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Women in fitness

Health and fitness is a young, dynamic industry seeking to appeal to people of all genders, so why are women are still under-represented, asks Kath Hudson

Published in Health Club Management 2022 issue 11
Above: Rebecca Passmore is Pure Gym’s UK MD / photo: James McCauley / PURE GYM
Above: Rebecca Passmore is Pure Gym’s UK MD/ photo: James McCauley / PURE GYM

There’s been a dearth of women at a number of industry events this year and this isn’t an anomaly, research backs it up. According to the Gender Equality in the Fitness Industry 2022 report, produced by the Women in Fitness Association, being a boss is still too much a male domain in this industry.

The report found men hold more leadership roles in the fitness industry than women; there are fewer career opportunities for females; men are less concerned about gender bias and the importance of equality than women and few companies are doing anything to address gender discrimination.

According to the report, 47 per cent of men have a leadership or senior role when working for a company, compared with 36 per cent of women. Furthermore, self-employed men are more likely to be club owners – 70 per cent – whereas self-employed women tend to be trainers, with only 29 per cent owning a business.

It’s time for change and as WIFA’s Jennifer Halsall says, the benefits of creating gender equity are both social and economic: “We know if women participated equally to men in the economy, it would increase the global GDP by US$28tr by 2025,” she explains.

McKinsey research shows the most diverse companies are more likely to outperform their less diverse peers when it comes to profitability. A 2019 analysis showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

Those companies yet to embrace diversity are already shown to be lagging.

The WIFA/Sport Alliance report identified an old boy’s club or ‘lad culture’ mentality exists in some parts of the industry – not a great advert as our sector vies with other industries to recruit the brightest talent. Patriarchal structures – often as negative for young men as they are for women – need breaking down. Over to the experts...

Humphrey Cobbold
Pure Gym: CEO
Cobbold says management teams must be a male-female mix / photo: James McCauley / PURE GYM

I’m a relative latecomer to the world of fitness and remember thinking it remarkable, when I attended my first industry forum in 2015, that every panel participant was male and middle-aged! This, after all, is an industry with a lot of young participants and which endeavours to serve both women and men in broadly equal numbers.

Gender requirements should be important areas of consideration for management teams, as men and women have different habits and needs. For example, gym intimidation is a specific challenge facing women. A gym business which lacks different voices, experiences and perspectives will struggle to deliver the best proposition, making it a clear commercial imperative to have female voices at all levels.

Pure Gym was, and is, a disruptor. We’re a business that wants to tear down barriers to exercise, hence our ‘Everybody welcome’ approach and from the outset I wanted to build a company which genuinely reflects our membership base.

This is as much about policies as it is about having a collective mindset, which says we’ll be better if we’re representative of the population we seek to serve.

We want to be at the vanguard of progressive working policies, so we’ve enhanced maternity cover and introduced flexible working, which is helpful for our colleagues who have to care for others There’s no doubt this helps women with children who previously might have dropped out. Our guiding principle is to hire the best person for the job and to find them by turning over every stone and never compromising.. At the same time we want, and need, to assemble a diverse team.

Historically, part of the problem has been that the talent pipeline has not been representative. This remains a problem in some areas, for example, tech is still male-dominated, however, guided by this approach we’re delighted to have built a top team comprising four men and four women.

Once you have more gender diversity it gathers momentum, as women are more likely to want to work at a company where they see other women, particularly senior women, who demonstrate there’s no upper limit to progress.

I feel lucky I have some of the industry’s best talent on our team, including MD, Rebecca Passmore. I knew straight away she was the perfect fit and she’s a fantastic asset for the group.

Rebecca was promoted to her role on the same day she went on maternity leave, which was impactful both for her and other women in the industry.

I would advise women to be forthright in what they’re looking for in their careers. There’s a professional/personal trade-off for everyone, but it’s still more challenging for women because of the way childcare duties continue to fall. However, it shouldn’t be a barrier to getting top jobs, so they should do their research to find companies that allow them to live the way they want to.

