Female Trainers: Working in a Male Dominated Industry

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There is an understanding among my veteran female colleagues that personal training, studio ownership, presenters at industry events and in strength and conditioning is primarily a male dominated field. I definitely feel like I’m sticking my neck out by starting this conversation, but I’m passionate about empowering women. (I love men too of course, but we know there is a support discrepancy that needs to be addressed.) So, let’s talk about it. What obstacles are we facing in an industry historically led by men?

I have had candid discussions with female colleagues and trainers and the two most common struggles are…

  • a desire for mutual respect in the work environment
  • equal opportunity to achieve career and financial goals

So, as always, let’s see how we can help.

One of the most important lessons. I’ve learned from female business role models is that we must foster our own sense of self-worth and professional worth by believing in our work. We/You’ve earned it.

We, as women, agree we want to get ahead, follow our professional passions, and grow as a trainers and studio owners, yes? “Yes, Ma’am!”  But, we are being overlooked, hit on, flirted with, recipients of inappropriate comments, derogatory sexist remarks, and suffering the short end of the preferential treatment sexism stick. This limits a woman’s comfort in the workplace and most unfortunately limits our ultimate pool of qualified professionals. What is being done to change the dated and inappropriate structure? A non-progressive environment by virtue of it’s mentality, does not cultivate the safest space to speak up about sexist comments or inappropriate behavior. Who really wants to confront this situation? I know I hesitated to shed light on it, but if we want it to subside, we have to talk about it, even if it risks being ostracized which, for me, might be ill-advised in starting a new business, but the risk is worth it.

So, I’m going to lead by example here and together, we can let go of hesitation in speaking up. Buckle up, this might get bumpy. Making waves is challenging. There is the potential that we will be criticized, excluded or ignored. Not only are you a woman, but now, you are a woman making waves in an environment where people don’t necessarily want to hear what you have to say about being treated differently or unfairly. To the best of my ability, I (and my team) will stand with you. We are doing our best to get you resources to help you navigate.

Let’s take a look at some common scenarios…

The following situation was an actual experience I had training, and unfortunately, all of us probably have our own version. Get ready, it’s a jaw dropper…

I was coaching in a sports performance gym with a coach who was at the same tier as me. He had more experience in years of coaching, but we were at the same level of employment in the facility. There was a group of junior high age athletes in the space and for one reason or another, we coaches were talking across the room to each other. I had said something that didn’t resonate with him and he followed up to my comment by shouting a derogatory lesbian comment across the gym. Awkward, right? Ok, let’s look at the facts:

  • The derogatory comment was shouted in front of minors.
  • It was insulting to those in the LGBTQ community.
  • It was unwarranted and an overreaction to our conversation.
  • He ascribed a stereotype to female trainers.
  • Most of the athletes were male (about 90%).
  • Some athletes laughed at the comment out of support to him, immaturity or awkwardness.
  • I was the only female trainer on staff in the facility.
  • I was relatively young, in my 20s. I was taken aback and had little  experience to draw from on how to handle this situation in that moment.

It took me a moment to recover, but I knew it wasn’t right. The next day, I took action. I informed the most senior person in our facility. He agreed the comment was inappropriate and talked to the coach about his behavior who subsequently awkwardly apologized. A win! Unfortunately, he also made excuses for his behavior. “Oh, he’s older” and “He comes from a different school of thought and generation.” “I’ve talked with him before about these kinds of comments, he’s just slow to change.” These comments alleviated my colleague of responsibility to at the very least, be respectful to colleagues and responsible in his role as a coach leading minors with appropriate language and behavior. In addition, Human Resources was not notified and an incident report was not filed for this or prior incidents.

I was glad that I said something and I appreciate my bosses partial validation but, now, almost 20 years later I see that it definitely set the tone (coupled with several other incidents) that this was not an inclusive or consistently appropriate environment. It definitely swayed my subsequent career decisions. I loved working with athletes. I was challenged by the details of programming and the power of progressions. I was a professional athlete as well as a modern dancer but our training never involved the power of strength training and weights. (Pilates was the closest option on the radar.) Strength training was revelatory to me and an enjoyable challenge. It spoke to my love of math and planning nature. Incidents like these though did provide some deterrent from pursuing more of a strength training career track. I do not regret my path or choices, and I own that they were all mine. I mention it because it instills empathy (and hopefully elicits empathy) for those women or colleagues deterred by a hostile or less inclusive environment.  

Raise your hand if this has happened to you:

  • You’re in a gym environment or with collegiate athletes and have been flirted with or hit on while performing your role as a trainer or coach.
  • Co-workers make inappropriate comments on what you are wearing.
  • Co-workers make inappropriate comments on what your body looks like.
  • You have been charged with not being as physically strong as a man and it was deemed as a reason for not being able to effectively complete your role.
  • You were cast over for a job because you are a female, even though you were over-qualified for the position.
  • Male clients and athletes do not want to work with you because you are a woman.
  • You do not receive respect or for your athletic accomplishments and coaching abilities because you are a woman.

(All of these scenarios are based on my interviews over the years with female fitness professionals.)

Put your hands down. I see you, and I’m sorry. All of these scenarios and others are clearly indicative of the archaic culture in some sects of the fitness industry. It might feel as if there is nothing we can do, but we are not powerless. So, what do we do? First, stop justifying the situation and making it ok. It’s not. We need to foster our own self-worth and remember we earned the role as a personal trainer, coach or studio owner to help change the health, performance and well-being of our clients and athletes.

