"There are plenty of small things we can do to get people thinking that this is a space for everyone"Linda Yu

We need to talk about woman’s hour. I want to write woman’s hours, mainly because it avoids confusion with the Radio 4 programme, but it seems that in Cambridge it isn’t much more than the one hour at the moment, and that’s best-case scenario.

Trinity College’s 10am – 11am on a Saturday morning, for example, seemed a bit tokenistic to me, but it turns out to be pretty progressive in comparison with Christ’s, Queen’s, Downing, Emma, Caius, Corpus and others which don’t have any woman’s hour policy at all. Medwards recently tried unsuccessfully to introduce one. That’s right: the all-female college where you’d think it was not only self-evident but automatic. But male staff have access, and, clearly, a sense of entitlement, to the gym. Jesus and King’s lead the way, with four and three hours a week respectively.

The scales aren’t level as it stands

These efforts to introduce hours here and there (which are nonetheless still facing intense opposition) ignore the reality of the problem which we’re trying to solve. If women don’t feel like the gym is a space for them, and they want to train a healthy three to four times a week, they have to make a choice between shifting their work and routine around the slots available, or putting up with a bit of discomfort to work out at an easier time. Even at colleges with more frequent women’s hours, they rarely cover the busy evening period which seems to be the most popular and convenient time.

It really surprises me that a daily woman’s hour is too much to ask, so much that it generates a backlash which proves just how much we think of the gym as a space dominated by men -one to which their unrestricted access is a natural and inalienable right. What the argument misses is that the scales aren’t level as it stands. That even though giving men the choice of 161 hours out of 168 might be more of a restriction than they've ever had to put up with, it’s only closing the gap with the restriction women who feel uncomfortable in a mixed gym space currently have to put up with. And whilst a lot of women ‘just get over it’ and go anyway, the discomfort they end up experiencing, or the energy they exert trying to block it out, is at least comparable to a one-hour-a-day reduction. We also can’t underestimate the number of women who are simply put off from entering the space in the first place, who either don’t engage with fitness culture at all, or choose different spaces and ways to train.  

But what is it, exactly, which makes women feel uncomfortable in these spaces? Because if we think that they are just being wimps, then we are sympathetic to the arguments about reverse sexism (and defacing of posters) which accompanied Girton’s recent attempt to introduce a woman’s hour. Let’s see.

There are the guys whose whopping weights you can’t help but notice because of loud grunts or reverberations when they slam the bar down. Or the guys who take it upon themselves to DJ for the whole room, whacking up the Eminem (not quite right for every workout) to full volume. There was the guy who left a muddy footprint on the mat I was using so that I had to move to the neighbouring one. Then there was the guy who interrupted my set, after a good stare in an empty gym, to comment on my ‘eccentric’ way of doing shoulder presses He 'demonstrated' how it is usually done, and pondered on why I would be ‘activating the stabilising muscle’ so much.

It only takes one real jerk, or a cluster of partial jerks, or even the thought of a hypothetical-but-plausible jerk, to put you off

Obviously, a lot of men would agree that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable, and I want to stress that I really don’t think either masculinity or building culture is irredeemable: there are plenty of guys who will ask if I’d like to put my music on the speaker, who check whether the machine they’re planning to use is too close to the mat I’m working on, or, simply, who smile at me on my way in. But it only takes one real jerk, or a cluster of partial jerks, or even the thought of a hypothetical-but-plausible jerk, to put you off.

Fit people in the gym around you lifting heavy weights can be inherently intimidating no matter how nice they’re trying to be, but there’s something distinctly toxic about not just piling weights but comparing personal bests, citing what ‘hench’ friends can lift, even recording max weights on a communal board. This is something which says, 'I’m comfortable here and it doesn’t especially matter, or I haven’t really considered, that you might not be'. Something which I just can’t imagine happening in an all-female space.


Mountain View

Widening our perceptions of ‘fit’

Solo hours are good gestures to be starting with, and we are best viewing them as a drive for a more welcoming ethos, rather than as a practical attempt to improve the routine opportunities for women using college gyms. With the right publicising strategy, designating a specific time for women can encourage an increased female presence outside of that hour. It can’t just be about giving women slots where they are ‘allowed’; these initiatives can and should come with a surrounding discussion about the pitfalls of gym culture.

The problems I’ve described have so much more to do with obliviousness - a subconscious mindset that everyone who goes to the gym is or should be like you and your mates - than active malice. Whether it is posters, a brief shoutout in freshers’ workshops, or having both male and female gym reps, there are plenty of small things we can do to get people thinking that this is a space for everyone. A more inclusive environment in which everyone can feel comfortable doing their thing is a 24/7 possibility.