“Jon, why do you only have 1 woman out of 11 included in your book???”
I’ll back up a bit. In my upcoming book Ignite the Fire I profile 11 well-known and successful trainers. I interviewed them and included a case study for each. I didn’t realize it but only one woman was included. My Mom brought up a good point, this is a serious problem and it extends beyond my upcoming book:
- There are 20 coaches on thePTDC. 2 are women
- The gym I work at has been open 3 years. Only one woman has been able to build a stable clientele.
- Perform Better had their best female representation among presenters this year – with 10% (Thanks to Elsbeth Vaino for this stat)
- Name your top 5 fitness pros. My guess is the vast majority are men.
Women make excellent trainers so why is the industry still so male dominated?
I decided to throw this question out to my Facebook family to see if I was the only one noticing it. (Please add me to Facebook as a friend. I have great discussions like this pretty much every day.) The response was great:
One of my favorite questions to ask groups of trainers at events I speak at is what their career aspirations are. In the last 3 weeks I spoke to 3 different audiences and noted their responses. All 3 groups were predominantly male with a couple females spattered throughout the group as per the norm.
What jumped out at me was how few females viewed personal training as a career. There were 39 total people polled, 30 were men and 9 were women.
- 35 of the 39 men viewed training as a career
- 2 of 9 women saw it as their end goal. As one girl put it “I’m doing this because it’s something to do until I find a career.”
Is everything about sex?
Unfortunately I believe sex has a lot to do with it. I’ve come up with 5 points why I believe women trainers struggle. I’m sure that there’s more and I’m also sure some of you reading this won’t agree with all 5. These are my thoughts and I encourage you to put yours below in the comments section after reading the whole post.
1. Cardio bunnies – My good friend Cassandra Forsyth-Pribanic’s book “The New Rules of Lifting for Women“ brought female weightlifting to the forefront. It created a buzz and an underground movement that’s still ongoing with fantastic groups like Girls Gone Strong (GGS) leading the charge. I worry that these groups aren’t yet having the desired effect. You may argue that a Facebook group with over 12,000 likes shouldn’t be considered underground. It’s my blog so I’m going to tell you my opinion — take it or leave it.
I worry that these groups aren’t empowering women that really need it, instead they’re working to give women who already lift a voice. This movement and ones like it currently act as a way for women who look good and lift heavy weights to celebrate their achievements with each other. I spoke about this phenomenon in detail in my very popular article titled “Why You’re failing to Make a Difference“.
Fact is a disparigingly large percentage of women are still cardio bunnies and having a bunch of women celebrating each other’s achievements in a Facebook group isn’t going to change their opinion. The underground needs to become the above ground.
In order to create large-scale change underground groups like GGS need to organize local groups who volunteer their time in local gyms and community centers teaching women to lift weights. These strong beautiful women need to branch out from behind a computer and show their faces to the public. I believe this is happening but not to the extent that it should.
Maybe a good way to start is for GGS to organize a contest or program where their beautiful and strong members send in videos. Not the videos that often show up on their walls of physical accomplishments. Instead these videos should come from a softer side and focus on an introduction to weight lifting and how to get past the initial public ridicule. In my opinion a program like this would help to decrease the psychological barrier of entry for women.
Female personal trainers constantly struggle to convince their clients that it’s ok to lift weights. I still remember speaking to a colleague who was visibly upset after she performed an initial consult. Upon asking the client what her goals were the response was “I want to put on muscle… but like, not as much as you. You’re too big.”
2. Physical discrepancy
Exceptions exist but most women cannot lift as much absolute weight as men. I also have a hard time believing that women can make effective trainers for men who’s goal is to bulk up. It’s probably not anything the woman has done herself so she isn’t studied in it. While you can argue that this goes both ways and that most men don’t know the ins and outs of how a woman’s body works. My response would be that male trainers understand both fat loss and weight gain as they’ve probably tried to accomplish both themselves.
