Debate and outcry was sparked by the introduction of a women's-only hour at Girton gymJess Ma

Content note: This article contains reference to sexual assault and racist language

The initiative for a women-only hour in Girton gym was met with a backlash on Facebook last week, with some claiming that the policy was a case of reverse sexism. We have all heard this rhetoric before, but often dismiss it as the rantings of a few isolated individuals. The show of support these remarks received online has been saddening. This was not the opinion of a lone pariah voice, but evidence of a wider culture which the announcement of women’s hour simply lured to the surface.

The coverage this story has received in the national news proves that this is a culture which extends beyond Cambridge. The Times published an article with the headline ‘Cambridge University students are embroiled in a gender row’, and linked this incident to the incomparable events concerning rape threats at Warwick University. The Daily Mail talked rather provocatively of “fury” and “bitter rows” that had been “sparked”. The essence of the debate is lost in media sensationalism such as this, which antagonises both sides. By positioning events within a wider context of a right-wing culture war against a ‘PC’ or ‘snowflake’ generation, these stories distort and undermine what the conversation is really about: giving women a bit of space in a patriarchal world. Far from being better informed, readers of coverage such as this become miscalibrated. What’s more, students have been subject to abuse following such national coverage.

“These stories distort and undermine what the conversation is really about: giving women a bit of space in a patriarchal world”

What is one hour at the gym? For women and non-binary people at Girton, it is an hour where they can exercise in comfort. For the opponents to the change, it represents a backwards step towards inequality and the demonization of all men. It is as though those opposed to the change think that women choose to feel uncomfortable, but I can assure you: women would love nothing more than to feel comfortable at a gym no matter who was inside. We have not chosen to be cat-called when bending over to pick up a weight, or to be interrupted mid-set by a man who tells you how to ‘do that exercise better’, before asking ‘how often you come here’ and for your +44.

There are inherent issues within our conversations about gender if they end in a zero-sum competition about victimhood. Both men and women suffer under patriarchy, but sexism is a form of structural oppression where men are placed in a position of economic, political and cultural power above women. Any man who attempts to find a point in their history where they have been systematically oppressed due to being male will be left wanting.

“Attitudes don’t change overnight, as over a century of women’s rights activism serves to remind us”

Yet the response to the introduction of women’s hour revealed that ignorance surrounding sexism is rife beyond Girton gym. One student argued that his experience in the tech sector revealed that female applicants are valued more than males based on gender instead of competence, resulting in qualified males being at a disadvantage in the workplace. I want to remind this student that the tech world is still a man’s world: a 2018 report shows how female employees make up 26% (Microsoft) and 43% (Netflix) of the workforce at two major companies. Before our conversations around gender can advance, we must tackle the foundations which build such misconstrued viewpoints.

Each counter-argument was connected by a crucial lack of understanding that our differences and history create barriers to participation. We must ensure equity first as a means of reaching equality. Gender quotas do not discriminate against men, but rather readjust the disparity caused by years of systematic misogyny. Quotas are only a quick-fix solution, yes, and one that hides the complexities of the structures that enable men to retain power. But how else is one to provide opportunities for women today who still face discrimination? One student who opposed the women’s hour offered an alternative: posters to encourage respect. However, posters are emphatically not enough. Attitudes don’t change overnight, as over a century of women’s rights activism serves to remind us. Active measures must be put in place to correct imbalances.


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The male students in opposition to women’s hour fail to realise the effects of their privilege. This results in the perpetuation of social structures which grant certain groups an unearned advantage. Such blindness was proven most shockingly when one student expressed their opposition to the women’s hour through an analogy which rested on the racist depiction of black people as inherently violent. Women’s hour, it was claimed, was equivalent to calling for a ‘black-free hour’ out of fear assault. Notwithstanding that the comparison of race to gender is profoundly false, in using such an analogy this student reinforced a stereotype which has been used as a justification for the exploitation of black people. The dangerous implications of this are outside the scope of this article, but this exposes a clear case of unchecked privilege on many levels.

The reaction to the women’s hour at Girton gym represents misconceptions about feminism; most crucially, that equal measures always result in equality. In fact, because women start from a position of disadvantage, positive discrimination is fundamental to reaching equality of outcome. A women-only hour at the gym is a short-term solution, but one that our experiences of harassment, body shaming and male scrutiny make necessary. One female student summed it up perfectly in her online response: “If you won’t listen to our arguments, listen to our experiences. When these things don’t exist, perhaps women’s hour won’t need to either.”

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