Two weeks ago, a petition was posted on Change.org in support of allocating hours exclusively for women at the SUNY New Paltz Athletic and Wellness Center (AWC). The petition was started by second-year psychology major Ashley Sullivan after an unpleasant encounter she had at the gym with a male gym goer.
“I started the petition because I was approached and told I was working out wrong. I then proceeded to be watched during my workout and critiqued,” Sullivan said.
The petition calls for two hours at the gym each day solely for anyone who identifies as a woman, including people who are genderqueer.
Sullivan says her friends have complained about experiencing similar interactions in the gym with men. She writes in the petition that, “I have been going to the gym every day since the start of the fall semester and have personally experienced being followed, watched, told what to do and how to do my workouts — not in a friendly or helpful manner. I have also observed the same events happening to several other women in the AWC.”
She decided to act and published the petition. “I was like, I’m going to stop complaining about this happening, and actually do something about it,” Sullivan said.
While the gym should feel like a safe space for all, many women view the gym as a male-dominated atmosphere that they don’t feel comfortable in. A 2021 survey conducted by fitness company DNA Lean found that nearly three quarters of women say they have been made to feel uncomfortable in gyms. They have “concerns about staring, unwelcome comments or intimidation, and feel uncomfortable at co-ed gyms.” Another survey done in 2018 by an exercise product site, ExerciseBike, found that “nearly one in five women said they had experienced harassment at the gym, causing the majority of them to change their behavior in some way,” whether it be altering what they wore or their workout program.
Gym hours exclusively for women do exist at colleges, like at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Stephanie Coen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, found that gyms being male-dominated spaces keep women out. “If you close your eyes and think of the gym, the imagery that often comes to mind is vividly gendered,” Coen stated. “Some women felt less legitimate in this space and didn’t want to get in the way of other users who they perceived to have more expertise. It was striking how many women talked about shrinking or minimizing their consumption of time and space in the gym.”
More women feeling safe to use the gym could help close the physical activity gap between men and women. According to the Center for Disease Control, women are less likely than men to get a sufficient level of exercise: 57% of adult men meet recommended aerobic activity levels, while only 49% of women do. The problem is worse for marginalized groups, with young Black women being the least likely to group to report any physical activity, and due to ddiscriminatory policies non-binary and trans people face in athletic environments, experts fear their exercise participation rates are even lower.
First-year music major Claire Lindsey stated, “I feel outnumbered when I go to the gym, and when I started going it was extremely nerve-racking due to [the] high number of boys there. I feel as though that more people would experiment and try the gym out if it wasn’t full of men who already know what they’re doing.”
Another frequent gym goer, first-year theater major Luke Anderson said, “I think adjusting the gym times to include female identifying only hours can create a space for women to feel safe while exercising. The culture of the gym is very masculine driven, and this should be addressed as it pushes people not to join or to avoid certain times that would be most convenient for them. However, at the same time, including female only hours may lead to debate on if other groups of individuals should also have their time at the gym.”
Some people argue that women-only hours at gyms are problematic. One commenter from the McGill Daily wrote that there are “plenty of men who feel too intimidated to work out as well because of their own physique or comfort level.” Some men are also concerned about their schedules being messed up if they’re not permitted to work out at a time they planned to.
Sullivan has reached out to the board of the AWC, which told her they appreciated her bringing the issue to their awareness. She is set to have a meeting with them on Nov. 30 about the exclusive hours.
“I just think it’s important for people to vocalize what they want to change in the environment they are in instead of ‘just dealing with it,’” Sullivan said. “Sometimes it becomes too much to deal with and women shouldn’t have to change their daily routines because they feel uncomfortable in the gym which we also all pay tuition for.”