The obvious point I’ll also bring up is safety. I believe that it’s unsafe for a women to spot a novice or intermediate lifter. Fortunately a Facebook friend disagreed with me so I have an opportunity to discuss this point more:
I agree that spotters shouldn’t have to do anything. In fact forced repititions has been shown to have no effect on strength development but have two arguments against this:
- Clients still expect their trainer to help them “push through” so even if we technically shouldn’t it boils down to personal training being a service industry. If helping through the last rep will make the client feel better then I think it’s ok to help more than 10lbs even if it technically isn’t adding to their overall results.
- Let’s assume that the trainer is only spotting with 10lbs of force. What happens when the client can’t make the lift. It’s going to take more than 10lbs of force to quickly pull the weight off of the client. The spotter needs to be physically strong enough to do this. Good spotting form will only take somebody so far.
3. Perception, expectation and ridicule
Sadly the above statement is true. I’ve been privy to female trainers at my gym and friends of mine getting harassed by clients. While it’s inappropriate for any male to objectify their female trainer I would also argue that some female trainers are partially at fault. I’ve heard female colleagues say “he just likes to flirt a little. That’s fine, as long as he keeps buying sessions he can flirt all he wants.”
Until this type of behavior by female trainers ends they won’t be taken seriously. On the other side of the coin there are brilliant trainers who also happen to be beautiful strong women. Yet they work alongside girls who perpetuate this behavior and aren’t taken seriously. The only solution I can think of is to encourage gym owners to hire serious trainers or for talented female trainers to branch off on their own (which is what the women from the Facebook quote above did).
Note that the above quotes were by Artemis Scantalides.
4. Ideal body image??
There’s still some confusion over what it is, to blame is the epidemic called skinny fat.
Yet in clothing it’s hard to tell. Well-tailored workout gear makes a fatty bum look somewhat well-shaped and a carefully chosen dress can hide lumps and bumps. This makes it difficult for female trainers to sell women on strength training if they’re skinny fatness is already perceived as attractive. Additionally it opens the doors for skinny fat women personal trainers to flirt their way to a full client list.
5. Pressure to sexify their image
I hope I’m wrong here, I really do. It seems to me that every successful female trainer has a difficult decision to make that seriously alters their career path that men don’t deal with.
That decision is they must choose between becoming a sexy female who also trains clients or a great trainer who also looks good. There’s a massive difference. Take my good friend Neghar Fonooni. In one of our famous 5 minute phone calls that lasts an hour we spoke about her having to deal with this very problem. She’s a brilliant trainer who also happens to be beautiful. Over the past 2 years as her reputation has grown she’s dealt with pressure to sexify her image for various photo shoots which she’s turned down.
Other women have gone the other route. I don’t view it as wrong but it’s a choice that leads a lot of female personal trainers away from positions of influence in the industry. Once a beautiful and strong women takes sexy pictures they’ve decided to become a model first and a trainer second.
I understand that women want to look beautiful but there’s a difference between beautiful and sexy.
The effect is less role models in positions of influence in personal training.
Will it change?
In my eyes the crux of the issue lies in the perception of the female trainer. Some argue that females have it easier because men like to train with a pretty girl. It’s easy for a girl to lead a man on and keep taking his money. That trainer won’t have any job satisfaction or commitment from the client free of ulterior motives. They won’t last very long as a personal trainer.
Some also argue that movements like GGS have brought weight training for women to the mainstream. I don’t think they’ve achieved this yet but I hope they do. What they’ve done is mobilized women already lifting and given them a voice. By celebrating each others successes they’ve created a tight-knit network but I worry they’re not approaching the problem the right way. Most women know they should lift weights, the problem is that they’re scared of it. Posts, videos, and local groups focused on education and support will do a lot more to decrease the barrier of entry than showing off heavy lifts.
The result of what I’ve discussed above will be more serious female trainers on large industry platforms serving as role models. Maybe then more than 2 of 9 females will look at training as a long-term choice and not just “something to do”.
I expect a lot of feedback to this post and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comment section below. I do however ask that you keep it constructive. These are my thoughts and I realize that they aren’t always pretty. It would have been a disservice for me to sugarcoat the issue. Do you think I’m wrong? Great, let me know why you think that. Maybe together we can come to a solution and help fix this issue. Also please share this post, I want young female trainers to connect with the right networks early on in their careers.