Here are three tips to empower yourself.

  1. Shed light and have the conversation. Don’t brush it aside. You may have been a victim of harassment, inappropriate derogatory comments, or overlooked for a job you were clearly qualified for. Often, self doubt dissuades women from pursuing more or from breaking through these environments. Step back, think about it, evaluate if it was inappropriate or unprofessional, and address it. If you have an HR department, a mentor, or trusted confidant, get guidance and support and then take action.
  2. Value yourself and your professional development. Acknowledge your accomplishments and professional value. Celebrate what you have achieved. Often, bullies inflict their harassment by planting the seed that the victim deserves mistreatment, exclusion or a lack of access to opportunity. Combat this by taking stock in your worth and owning your professional strengths. Write it out on a sheet of paper. Go over the accolades on your resume again. Think through all of the professional compliments and strong reviews you have earned in the last few years. In addition, realize that our fear of failure and misunderstanding the hiring and promotion process might be hurting us as well. Learn more here in this important Harvard Business Review article by Tara Sophia Mohr.
  3. Gain support from a community. Grab your Women’s March pink cap and tap into the energy of the women that believe in you. Build your tribe.  Participate in a community that supports and believes in you as a woman striving to do more and be empowered. Take a risk and put yourself out there. If the first group is not a good fit, move on to another. I recently became a member of the  Women in Fitness Association (WIFA), a women’s leadership in fitness group. I’m looking forward to learning more and participating. Check them out here.
  4. Find what works for you. Every group or colleague may not be a great fit at first. Keep seeking until you find what is right for you. And, of course,  please join the See Jake and Jane Train community. (Connect on LinkedIn: schedule a call, Facebook, Instagram) We plan on addressing this topic frequently and are encouraged by recent political discussions, the #MeToo movement and Women’s Marches being staged around the country.

And, let’s be fair and fully transparent, I (and all of my female colleagues) believe the majority of male fitness professionals do not want to support the existence of discrimination, wage gaps, unfairness or disturbing work environments for women. The people behaving the worst are often in the minority and the loudest in the room. So, for the multitude of male trainers in my network, continue to choose to be part of a positive change in our industry. And, thank you for being brave enough to be part of the solution. There is a great, new organization across the world called He for She, men and women standing together for gender equality. We are already taking the steps in the right direction worldwide and to me, that is incredibly powerful. My gratitude to all of my incredible male colleagues that are a powerful part of ensuring equal opportunity and a healthy work environment for all of us.

I believe that the majority of Americans are willing to have conversations about our differences and struggles. And therein lies our power. With a tone of respect, let’s start having conversations. Let’s acknowledge problems and find a way to move through them. When everyone is open to moving toward equal, safe work environments and evaluating one another by the content of our character and skill sets, we will all prevail. And, to my fellow female and male trainers being part of the solution to improving our culture, thank you. Whether you lead the charge, offer an ear to listen, provide encouragement, collaborate on how to handle an inappropriate situation, or exercise your courage by calling out unfair practices or behavior, we are grateful.

To those insisting on being part of the problem, I submit that you reconsider: “Women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Time to wind this down and look at our next steps and resources. Key points:

  • Let’s shed light on the situation. Consider: It only takes a 4-inch shift at the bottom of the ocean to create a tsunami on the top. Be that 4-in shift in the fitness industry or just move a millimeter. Use your voice. Speak up. You may be creating a tidal wave of positive important change for yourself and others in our field.
  • Cultivate your self-worth by valuing your skill sets and acknowledging your professional development work. Knowledge is power. Women often misunderstand the hiring process and miss out on opportunity because they don’t want to waste anyone’s time until they have every single qualification. Avoid this pitfall. Additionally, women tend to have a greater fear of failure. This inhibits us in an environment that is possibly already unwelcoming. Exercise your courage and know that the rules governing hiring and promotion are less “hard and fast” than we think. We need you in positions of management and leadership in order to make these changes. Go for it!
  • Get involved with supportive groups. Continue to look in the fitness industry for those groups and please join See Jake and Jane’s community if you haven’t already. We will continue to provide recommendations within our community to cultivating positive resources and guidance. Free yourself to think outside of the box as well. Your supportive community can easily go beyond fitness. Connect with like-minded professional, empowered women with a goal of seeking equality, support and empowerment.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi  

Here is hope and empowerment in our willingness to move forward. We are setting a new bar for equality in the fitness industry.

My fifteen years as a fitness professional and fourteen years as a small business owner exposed me to these and other discrepancies. It is part of the inspiration for See Jake and Jane Train. Read more in He Said.She Said).

Join the conversation below…

Fellow female trainers…

What is your sense of this issue in our field?

What is your greatest obstacle in your career as a fitness professional?

What success have you found in forging your own way, advocating for yourself, or carving out your own empowering tribe of support?

Fellow male trainers…

How have you helped a female colleague with an discriminatory situation? What is your sense of this issue in our field?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. We appreciate your feedback!

One thought on “Female Trainers: Working in a Male Dominated Industry

  1. Great post, and a much needed one in our field! I have discussed this before with my women co-workers throughout my journey. It’s a shame that so much of this is true, the biggest thing one can do is SPEAK UP. Set the standard and push back. It can be intimidating, but will resonate and set the bar where equluality should be. I have watched to many awesome women trainers with the advantage of participating in other backgrounds than any male counterpart walk away because of low involvement or being disrespected in general. Zero in on your strengths and promote them and speak up to those around you to help build the team. We need more qualified women in this field!

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