Rebecca Passmore was promoted to her role as MD of Pure Gym on the same day she went on maternity leave, which was impactful both for her and other women in the industry
Liz Clark

I ‘ve been a fighter and climber my whole life. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, let alone get a Masters Degree. I arrived in Washington DC with one friend, who is now my husband, and began working for a trade association as a secretary. I volunteered for any jobs or work assignments I could get, in order to grow and learn. As a result, I quickly received promotions and responsibility. If I didn’t know how to do the job, I figured it out or asked my teammates for help. I don’t think I had to fight harder as a woman, I just decided to work harder.

Every industry I’ve ever worked in has been male-dominated, so I took every opportunity to learn from those men, find the seasoned women who wanted to help young hustlers (because not all of them did) and surround myself with colleagues who were collaborative and positive. If I was overlooked I used the energy to create a new project where I could shine, excel and be a force to be recognised.

As the first female CEO of IHRSA it feels like equal opportunity has been achieved at the highest level.

Although we have a lot of work to do, I actually believe we’re ahead of many industries. Due to the nature of our industry, there is equal opportunity to join as a trainer and go on to become managers and ultimately owners. Women have pioneered methods such as yoga and group exercise and it only continues.

In addition to hard work, I’m a curious person and love learning from people, whether I’m at the gas station, the grocery store or the IHRSA annual convention. I’m also creative, which has helped to solve problems, create initiatives and grow partnerships. Empathy has lately become a buzzword and it’s a quality I try to apply to my management style. You never know what people are going through but there are ways to be demanding and kind at the same time.

Humour is also critical. Life is tough and unpredictable, but you just have to laugh and surround yourself with those who can laugh with you to get through difficult times.

I’ve had to make personal sacrifices: I have a terrible work-life balance and don’t spend enough time with my family. Because I have a lot of meetings during the day, I need to actually get work done in the evenings. I’m doing my best to give myself the weekend, enjoy kids’ soccer games, and bike rides, but it doesn’t always work that way. I’m also lucky because my husband, who is also in the association business, keeps our kids fed and bills paid, and it’s great to have a partner who understands it all.

I’d recommend young women say yes to any opportunity, even if it’s grunt work. Nobody starts at the top, but hard work can get you there. Surround yourself with positive people, as negative ones will hold you back.

We’re ahead of many industries. There’s equal opportunity to join as a trainer and go on to become a manager and ultimately an owner
People in fitness can climb the ‘corporate ladder’ if they persist / photo: shutterstock / Monkey Business Images
Sophie Lawler
CEO, Total Fitness
Lawler – encouraging inclusivity and diversity / photo: TOTAL FITNESS

When it comes to culture and people strategy, gender equality is not – and has never been – a specific focus for me in my career, or my team. I know it’s an important topic and I feel beholden to say things that will empower and embolden women in particular, but my truth on this subject doesn’t speak to gender directly. It speaks to everyone. My specific focus is building a culture where everyone can achieve some level of personal growth, whoever they are and whatever that growth looks like for them.

People are unique and complex, so one person’s growth is different from another’s. For some, it’s about climbing the career ladder and fulfilling a senior professional role, but I know first-hand that this isn’t the case for many of our team members. Their growth could be about forging better relationships with their families, leaving a relationship that doesn’t serve them, overcoming a deep-seated fear of rejection, or saving for their first property.

I believe my responsibility is to create an environment where they can move forwards towards whatever they choose. The general term “glass ceiling” doesn’t accommodate for that as I believe everyone has their own glass ceiling or even several. Our role is to help our team members to understand what theirs is and what, if anything, they would like to do about it.

Statistical tools are valuable, but I don’t think you can use them to measure career growth. They are only a small part of a rich and colourful picture. And outwith the reams of data we have, I’m very proud to know that overwhelmingly our team at Total Fitness feels it is a business with a culture that feels inclusive, diverse and supportive of their growth. Gender-specific topics – such as menopause – do have a place, and these can be best addressed by building an inclusive culture. I also think our industry should be more considerate of our women members in relation to our products, such as our gym floors and our pool halls, and how comfortable and accessible they feel.

On my path to CEO I encountered challenges, many of which were personal, not professional, and self-created rather than imposed. I serve the CEO role because I earned it and I’m the best person for that job.

