Bringing more women on board.

More Women | Kourtney Thomas Fitness

A couple weeks ago I attended an industry association conference. It’s one I haven’t been to before, but I’ve recently become more involved with the organization, so I wanted to attend this year.

The entire reason that I’ve become more active in this association is based on two things:

  • It’s an association that holds a lot of power in the industry, and is associated with prestige and highly-valued certifications.
  • It’s an association that’s not keeping pace with current social and professional standards and progress.

For me, those two things should be matching up, and they’re not. I’m in a position to lend my time and voice to the matter, so I’m doing it. Based on #2 though, I knew that would be challenging going in. I knew there would be things that would make my blood boil, things that would shock me, things that wouldn’t make any sense in the context of the current world.

All true.

I went into it nervous, but excited, for possibilities and opportunities. By about halfway through the first meeting, my body was already buzzing and my brain was already reeling.

The speaker for this first event turned out to be a bit of a #notmymarch woman. Or at least, that’s how myself and several other women I talked to who were in attendance perceived her speech. Upon telling her story and listing off the jobs and opportunities she has been afforded in life, and continually repeating that “it’s not about gender,” it was difficult to think anything else. That was surprising and disappointing.

Then, I went into the Women’s Committee meeting to discuss initiatives for the coming year. Keep in mind, the mission of this committee “is to encourage and promote the strength training & conditioning profession for women, in accordance to the mission and bylaws. The committee will coordinate, monitor, and advocate action to increase the participation of women within the organization, by providing a forum for discussion of current issues and dissemination of information.”

We all agreed that we’d like to see more women speakers at more association events at all levels – state, regional, national.

But – but! – the discussion centered around how really, why are we not including a panel of men at these events? Why are they women only? It doesn’t matter who delivers the information, male or female. The connections and job opportunities are coming from men, so we need to include them.

So, you can imagine my frustration at being the only person in the room to advocate for purposefully making space for women. I argued that it’s important for women to have women’s only spaces, and to protect them. Certainly, not every event or space needs to be women only, and it is sometimes valuable to have collaborative sessions, but there has to be a clear line. Including men in every space changes the dynamic completely, often stifles women speaking up, and does nothing to set the stage for equality. When it’s assumed that every space is male-dominated and females are permitted, right now, we do have to purposely carve out female-centric spaces with intent. It wasn’t a popular opinion, and it completely stressed me out to express it, which I then felt the physical effects of much more strongly than I thought I might. Hence, my vague-stagram post and much-needed pool time later that day. Turns out, activism is taxing and requires self-care. And cake. I had cake too.

The next day’s sessions started off on a positive note with some good questions and engaging discussion among women in different positions and fields with different levels of experience, which was fantastic. My hopes were rising, until they came crashing down in one fell swoop. One of the most well-respected female S&C coaches in the world (multiple Olympian, first woman to hold an NCAA Head S&C Coach position, etc etc etc) stood up and said something to the tune of, “I just can’t understand why we don’t have a panel of men at these events. They’re the ones who we need to be talking to because they’re the ones who are hiring women. We need to be asking them about why they’re hiring women and what we need to know.”

I seriously felt like my insides collapsed. Completely defeated. I knew I would have to give. It was exactly what I had argued my case against in the previous day’s meeting, and now here’s this powerful person making the case on the other side. I knew in that moment that I would have to defer to my fellow committee members and suck it up as we invited a panel of men to women’s events in the coming year.

That being the case, I’m still going to continue to provide my perspective from the other side of the table. That’s the reason these kinds of committees exist. Without discussion and dissension, there is no change.

And that is the point to me. Regardless of what (undeniably, strong) emotion I may feel around the sexist nature of my industry, there is still a larger point that actually, it is about gender. We’re still living in a patriarchy, and in order to affect that, we have to make it about gender – at least for now.

The research shows that we’re still defining leadership in male terms. And pretty much all of us still hold some unconscious bias and a little bit of sexism. Studies also show that Americans prefer male bosses – however, that’s with the caveat that the majority of the people saying this have never even had a female boss. All of this is problematic.

I mean, I get it. I’m staunchly on one side of the spectrum, admittedly. But, that just does not mean that everything is fine. And it certainly does not mean that we should keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. I understand that there are some wonderful, supportive, feminist men out there who are doing a fantastic job of supporting and empowering women. However, that’s not necessarily the majority.

Furthermore, if the men in the industry are so supportive and empowering, there really should be no issue supporting and empowering women right up to the top to stand beside them. Including “good men” is great, but that’s not the problem – it’s that it seems to be to the detriment of including more “good women.” This is what continues to put us in a secondary position. Men are not the only experts out there and available. And if we’re going to bring them in, then I’d suggest the discussion be centered more around, “Why are you not hiring and promoting women?” and “Why are you falling behind on equality and diversity?” vs. “What can women do to live up to your standards and fit into your boys’ club?” (Disclaimer: Not an actual question to ask. I’m paraphrasing that one for emphasis.)

The argument that it doesn’t matter where the information comes from is valid. But the point is, if that’s the case, does it matter, then, that we allow a woman to deliver said information?

The argument that men are in positions to hire women is valid. But the point is, do we want to continue to defer to them forever and ever, amen?

The argument that there are good men out there who can serve as mentors is valid. But the point is, maybe it’s worthwhile to promote women to positions where there are more than three well-respected female mentors in the industry?

After all, white men make up only 31% of the American population.

I know that I am not the only one who thinks that in order to advocate for women, we have to actually advocate for them, actively. I am constantly in awe of all the amazing women out there who are bringing awareness and activism to the forefront. Of course, it shouldn’t be that way, but it is right now. Even though we feel like we should be further along, there are environments and times like these that reveal and demonstrate that feminism is still necessary. Because what I heard is that women are supporting women and feminism isn’t necessary in this arena, but what I saw in words and behaviors, is that it clearly is. If we’re going to work together to shift things toward gender (not to mention, racial) equality, we’ve got a long way to go. (This conference’s speakers included about 14% women.)

Basically, the idea is, we want to continue to bring more women on board. And that can happen by considering steps like the following:

  • For every male panelist or speaker we hire, we hire one female.
  • If you’re only seeing male applications for an open position, don’t make a hire yet, and insist on seeing more applications from women.
  • Create a blind application process, or create a policy that requires your team to be representative of the current gender and racial makeup.
  • Promote women, actively. Forward their resumes. Make email introductions.
  • Learn, understand, and check your bias.
  • Always ask questions like, “If she were a man, would I dislike her?”

With all that at the front of my mind, I’ve reflected and processed and I’m pretty excited to engage with my fellow committee members in the coming years. I’m nervous, but I’m not afraid. My speaking up about these issues can only be good for sparking progress. If one person with a differing opinion goes home and thinks, “Hmmm…maybe there’s something to that,” I’m happy. Not unlike improving your fitness, it’s all about baby steps, consistently over time.

I’ll start by staying engaged, having uncomfortable conversations, and applying to speak at every event and conference I can think of. How about you?

Some of the data and ideas above are inspired by the book Feminist Fight Club. It’s an excellent quick read with tons of research and practical tips for surviving sexism on a day-to-day basis. And it’s one of the required reading books in the Build Your Big Life Coaching group. We have a lot of fun sharing stories and ideas as we read in the group. Join in on that conversation by adding your name to this waitlist.

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