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How to Level the Playing Field for Women in BJJ

For the past couple years, I have really struggled with my gender in the sport and the longer I have trained the more I have found it to be an obstacle. This is particularly frustrating because it feels like it's something out of my control. I want to feel an equal part of the jiu jitsu community.


I’ve trained Brazilian jiu jitsu for 6 years and earned my purple belt last May. During my time training I’ve been involved in coed and women’s only training environments, both classes and camps. I have attended open mats and classes extensively locally and gone on numerous road trips across the country stopping along the way to roll. Most of my vacations revolve around jiu jitsu and I have traveled to train as far as Estonia. My array of experiences has given me the opportunity to see the diversity of cultures across training environments.


As we all know, Brazilian jiu jitsu is a male-dominated environment. When I began my journey, I was very fortunate. My training partners accepted me as part of the community and never made me feel inferior. During my first class, I was the only female in the room, surrounded by mostly 200+ pound men. They were quick to help me acclimate to the gym and always made me feel like I was part of the team.


But as COVID shifted my training and I also began traveling more, I started to recognize the ways I was being treated differently as a woman.


Here’s an example. One time, while I was traveling and visited a new gym, the head instructor only introduced himself to my male partner. Not only did the instructor only shake my partner’s hand, he didn’t verbally greet me or even make eye contact with me. At this gym, I was only asked to roll by other women and children. After I had exhausted those options, I had to work to convince a man to roll with me. At the end of our roll, he said, “Huh you’re actually good.”I was the only purple belt in the class, and had been training longer than everyone else there, but still the men at this gym largely ignored me.


This is the reality in some places and is frankly unacceptable.


On the flip side, I’ve traveled a lot and have also been a part of some very inclusive gym environments. One of the major reasons I love attending BJJ Globetrotters events is because I never feel like I’m treated differently for being a woman. When I went to the Estonia camp, I was in awe of all the upper belt women that were there. I couldn’t wait to roll with them all. But by the end I realized I had not gotten around to rolling with even half of them because so many people from both genders had asked me to roll. After reflecting, I realized that almost all of the purple men there had asked me and I thought that was really fucking cool.


I think one of the biggest problems is that women in BJJ get into cycles of complaining about the issues we face, and that instead, we need to come up with some action items. I’ve compiled a few to do’s and standards. Please keep in mind this list is not exhaustive and is merely my opinion.


What we can do:


Be intentional about your use of language.

It’s beyond irritating to hear things in class like “Feel free to do girl push ups,” when as a female, you know damn well you do a pushup better then half the men in the room.

I acknowledge that as a gender, females traditionally have less muscle mass. We can’t fight genetics, but we can fight the fact that society puts down girls by saying they do something like a girl.


Stop using ‘like a girl’ as an insult. This same goes for telling people to stop being a pussy.

People can argue it goes back to some historical bullshit, but using a word associated with femininity to denote being weak and cowardly is an issue. Besides, anatomically, pussies are way tougher. They push out whole ass babies. Please explain to me how that anything about that is connected to something that is cowardly. The same goes for phrases like, “Suck it up and be and be a man.” Let’s stop enforcing these stereotypes of what men and women should be while at the gym. Consciousness in language is a major tool in removing perpetuated norms.


Let’s all try to examine the impact of some of the things we say and be more intentional about the language used in our gyms.


Use discretion of size instead of gender when rolling and drilling

Don’t go light on me while training just because I am female. Be aware of your strength and weight in comparison to my size. I’m a 125 lbs. person regardless of whether I’m male or female. This means a 200+lbs. partner has the ability to put too much pressure on my ribs, or easily pop my shoulder out with a kimura. This does not make a heavier or lighter person less valuable as a training partner. Rather, rolling with a lighter person should be a good opportunity for a larger man to work on his technique instead of his strength, which is often something people in BJJ can be heavily reliant on.


Ask women to drill and roll

Every woman that trains in BJJ knows that dreaded moment where it’s time to roll and you scan the room, trying to make eye contact with men who avert their gaze. When you’re the only woman in class, you’re also usually the only left one without a partner.

If you haven’t experienced this, you are incredibly lucky to attend a gym with an amazing culture that stops this from happening.


