Demystifying Women in Male-Dominated Sports

Over the past couple of years, I made a conscious effort to pursue activities that have always interested me, but that I had previously avoided out of my own fears or insecurities. One such activity was kickboxing. As a teenager, I admired the courage, strength, and fierce realness of the women who participated in male-dominated sports but did not yet have the confidence to enter into these spaces so outside my comfort zone.

Initially, I considered joining a women’s kickboxing gym. But after further research I found that these programs focused more on the aspect of weight loss as opposed to their male counterparts, which focused on skills and techniques needed for sparring and competing. I realized in order to receive the skills that I wanted to spar and compete, I would have to work with men.

Overall, my experience with kickboxing has been a positive one. Kickboxing is challenging, fun, and my primary means for relieving stress. I am also happy with my current co-ed gym. The coaches teach skills necessary for fighting, and we spar in some classes. However, there are aspects of my gym that are not so pleasant, and that remind me that I am still a woman in a male-dominated sport.

I realized in order to receive the skills that I wanted to spar and compete, I would have to work with men.

For one thing, the women’s changing room is incredibly small and made from flex walls, and the doorway is very exposed to the rest of the gym and its members. The room is so small and exposed that I am uncomfortable changing there, so I arrive and leave in my athletic clothes. The women’s changing room appears to have been an afterthought, added to accommodate the menial women’s membership.

More notable is just how few women attend the gym. I am the sole woman in the majority of classes I attend, all of which are taught by male instructors. Occasionally, there may be one other woman present and, at most, three. In addition to feeling marginalized as a minority population within this male-dominated group, I feel further marginalized within that female population because of my non-conforming gender expression. My gender expression is not outrightly feminine, with my short hair, lack of make-up, and men’s athletic clothes. At first glance, I am sometimes mistaken for a young boy.

One of the most apparent things that I notice during any class, is gender-segregation. If numbers permit, the women always pair together, as do the men. However, if I am the only woman present, none of the men willingly volunteer to be my partner. Rather, much like picking teams on the playground, the man left unchosen is paired with me by default. This remaining man tends to be either out of shape/older or far more inexperienced than the others. Although he has been the last pick of his peers, his look of disappointment at our pairing makes clear that I am an even more undesirable partner to himself.

Much like picking teams on the playground, the man left unchosen is paired with me by default.

There is also a notable difference in behavior between pairing with men versus pairing with women. When I pair with men they will usually explain basic moves to me in a patronizing way, often explaining them incorrectly. When I inform them that their instruction contradicts those of the coaches, they still insist they are correct. I have learned that it is easier not to argue, but to wait for a coach to come over and correct the mis-instructed move in front of my partner. The women, on the other hand, never explain basic moves to me or attempt instruction for moves that they are unsure of how to do. When uncertain of something, a female partner will ask a coach, whereas the men will often make up an explanation instead.

The subpar locker room, being the only woman in a class, pairing with “last-of-the-pick” men, and patronizing explanations have not prevented me from enjoying my experience. Despite all of those things, I became quite comfortable at my gym. I built a rapport with the coaches, and made friends with some of the other regular members. However, just as I was starting to feel comfortable, I had a particularly poor experience with a male partner that was riddled with demeaning micro-aggressions.

One evening, I was partnering with a young man who was fairly new to the gym. Despite his inexperience, he still explained basic moves to me. I could tolerate his explanations until he took things a step further and began demeaning my abilities. During a combination in which we were supposed to block a strike with both mitts and then push our opponent away, I was struggling to push the young man away from me. Usually I do well, but that particular evening I was struggling with the new combination. My partner’s added height and weight were not making it any easier, either.

Just as I was starting to feel comfortable, I had a particularly poor experience with a male partner that was riddled with demeaning micro-aggressions.

The young man looked at me and asked me if I wanted him to purposefully be off-balance so that I could push him away from me more easily. I was shocked at first, but recovered and replied with, “What? No, don’t worry about it.” After my next attempt, he asked again if I wanted him to purposefully not provide resistance, so as to be off-balance. I started to tell him no again, when the timer rang for us to switch drills. I was shocked and irritated by my partner’s comments.

Later on in the class when my partner felt that I was not giving enough resistance with the focus mitts, instead of asking me to give more resistance, he stated, “Don’t worry, I just won’t punch as hard.” Never before had I had issues with men using full force while I was holding for them. I was insulted by my partner’s insistence on going easy on me. At that point, the thought crossed my mind that he would not be treating me this way if I were a man.

The class ended with a few “burn-out” drills meant to exhaust us. The last of these was a drill where we repeatedly kneed our partner. In order to do this drill, the person must wrap their hands around the back of their partner’s neck. When my partner wrapped his hands around the back of my neck, he immediately took his hands off, backed away, and exclaimed “Ew, sweat!,” looking at his wrapped hands.

My first thought was, “Fuck off, do you know where you are?!” Unfortunately, what tumbled out of my mouth instead was, “I’m sorry.” The words came out without thinking. I wasn’t fucking sorry, I was angry. I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but as a woman I have been socialized to be so apologetic and accommodating that my instinctual response was to apologize.

I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but as a woman I have been socialized to be so apologetic and accommodating that my instinctual response was to apologize.

I went home that night feeling shocked and hurt. I was angry at my partner, and I was angry at myself for being so apologetic. I had become so comfortable at the gym that I felt blind-sided by that blatantly sexist experience. I had forgotten that I was still in a male-dominated space, and that some men still view women as weak. I wished that I had been more mentally prepared. It felt similar to walking away from an argument and thinking up a bunch of come-backs and witty replies that I wished I would have said in the moment.

I knew the patronizing explanations, the multiple offers to go easy on me, and the disgust at my sweat after an intense workout were all experiences that I had had because I am a woman. It seems a woman must train harder and perform at a higher level than the men before being treated and respected as an equal. We are expected to do this while still looking hot in tight-fitting clothing, with immaculate hair and makeup, and not smelling nor sweating a drop.

I vowed that the next time I would be mentally prepared, and that I would not take shit from anyone. The experience was a bit of a wake-up call, and it has stayed with me. Regardless of the philosophies of the gym, they may not always reflect the views of the members who decide to join, or how those members treat me. Thankfully, that experience is not representative of most of my experiences kickboxing, but I am painfully aware of how easily another experience like that could happen again.

I still feel some anxiety when I attend class, and hold some of the same fears that I had before I had started kickboxing. But I really do love kickboxing and intend to continue until I am no longer able. Furthermore, I see that my presence is a statement in a space where I am not only a minority amongst the larger population but also the sole representation of an even smaller minority within that female population. I know that with the simple act of showing up, I am breaking gender norms and conformities within a male-dominated sport.

Photo by Khusen Rustamov.

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