Years ago, not long into my jiu-jitsu journey, I was chatting with two of my male teammates. One of them was reflecting on a negative experience he had at another gym, mentioning that he got bad vibes from the instructor and a good number of the students as well. The other one listened and then said, “Well, yeah. Notice how there aren’t any women training there anymore? There’s a reason for that.”
This kicked off a separate conversation that has greatly shaped my path in jiu-jitsu, with my teammate explaining that women are “canaries in a coal mine” in a gym. As I traveled around and attended different gyms over the years, I understood more and more what he meant: when there’s a fundamental problem with the culture of a BJJ gym, the women are often the ones to bear the brunt of it first. And they’re often the first to leave because of it.
There is not necessarily a problem with a gym just because there are only two women and none above white belt. Women still make up the vast minority of jiu-jitsu, and it’s not surprising for a gym to have no women at all if the academy is new, located in a remote area, or located in an area where there isn’t a lot of jiu-jitsu to begin with.
But if a gym has been around for years and still hasn’t accumulated more than a couple of female students at a time, that’s a bit odd. If a gym has been around for years and doesn’t have any female students above white belt, that’s a red flag. If a gym once had a few female upper belts, but they’ve all left, that’s definitely a red flag.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some gyms just have bad luck. Maybe their female students all moved interstate or got new jobs with schedules that don’t leave any room for training. I get it. Stuff happens. I’m not saying you should never train at a gym that has a mysterious absence of female students. I’m just saying you should be wary.
After nearly a decade of training and many, many discussions with other women in the sport, I can confirm what my friend said all those years ago. We experience the vast majority of sexual harassment and assault within the jiu-jitsu sphere. When we roll, we are often on the receiving end of ego problems within the gym, with male training partners “going easy on us” until we start to get the upper hand, at which point any consideration for a size or strength disparity goes out the window in favor of a submission at any and all costs. Many coaches make room in the gym for people with convictions or credible accusations of assault and abuse, teaching them how to get better at violence while ignoring or even kicking out their female victims. If you think these stories are exaggerated or made up, you aren’t talking to enough women in jiu-jitsu.
When these problems first start to appear, it’s usually the white belt women who leave first. Like many white belts, male or female, they often have the weakest emotional attachment to a gym or jiu-jitsu as a whole, and if they feel bullied by a coach or training partner, they may switch gyms or leave the sport forever. Alternatively, they may stick around, not realizing that what they’re experiencing isn’t normal or healthy.
This is why it’s the lack (or, more alarmingly, the departure) of upper belt women in a gym that concerns me the most. By the time anyone in jiu-jitsu makes it to purple belt, most of us have a grasp on what should and shouldn’t happen in a gym, which means we’ve either chosen this gym recently based on the knowledge and judgment we’ve developed over the years, or we’ve stayed in the same place because we’ve felt safe and happy there. We also carry more respect, which means that our coach is hopefully more likely to take us seriously if we have concerns or complaints about the behavior or culture within the gym. We may have more loyalty to an academy than a white belt with under a year of training would, but that makes it all the more significant when we decide to leave.
Oftentimes, when an upper belt woman leaves a gym suddenly with no explanation, it’s because something happened. Again, not always, but very, very often. Sometimes, it’s an incident that will only ever affect her — maybe she was the problem in an otherwise unproblematic gym — but many other times, the root of the issue will soon start to affect other women, and, eventually, the men in the gym.
These issues don’t have to be rooted in sexism or misogyny, either. Dangerous or hostile behavior toward other members might indicate to women that this gym will soon become unsafe or unwelcoming for them. Overly aggressive rolling that results in frequent injuries may also prompt women to leave.
Conversely, gyms that have multiple upper belt women — and women in leadership positions, especially if they’re teaching mixed-gender adult classes — often have environments that are supportive, welcoming, and safe for all their students, regardless of gender.
Again, this isn’t a rule with no exceptions, but a pattern. People are flawed, and I’m sure there are toxic female coaches and terrible academies with a lot of female students. But these days, whenever I go to a gym that’s been around for a while and only has one female student in the class, it quickly becomes obvious as to why. Happily, though, whenever I visit a gym with female coaches or a decent number of upper belt women, the same is true, only this time, the reason is a positive one.
If you swear that your gym is a good, healthy place to train despite your lack of female members, try leaving your ego at the beginning of this article and examining the culture of your gym with an open mind. Have you dismissed female students when they’ve brought up concerning behavior from your other students? Have you allowed people accused of abuse or assault to continue training with you? Have you displayed aggressive behavior, especially toward female students, or have you used your population of female students as a dating pool? Do you allow sexist, homophobic, racist, or transphobic language and slurs in your gym? Do you let your upper belt male students teach mixed-gender classes, while the upper belt women are restricted to teaching kids’ class or women-only classes? Are students frequently injured while rolling?
If you can take an honest look at the environment inside your academy and find nothing that you can improve on, sure, maybe your lack of female members is just an unfortunate coincidence. But keep in mind that other students visiting your academy may not see it that way. Having women in positions of power in the gym is often reassuring for other women at any level in the sport, and if you want to bring more women into the gym, it’s worthwhile to put more effort into making your gym a better space for women. Make sure you have a women’s changing space if there’s one for men, even if it’s not big or fancy. Make sure your members are clear on the rules surrounding behavior within the gym, and enforce them.
Yes, hosting women-only classes or seminars can help, but if you bring women into a bad environment, they’ll all leave anyway. Make sure that you yourself are approachable and willing to take action if a problem presents itself in the gym. This seems easy enough in theory, but what happens when another student shows you screenshots of your star competitor sexually harassing them? Or if that competitor puts their girlfriend or wife in the hospital? Really ask yourself if you’d be willing to tell your star student to find somewhere else to train, because if not, then there’s your problem.
Again, these are patterns, not firm rules with no exceptions. But regardless of your gender and whether you own a gym, you’re looking for a gym, or you’re debating on whether or not to stay at your current gym, look at where the women are (or aren’t).
This article is so freakishly accurate. At least in my current situation. I’ve just made the decision to try another gym last week and reading your article today makes me feel so good in my decision. I thought this whole time the problem must’ve been me! Thank you for writing this!
This is excellent, Averi. Well said, and carefully presented. So many things I endured and kept quiet about because there was no one to tell who would listen or care. If quitting is not an option for you, the only way out is through, so you buckle up, toughen up and push past the adversity. It feels worthwhile when we can create a space that provides excellent training for everyone. People often ask me if I will teach women’s self-defense because women need a safe place with a strong black belt leader, but I think this is selling the journey short. The point is to provide this for everyone, especially those who would otherwise be intimidated to learn.