I’ve listened to my friends both locally and around the world describe experiences similar to this. Some women have said that at their gyms, men and women never drill together, and that women rarely ever get asked to roll by men. We need to make sure this is not the norm.

Women are your training partners. They are there to learn jiu jitsu, just like you. Men should think about asking their female training partners to drill occasionally. I understand that sometimes you might be working on a move where a size difference would make it challenging.


However, if you’re working on something like an armbar from guard, there’s no reason to limit your options. It makes women feel like we’re a part of the community when you ask us to partner up, like you place some value on what you can learn with us. Do not judge those who say no and are not comfortable yet. You never know what someone else is going through and that it may take time for them to get to that point.


This means women also need to do the same. Ladies, this means going outside your comfort zone and asking someone new to be your training partner. I understand it can be intimidating to ask a man you don’t know, but if we want to see change we need to be proactive as well. Although I love to drill with my girlfriends, I often make it a point to partner with men at the gym. I also make it a point to roll with everyone regardless of gender or body type when I’m not injured.


Facilities

If a gym wants women to feel like they belong, there needs to be a women’s changing room. It’s simple﹘ if you don’t give us space, it projects the image we are inferior to the men in the gym. I’m not saying it needs to be the same size as the men’s locker room, but it should at least exist.


Personally, I’ve come to prefer the idea of a co-ed changing space with individual rooms to dress in. As someone who has often been the only female at the gym, I can remember countless times sitting and waiting for the men to come out of the changing room, where they hung out for twenty minutes shooting the shit. This made me feel like I was missing out on some of the camaraderie.


The facilities also need to be clean. The consequences of dirty mats and training gear go well beyond aesthetics. Most of this is for the purpose of basic hygiene. Stereotypically, men have lower standards of cleanliness, but it’s hard to attract and keep women at your gym when it isn't clean.


Gender Roles

Honestly, I’ve wrestled a lot with the pros and cons of having distinct gender classes. I can definitely see where it can be intimidating for women to start the sport and jump right into the craziness of a traditional BJJ class. On the flip side, I see where women-only classes create a clear distinction between the genders that can sometimes become detrimental to achieving equality in the gym. I could write a whole entry on my thoughts of this alone.


What I see as a simple solution is to have women be instructors for coed classes. This puts a woman at the front of the room, and creates the norm for students that women have an equal standing in the gym. Women are usually limited in the role of being a children’s coach or leading only women’s classes.


I think that sets a bad example. If your gym does not have a higher-belt female, think about using a woman as a uke some of the time. It’s something that men take for granted, but for years, unless it was a women’s class, it was always a male instructor and a male uke.

Representation matters.


Also, stop assuming all women start jiu jitsu for self-defense reasons. And while some people are interested in self defense, it gets framed differently between genders-Women are meant to be there to protect themselves, while men want to be strong and be able to kick someone’s ass.

I started training because I grew up doing martial arts and was looking to try a sport that was more aggressive. I also wanted to find that sense of community I had previously with the people I trained with. I love that jiu jitsu is an avenue for women to learn self defense, but I don’t want everyone to assume that is every woman's reason for joining.


Joining & Leaving a Gym

When onboarding at your gym, be sure there is a system in place so that new students are aware of the values of the gym. Emphasize that there a is zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment of any kind. This behavior should also be evident and demonstrated by all leadership beyond that of the head coach. When a woman brings an incident that made them feel uncomfortable or offended to someone in a leadership role, do not dismiss it or downplay it. Take action and be sure that that kind of behavior does not perpetuate.


Consider doing an exit survey when a student cancels their membership. This could help identify what went wrong and determine areas of growth for your gym. This can be especially important when it's from someone from a minority group, such as women or the older jiu jitsu practitioners.


Conclusion

Diverse gyms lead to safe and thriving communities.


Generally speaking the more homogenous the gym, the less tolerant they are of other perspectives. Unfortunately, this means a heterosexual, male-dominated view is left to thrive and can often be left unchecked. So, if diversity across the board positively impacts culture, I hope we can agree that we should work towards an environment more inclusive to women.

I would love to hear what other thoughts people have on this topic.


I think it's important to create a dialogue for both men and women, to garner awareness of those blissfully ignorant, and also to change some of the misogynistic practices.


Written by Meghan Wagner (IG: @babesofbjj)




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