By Mugoli Samba, Graphics by Christophe Young
Whether it’s in the comments of the Spotted at Carleton Facebook page, or in the editorial section of the Ottawa Citizen, the idea of a women’s-only gym hour continues to be debated at Carleton University.
The “Where’s Our Women’s Only Gym Hour?” campaign was launched by the Womyn’s Centre, the Carleton University Muslim Students’ Association, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), and the Rideau River Residence Association (RRRA) in partnership with the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) earlier this fall.
The campaign is currently surveying students on campus to gauge their opinion about the hour.
Reports of posters being torn off campus walls in late November show that some object strongly to the idea.
But Carleton already has women’s-only pool hours, and several universities in Ontario have women’s-only gym hours, including York University, Ryerson University, the University of Ottawa (U of O), and the University of Toronto (U of T), according to their websites.
U of T Mississauga
Louise Vanderwees, a program co-ordinator at U of T Mississauga’s Recreation, Athletic and Wellness Centre, said the decision to implement women’s-only gym hours on the university’s campus had a lot to do with numbers.
“Our primary purpose was . . . that our campus population was 60 per cent women and 40 per cent men, but our gym membership wasn’t reflecting that at all,” Vanderwees said. “So we asked ourselves, ‘How do we get women into a space that is traditionally dominated by men?’”
She said athletics representatives met with staff and students of varying backgrounds to ask why they were not using the gym space.
“[We] asked them: Why don’t you use the gym? What would have to happen to get you to use the gym?” Vanderwees said. “We implemented a study and applied some solutions the following year.”
She described an L-shaped section of the gym—a third of the entire space—that is currently sectioned off for women’s-only hours.
Other U of T campus athletic centres also have women’s-only programming, according to the U of T athletics website.
The Athletic Centre on the U of T St. George campus offers daily women’s-only gym hours, regular women’s-only swim times, equipment orientation programs, and women’s-only drop-in sports opportunities for volleyball, field sports, basketball, and hockey.
The Scarborough campus also has women’s-only hours in a curtained conditioning area and equipment orientation programs, as well as drop-in swimming and aqua zumba classes for women.
Anthony Seymour, the manager of recreation at Ryerson, said its weight room can be perceived as a male-dominated space because of the way it has been set up in a basement room, with grey walls and a lot of heavy machinery.
“I can see how it is set up to be more of a male environment,” he said. “When we built our new gym at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, it had a lot of natural space [and] mats. At that gym we see much higher numbers of women.”
Both gyms on Ryerson’s campus—the Ryerson Athletic Centre and the Mattamy Athletic Centre—have women’s-only gym hours scheduled throughout the week, according to the Ryerson Athletics website.
Seymour acknowledged that having a male-dominated gym may create an uncomfortable environment for women to try out equipment, which affects the ways they interact with the gym space.
He said the women’s-only gym hour was implemented in 2014 following a campaign led by the Ryerson Students’ Association.
Similar to Carleton’s situation, Seymour said the campaign caused debate, with opposing students taking to Reddit and Facebook to voice their concerns.
“A lot of women also used the hours because they lacked the knowledge of what to do [with gym equipment],” he said. “When we started the women’s-only hours, we chose to have a trainer in there to help with technique.”
After a year of women’s-only gym hours at Ryerson, a survey of its users found that 86 per cent of respondents also started using regular co-ed hours, because they felt more comfortable around equipment and in the gym space, according to Seymour.
U of O
Women’s-only gym hours have been implemented in U of O’s smaller Montpetit Hall Fitness Centre for an hour on Thursday and Friday evenings. Currently there are no women’s-only hours at the Minto Sports Complex aside from a women’s weight training fitness class, according to the U of O website.
Aziza Makboul, a second-year student who is a hijabi Muslim woman, said she was excited to use the hours when she first heard about them.
“It was pretty intimidating going to the gym with a bunch of guys, and you’re a first-year, and you’re a little girl,” Makboul said. “It just felt scary.”
But she said she stopped using the hours because they were inconvenient and that the program has been poorly advertised.
“I love [the idea], I really do, and I would love if it worked better, but I don’t know how they talk to students to make sure [the hours] work well,” Makboul said.
She added that she now goes to the gym during the regular co-ed hours, not because of comfort, but because of scheduling conflicts with the women’s hours.
