each other for a token spot. Antagonism between women is passé. Introduce female practitioners to each other and encourage mentorship when appropriate. If you are well connected with other communities, help women network. Create a culture of teamwork and respect.

· Communicating their needs and making demands. Help open communication lines to the marginalized subcommunity by designating time for coaches/organizers to meet with practitioners and discuss their needs. Listen actively and give honest consideration to their feedback. Collaborate on solutions if you can’t meet their needs in the way they’ve requested. On a smaller scale, this might look like sitting down with a female friend and asking about her experience and how you can help. Become someone women trust to ask when they need an ally by calling out sexist behavior and language when you see it.

· Being resilient in the face of failure. Be conscious that our society has a much lower tolerance for women’s failures than it has for men’s, which discourages women from taking risks. No matter how friendly the training environment, female practitioners can have negative social conditioning weighing on them. Do not give up on individuals who’ve made mistakes. Invite them back and be prepared to assist with unpacking issues or making a plan for moving past the difficulty if necessary. If individuals need to take time off, maintain your social relationship with them. Check in. Value them as people, not just as means to reaching a diversity quota.

· Choosing their own leaders. Don’t force responsibility on token members of the coaching staff, especially if they’re not enthusiastic liaisons to their subcommunity. If you have a female coach, expecting her to do the extra work of representing half the population is unfair. (Ask: are female coaches your sole point of contact with your female practitioners?) If they need help organizing, act as an advisor and resource, but don’t take over. You do not need to choose a leader; the community will choose who they want to follow.

· Building their own infrastructure. Support women creating their own programming. Recognize that parkour was created by people with similar (assigned male) body types and continues to be coached primarily by people with that same body type. Understand that some parkour movements/obstacles are more challenging for people who are shorter, have lower centers of mass, or a lower strength to weight ratio — all traits associated with the average female-assigned body type. (This is to say that these things disproportionately challenge women, not that they only affect women, affect all women, or that women are incapable of excelling as athletes because of them.) As more diverse body types join the discipline, the vocabulary of movements should also become more diverse. Support and celebrate movement innovation.

· Having the confidence to take up space. This is personal to each practitioner, but if you’re a coach, you can help by encouraging women to set their own goals, make their own movement choices (especially training outside of classes), and celebrate their wins. If a female practitioner is hesitating on the sidelines at a jam, reinforce that she is allowed to take up space by inviting her into the line. Let women know that their perspective is valued by asking for their advice on your own movement.

Remember that gender diversity is not as simple as “more women,” and creating women-only programming may exclude other marginalized gender groups.

If you don’t have a core group of women to take the lead yet, some of these points will be hard to put into practice. To help with recruitment and adjusting community culture to be more accessible, here are some action items that anyone can start incorporating immediately:

· Invitations. Nothing dissolves imposter syndrome like a specific request to attend. Text, tag, or ask people to show up. Use your practitioner’s networks to your advantage by, for example, having a designated “bring a friend day,” for the women’s class. Members of a subcommunity often have close relationships with other members of that subcommunity or have access to channels of communication/recruitment that you might not, like a women’s social media group.

· Female coaches. If your company doesn’t have the budget to add a female coach to your roster or the time to raise one up through your community, at least bring in female coaches for workshops. And, crucially, not just for women’s workshops. Visible female leaders are important for legitimizing women’s parkour in the eyes of the whole community.

·Cheerleading. Recognize effort. Acknowledge both impressive skills and strong work ethics. Use social media to connect with, share, and cheer on the female practitioners from your region.

· Travel. Whether by planning logistics or sitting in the car together for hours, a group bonds when they travel together. Help a new practitioner solidify herself a “part of the group” by inviting her to travel with you. Alternatively, coaches can encourage a trip to one of the many women’s events out there. If none suit your needs, start your own either locally or in collaboration with a sister subcommunity from another region. (Be aware that some women may not feel comfortable sleeping in a space with men, so check first. If necessary, help find a local host for them.)

· Movement troubleshooting. In class there’s always an expert around to give the answers on how to do things right. Whether organic or company-scheduled, having a space outside of class for students who’re at the same level to workshop movements and troubleshoot each other’s problems is a fantastic way to build confidence, community, and skill. A body that’s balanced differently than their coach’s will often benefit from the input of people closer to their body type.

· Environment monitoring. Are there members of the community that view female practitioners as prospective girlfriends instead of as other practitioners? Do certain “energetic” practitioners tend to bulldoze their way through training spaces and disrupt others? Is the competitive culture steeped in machismo? Know the red flags that mark an unwelcoming environment and say something when your training partners need to tone it down.

· Female solidarity. Experienced female practitioners will sometimes self-segregate if they feel like they are intimidating to lower skilled female practitioners; however, this inadvertently makes women’s training spaces synonymous with low-skill training spaces. Strong friendships across skill levels can help, as can designated mentorship opportunities. The right solution will be unique to your community. Obviously, this doesn’t mean all women have to train together all the time, but experienced practitioners should be cautious not to accidentally create a stigma that female-centric spaces are less desirable and less proficient than the male-centric macro community.

· Socialization. Parkour brings us together, so injuries and other issues that keep us from training can be very isolating. To keep your group strong when the inevitable happens, build non-movement activities into your calendar, like a parkour-themed book club or a movie night. This provides the additional benefit of being an opportunity to establish friendships between practitioners who are not training at the same level (ie. helping integrate a newly established women’s subcommunity into the macro community).

· Making contact. When someone new attends an unstructured event like a jam, they might be uncomfortable, especially if they’re an outlier like the only woman there. Introduce yourself to people on the fringes. Ask if they want to train with you. Ask them to film your line. If appropriate, give them a progression so that they can join the group. Effort here can significantly improve retention of new practitioners. Be aware, however, that giving unsolicited advice to experienced female practitioners will come off as condescending and sexist, and giving too much attention to a woman who’s there alone may be threatening. Use common sense.

Many of these suggestions are not gender-diversity specific and can be used to grow other marginalized subcommunities or even strengthen your macro community.

Having a strong female presence in your community could look like a well-attended weekly women’s jam; having a women’s workshops throughout the year; having a quarterly meeting for the community to discuss progress and concerns; having a balanced gender ratio at your events and on your coaching staff; et cetera. Pick a metric and work towards it.

One good habit is to note the ratio of men to others whenever you enter a space. You may realize that there are barriers in places you didn’t expect.

This all may seem like a lot to do, but bear in mind that subcommunities build confidence, improve communication, and increase retention of practitioners. They are both inevitable and essential to the macro community, especially as the discipline grows, so it is worth investing in them. Start by having a conversation about which of these points make sense for your community and how to implement them. Your effort to make the space more accessible matters.

This article was written with valuable input from Vivi Silva, Isabel Andrews, and Emily Charles.

Written by

Lydia Mullan is the Managing Editor at SAIL Magazine. Instagram: subparkour

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