By Adam Benn, M.A, M.Ed.

Over the years, I have worked with PT clients who shared some of the challenges they navigate when entering fitness spaces. Individuals who are Transgender* or Non-Binary** have shared challenges accessing gendered*** spaces, like change rooms or washrooms. There is also frustration when fitness professionals use gendered language, more specifically, when instructors and trainers default to using masculine language like “guys” as a term to refer to mixed gendered groups.

Our society can make this process of gendering seem normal, primarily for individuals that fit, or closely resemble traditional gender norms. For those that do not, or choose not to fit traditional gender norms, the process of gendering people, places, and things can be alienating. The process of gendering also perpetuates gender stereotypes and biases, which in turn can lead to gender discrimination and harassment.

Society’s perceptions on gender are always shifting. More recently, these shifting perceptions have resulted in a movement – first away from the use of masculine terminology as a universal descriptor, to the inclusion of masculine and feminine terms; and more recently away from binary masculine and feminine terms towards the use of gender inclusive language.

According to the United Nations, “gender inclusive language” means “speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes. Given the key role of language in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias.”

Many are aware that gender inclusion includes respecting chosen pronouns. The concept of gender inclusion also envisions environments where individuals are free to express their gender without prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. In Canada, the Federal Government and all provinces recognize Gender Identity as a protected social category. Gender inclusion also requires fitness professions to deconstruct the ways in which they view gender and how these biases are communicated.

Check your gender bias and say what you mean

I facilitate a workshop activity where participants are invited to share the words and thoughts that come to mind when they think of the words “masculine” and “feminine”. Some of the words participants share (like masculine = home; feminine = strong) consciously challenge traditional ideas of masculine and feminine. However, other words (masculine = strong, tough, aggressive; women = soft, delicate, gentle) reveal how unconscious gender bias has invaded our thoughts.

Unconscious gender biases also filter into how we work as fitness professionals. We use gendered language to describe objects – for example, we may encourage a female client to grab one of the “women kettlebells”. Or, we gender gym equipment – for example, viewing the hip adductors or glute machine as being “for women” and the bench press as being “for men”. We modify our expectations based on gender – for example, pushing men to lift heavier weights while providing modifications to women. This type of thinking is a disservice to our clients, by limiting potential and increasing risk.

These types of actions also reinforce stereotypical gender biases (men = strong, women = delicate). These types of gender biases also exclude gender diverse individuals by reinforcing a rigid male/female binary. Fitness professionals that are unaware of the experiences of gender diverse people can unconsciously say or do things that could be considered harassment on the basis of gender identity and/or gender expression.

Some possible suggestions include:

  • Instead of assuming someone’s abilities based on gender, try checking in with the individual
  • Instead of providing options by gender (“Men should be using XX weight and women should be using YY weight), try providing options by other criteria – by the participants’ weight, by intensity level, by experience level, etc.).
  • Instead of using pictures and videos of men demonstrating exercises, use images/videos featuring individuals from all genders.

Language matters to individuals that are transgender or gender non-binary; but it also matters to women, men, and other individuals. Using Gender inclusive language and becoming gender inclusive benefits everyone.

Focus on using the language that reflects the ability level of the individuals and expanding your gender framework, and you have taken an important first step towards becoming more gender inclusive.

Key terms

*Transgender describes individuals who are not comfortable with, or who reject, in whole or in part, their birth assigned gender identities. The word transgender is generally viewed as an umbrella term that unifies people who identify as transsexual, transgenderist, intersex, transvestite or as a cross-dresser.

** Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine‍—‌identities that are outside the gender binary. Non-binary people may identify as having two or more genders (being bigender or trigender); having no gender (agender, nongendered, genderless, genderfree or neutrois); moving between genders or having a fluctuating gender identity (genderfluid); being third gender or other-gendered (a category that includes those who do not place a name to their gender).

***Gendering is the assigning or attributing of a gender to someone or something; division, classification, or differentiation according to gender.

About Adam Benn, M.A, M.Ed.

Adam Benn, M.A, M.Ed., is an experienced facilitator, educator, and certified personal trainer. Adam has over 10 years of experience in personal training, education, and community healthcare. Adam has wide and ranging experience working with diverse populations with unique needs, and supporting individuals and groups to create inclusive environments.