“Now, when I go to the [co-ed] gym, it’s just in and out,” Makboul said. “It’s uncomfortable, and there are certain equipments I’m less comfortable using. It sucks, really.”
Women’s-only gym hours and Carleton
“We’re happy to work with groups to provide services that would always involve more people,” said Marta Wein, Carleton’s fitness and recreation program administrator.
Currently, the “Where’s Our Women’s Only Gym Hour?” campaign is conducting an online survey to gauge interest for women’s-only gym hours at Carleton.
But Wein said the survey is not the only factor Athletics will take into account when making the final decision about implementing these hours.
“There are a lot of things that have to go into that decision,” Wein said. “It’s not just a decision. It’s logistics, space allocations, staffing, all the logistical things that go into things like this.”
She said they are waiting for the survey results in order to move forward with the discussions regarding how these hours would be implemented at Carleton.
Patrick Sieradzan, a second-year commerce student at Carleton, said he understands some women may have had “terrible things happen to them and need this space to comfortably work out.”
“Kicking out all the men from the gym because some women are uncomfortable isn’t a good way around it,” Sieradzan said. “Most men have never harmed a woman so it isn’t fair to generalize and discriminate against all men for the tiny number who have.”
But he added that since all students pay yearly athletics fees, imposing the hours would violate his right to equally access the gym space he also pays for.
“Another issue would be [that] since most workouts take longer than an hour, men would not be able to enter the gym an hour before the actual women’s-only hour starts, and if you only have a two-hour break between classes, you would not be able to use the facility.”
He suggested the hours could take place during downtime in the High Performance Centre in the Athletics building—the gym reserved for varsity team athletes.
“Things like men catcalling, or other forms of harassment in the athletic space, could make women really uncomfortable in the gym space.”—Sydney Schneider, Womyn’s Centre programming co-ordinato
Echezona Onyedun, a third-year economics student at Carleton, said that although he can’t speak for women and their experiences, and understands the premise of campaign, he still feels a women’s-only hour would inconvenience many students due to scheduling conflicts.
“I feel like some guys would want to go to the gym at the time when the women’s-only gym time is, and it would inconvenience people,” he said.
But Onyedun said he wouldn’t have a problem with the hours if they weren’t during the higher-traffic times—in the morning and around 5 or 6 p.m.
Why do women’s only gym hours matter?
Creating environments for students who identify as women and outside of the gender binary to freely and comfortably work out is the goal of the “Where’s Our Women’s Only Gym Hour?” campaign at Carleton, according to Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, president of the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA).
“For me, this gym hour isn’t an issue of equality, it’s an issue of equity,” Owusu-Akyeeah said. “It’s that we’re recognizing that people are different.”
She added the campaign will help accommodate these differences to ensure respect and fair treatment.
“We are different . . . in how we do our genders, how we navigate the university, even in how people navigate their gender,” Owusu-Akyeeah said. “There needs to be accomodations and mechanisms [that] are put in place so that people can still navigate this school, and have their differences be respected.”
She also urged students to realize the importance of fighting for the accommodation of non-binary students—students who don’t identify as either male or female in gender.
“From the beginning, when we proposed this idea, we also talked about the ways in which it would be more than [a women’s-only gym hour], because it’s easy for us to avert from binary ideas when we are asking for spaces,” Owusu-Akyeeah said.
Violence against women is another factor that has been taken into consideration regarding the women’s-only gym hour.
Sydney Schneider, the Womyn’s Centre programming co-ordinator, said the campaign has been pushed by victims of sexual violence.
“There’s an issue of sexual violence on the Carleton campus, along with many other campuses,” she said. “So things like men catcalling, or other forms of harassment in the athletic space, could make women really uncomfortable in the gym space.”
Schneider said she understands that some students might take the words “sexual violence” as strong, but that it is important for students to understand the spectrum the term encompasses.
“[Catcalling and harassment] falls under the spectrum of sexual violence,” she said. “Not quite as severe as rape, but can create an uncomfortable situation for a woman accessing gym facilities.”
Urvasi Sutri, a second-year student at York University, where women’s-only gym hours have been implemented, said the comments in gym spaces can be quite bothersome.
“Depending on the part of the body that you’re working on, if you’re a girl and you go into the gym and start working on the legs, guys will just say, ‘Typical girl, just want good legs and a small waist,’ ” Sutri said. “It’s just not our domain, and we don’t feel welcomed.”