Everyone has their own glass ceiling. Our role is to help team members understand what theirs is and what, if anything, they’d like to do about it
Working to support team members to achieve personal goals / photo: TOTAL FITNESS
Tara Dillon

I started my career in 1987 as a lifeguard at a leisure centre where all supervisory and management positions were held by men. I moved to another local authority for a supervisor’s role and after a few years applied for a management position. The job was given to a more junior male colleague. My manager explained it was because he was older and had more life experience than me.

That was my first experience of being overlooked in favour of a male colleague, but at the time I didn’t recognise it for what it was. I just felt crushed at the injustice of losing out to someone who was less qualified for the position. As it turned out, the role proved too big a jump for my colleague and I was given the job a few months later.

I didn’t find it particularly hard to progress in my career, and have been supported by both men and women throughout, but for too many years I was one of few female senior managers in the sector and I often felt I had to be part of the ‘boys’ club’. I wasn’t offended by it. It wasn’t malicious and I didn’t feel disrespected, I was able to hold my own and it was easier just to get on with it, because what else can you do when you’re the only female?

But I wouldn’t want my nieces, or any other young women entering the sector, to be the only female in the group and feel compelled to be part of the boys’ club.

With hindsight, I regret not voicing this at the time, to help pave the way for the next generation of female leaders.

In another senior role I discovered I was being paid less than my male predecessor. Management said it was because he had more experience than me, yet we had the same experience. gain, I was stung by the unfairness. My response was to get a bigger and better-paid job elsewhere.

I’m competitive by nature and my sports background has taught me that you only get picked for the team if you’re good enough.

My advice to young women in the sector is to pick your spot and go for it. There’s only a glass ceiling if you choose to see it. Look for the limitless opportunities in front of you and set goals. In my 20s I was convinced I would have one of the industry’s top jobs by the time I was in my 50s, and that’s what I’ve achieved, through long-term planning.

In my 20s I was convinced I’d have one of the industry’s top jobs by the time I was in my 50s, and that’s what I’ve achieved, through long-term planning
All types of workplace inequality must be addressed / photo: Bojan Milinkov / shutterstock
Sarah Watts
CEO, Alliance Leisure Services
Watts: ‘I nuture the business and team as a mother’ / photo: Alliance Lesiure services

I launched Alliance Leisure Services (ALS) in 1998, shortly after the birth of my third child. Previously, I was assistant direct services organisation manager at Bristol City Council, when public sector leisure was built around the traditional model of a sports hall, swimming pool and gym. The sector was behind the private leisure offer, but couldn’t access funding for development, so I saw a gap to sell funding mechanisms to local authorities for their leisure facilities. I couldn’t do a spreadsheet, but I knew I could improve public leisure.

Aligning myself with Life Fitness, my first project was facilitating £1m for Hull City Council, whose funding for three leisure refurbishments had fallen through at the last minute. That was our launchpad, without that lucky break I’m not sure ALS would be here 23 years later. Now we have 45 employees and still work with some of our earliest clients.

Back then the sector was incredibly male-dominated, with most of the CEO, finance and legal positions held by men. I’d walk into a meeting with my number two, Paul Cluett, and the clients would automatically ask him the questions.

I’ve made minor sacrifices along the way. For example, missing my daughters in their Christmas productions – although I made 80 per cent of them – and working at night after they were tucked up in bed. Overall, the sacrifices weren’t that great and my daughters say they always felt they were my priority.

Generally, I find women diffuse situations: I don’t do business with testosterone. I’m tenacious, patient, humorous and balanced. My staff describe me as inspirational, entrepreneurial, bonkers, loyal and fair. I’ve nurtured the business, and the team, as a mother. As a result, the company respects our people and appreciates they have lives outside the business. I understand what they’re going through with children, elderly parents and so on, because I’ve been there myself. I encourage the team to keep off work emails after 6.30pm and at weekends. Everyone needs a good work-life balance. Myself, I never switch off, but I’m not a workaholic.

My advice for ambitious young women in the fitness sector is to find something you love, it’s easier to be great if you’re passionate. Don’t feel defeated if you get knocked back. Believe in yourself and your abilities, and find a great mentor. I still love my job and am hugely excited for Paul and I to steer ALS through its next phase of unprecedented growth.

I’d walk into a meeting with my number two, Paul Cluett, and the clients would automatically ask him the questions
Watts says passion and ability can shine through / photo: Alliance Leisure services
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