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Women in BJJ: Creating Safe Spaces

As most instructors and coaches know, it's always hard to retain students in BJJ, especially after they get promoted to blue belt.

Before we even ask ourselves why it's difficult to retain women in BJJ, we should be asking ourselves as school owners, have we made spaces that are welcoming to women? I don't mean that you need to roll out a red carpet and offer special discounts. Please, by all means, charge everyone what you're worth and don't change your policies if a woman walks in.


Here are a few areas I feel many academies fall short when it comes to having safe and welcoming spaces for women:



1. Women's Only Class in the Schedule


This is important and often overlooked. I remember advertising our women's BJJ program on Facebook and someone (I'm assuming it was a guy based on the poster's name and profile picture) commented, "do you offer men's only classes too or do only women get special treatment?".


You can just imagine the look on my face and how far back my eyes rolled into the sockets of my head.


As we are all well aware, BJJ is a male dominated sport. After the UFC was first created back in the early 90s, no one ever saw women fight in combat sports on national television let alone on PayPerView. As more and more women are now coming out in the frameworks, there are still a number of academies that have a low female count on the mats. I am part of many Facebook groups where a lot of women complain that they are the only females on the mats. I myself dealt with this issue when I first started training in 2013. Many times I was the only female on the mats, and although my male training partners were a lot of fun to roll with, I always found that training with women was different. Men will hold back to some degree when rolling to avoid injuring a female, however a woman against a woman will always be a 100 percent real fight (which is why it is SO entertaining and inspiring to watch female matches).


Having a women's only class will allow women to feel less intimidated about taking part in a sport that is dominated by men. This will also allow women to understand and implement basic BJJ against someone closer to their average size, strength, and athletic level. This will lead them to gain enough confidence to start rolling with men, or people twice their size.


2. Having a Female Instructor


I know having female staff well versed in BJJ is hard to come by. The commitment alone is not something everyone is willing to take, and as club owners we all know the commitment that is required to be responsible for students and their education.


My Professors, instructors, and coaches have always been male, and while I have learned a great deal from them and have tremendous respect for all of them, they are limited in their ability to relate to me as a female. Women roll differently. Certain techniques are better suited for women based on their body types. In addition, women who have gone through traumatic situations may feel more comfortable speaking to a female instructor over a male instructor depending on where they are in their healing process. This will be different for everyone of course, and while many instructors have the purest of intentions (and while some of them are known to also exhibit inappropriate behaviour), being sensitive to a person's (whether male or female) experiences are essential to having an open and welcoming space for women.

3. Having a Sizeable Women's Change Room


If you have a broom closet as a change room for women at your academy then you're doing it all wrong. Every facility should have a sizeable change room for both genders. This will suggest to newcomers that you are in fact a welcoming facility. You can't just say so on your website or Instagram page and expect women to waltz in when they don't have adequate space to change and store their belongings.


4. Provide Bathroom Essentials


All public restrooms will have pads or tampons readily available for women and your academy should be no different. While you might find this annoying as a school owner (I get it, one more thing to add to your list of expenses), however your female students will thank you immensely for the small gesture. Bonus points if you have hair ties and makeup wipes available at your disposal as well. A girl will always need an extra hair tie and some of the dudes will appreciate it too!



5. Having Women's Apparel Sizing


We all know finding the perfect gi fit is essential to training BJJ. When we first started Affinity I was adamant on getting women's sizing when we decided to design our own apparel. I was NOT going to sell men's clothing that may or may not fit a woman's body just because it was more convenient when placing an order. I make sure that we have a variety of sizes for all shapes and heights. When a woman on the phone tells me that she's curvy, is large breasted and nothing usually fits her, I am able to reassure her confidently that we have every size under the sun. This alone will make them feel like women their size and structure belong in your space.



6. Being Open About Respecting Boundaries & Abilities


Every now and then our head Professor will have a sit down chat with the whole class right at the end of class. During the announcements he will give reminders to everyone that he does not want to see anyone thrashing someone that is a different size than them just because they can. He will remind everyone that their strength does not impress him but rather, their ability to work with every shape, size, and rank in the room by applying proper technique and execution. Many women have appreciated this tenfold knowing their Professor has their back.


7. Roll With Your Female Students


This may be a controversial topic to some, as some high level athletes have openly stated that they prefer not to roll with women. While everyone is entitled to their reasons (hey, there are some women who will never roll with men and they have their reasons too), if you are an instructor and are open to the idea of rolling with your students, don't leave out the women in your academy. By rolling with your female students (if they are also open to the idea of course) you will not only build rapport with them, but will also create a healthy student-instructor relationship. This will also let them know that you genuinely care about their progression.



8. Be Sensitive to Bad Situations in Your Academy


It's no secret that the BJJ community has heard of some school owners making inappropriate advances towards their female students. It's also no secret that some academies are home to students who have made inappropriate advances towards female students (just join a women's BJJ Facebook group and there are tons of stories). While it goes without saying that this type of abhorrent behaviour is vile, school owners should be sensitive when this type of information is brought to their attention.


It is also important to note here that what school owners lack is education in empathy towards vulnerable individuals. Your job as a school owner is not to just slap mats on the ground and teach a few classes. Your job is to also make sure that every student feels welcome, safe, and respected. This means that when sensitive information is brought to your attention you have a legal responsibility to investigate while making sure the alleged victim is safe. I cannot emphasize how important this is and unfortunately many schools lack an actionable plan to prevent such instances from occurring or even how to handle an emergency situation.


In addition, some small action items you can start implementing is calling out bad behaviour when you see it. It does not matter if your highest ranking belt said it as a joke, call out bad behaviour and language and encourage others in your circle to do so as well. This will promote a healthy environment in your academy.



9. Inclusivity


As BJJ practitioners, we pride ourselves in the ability to connect with others through the language of BJJ. You don't have to speak the same language or have the same political beliefs as someone in order to establish commonalities. This notion has fostered spaces for people of all creeds, backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and orientations to find common ground on the BJJ mats all over the world.

As a school owner you will have students who may have certain limitations when it comes to their training such as having religious or personal restrictions on training with opposite genders. They might prefer only training with women. Some women, notably Muslim women who wear the Hijab might feel overwhelmed being in an unfamiliar space in a Hijab, so a simple smile to welcome them will make them feel like they belong in your academy. In addition, it is also important that your academy is open to members of the LGBTQ community and that you and your staff outline basic values and morals that are inclusive to people of all orientations. This also means that any misdemeanours or ill speech toward such groups should be held to account.


Lastly, your academy should also be accessible to people who might have disabilities. Does your academy have a wheelchair accessible bathroom? If you have private parking, do you have parking stalls designated to people who might require it?


So there you have it! I hope that gave you some insight if you are a school owner. As entrepreneurs, we know that there is always room for improvement. As I said earlier, you don't have to roll out the red carpet, you just have to be open minded and have the willingness to improve all areas of your academy.


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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I'm Zenab! I hope you enjoy reading about my musings in the world of entrepreneurship as I navigate reaching my Jiu Jitsu goals while helping other women achieve theirs. 

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