The Pink Gi in the Room

"We are all here on the journey to self-improvement. You cannot leave philosophy to chance."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Diversity is often the "pink" elephant in the room, and this includes the dojo. We can be so tunnel-visioned in our individual pursuits; we may not realize social reality — separating the way it is from the idealized way we wish to see it. We often think of it as a brotherhood, but it can be exclusionary for those who don't fit that narrative. The default thinking then becomes: if they aren't here it must be their choice, it couldn't be anything we did.

English professor, cage fighter, and author of The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, Jonathan Gottschall elaborates on this "fraternity" in an interview with fellow scholar and martial artist Sam Harris:

I traveled around to different dojos interviewing people for the book. But what I’ve found, especially in MMA gyms, is that the realm is dominated by young men. ... In my gym, there was almost no demographic diversity. There were very few women and graybeards. More or less everyone was a young man.

Under scrutiny, martial arts can be a sea of young male faces — sometimes with only one or two races represented. In a country with considerable diversity, the bar for what is considered "diverse" may be a low one. This is not a modern invention, but a legacy, when many fighting arts were not open to women, and teaching foreigners meant possibly teaching militaristic enemies.

Rather than speak for women, I decided to post an open request on Facebook for women to voice their experiences. What is enjoyable is universal, both sexes can understand it. Some of the most unpleasant experiences for women may not be so visible to men, but they are worth considering. Especially when the nature of the art dictates that we see what is invisible to most.

What Women Deal With

[*Note - All names have been changed.]

The need for self-defense is higher for women than men, yet the enrollment in self-defense and martial arts classes show the inverse. It may not be geared, and the culture not conducive, to the people who need it the most.

Men may never understand being in a situation or frankly in a world where bigger stronger people are attracted to them. Sometimes it may be teammates or even instructors. You can’t say it’s all the same when they don’t have to deal with the same things.
— Erin

Violence is different for men and women. Violence for men will generally be with another man, in a fight. (Men have always engaged with other men in duels). For women, violence will also generally be from men, but rather than a fight, it will be an assault. It is the difference in using one's martial skills in a bar fight where you see your opponent vs. using it to defend sexual assault, where you may not initially see your assailant, nor be aware that it is about to happen. The tactics, techniques, and even the level of intensity will be different. Unprovoked attacks are more likely to happen to women. Real world statistics and data require special consideration for women.

Women's jiu-jitsu classes at the London School circa 1905

Women's jiu-jitsu classes at the London School circa 1905

When guys tell other guys they train, it’s seen as cool. When I tell guys I train, I hear ‘bet you would like to get me in a triangle’ or ‘I bet you could beat me up.’ The rolling with other girls is seen as sexual. I don’t tell any guy I date first off I train BJJ as I can’t be bothered with defending what I do.
— Lisa

The style of sparring in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) happens on the ground, similar to wrestling, but may at times be even closer in proximity. Space is considered the enemy. (Something to consider in teaching, especially if the student is not used to having their personal space invaded. But the reality is, an attacker will not care about personal space.) Sparring is referred to as "rolling," since it can look like two tangled beetles rolling on the ground.

Once a male team member kissed the hand of a female team member after a roll. I went with her to talk to our coach. That kind of uncertainty is why I always want to have other women around where I train. Our coach is great about this kind of thing. He keeps folders on students, so he writes this stuff down and talks to the guy in question if any second complaint happens. On the other hand, I always worry that someone won’t make the complaint when it does happen again.
— Katherine
Some guys can be sleazy and roll sleazy. I have felt sexually harassed at BJJ by a past instructor. Most guys will never experience this problem.
— Lisa
I hear the college-age guys objectify women they see on the street and I don’t feel comfortable calling them out on it, instead worrying what they say about their female training partners if we aren’t there.
— Katherine
The one place where I am crazy to get my point across is safety vs. loyalty. Loyalty is bullshit if at any point you don’t feel safe. At every open mat I tell women, find an instructor who supports you.
— Kelly, Black Belt

Trying and Sticking With It

It’s probably not the nicest thought to be rolling around in a hot and sweaty environment with a bunch of guys you don’t know who look extremely intimidating.
— Brenda
The feeling of stepping onto the mat knowing that you will be overpowered most of the time, lose most of the time, and be disrespected much of the time.
— Bree, School Teacher
It’s very intimidating to walk into an all guys BJJ class. It takes balls to walk in and more balls to go class after class.
— Lisa
Often for women it’s scary and intimidating, especially letting someone in your personal space. And since it’s so foreign, since you didn’t grow up wrestling around with boys, you need more explanation and a bit more effort from people to make it more inviting and less intimidating. If it’s ‘suck it up or leave,’ we’ll leave. We’re potential paying customers after all.
— Erin
It was like learning a foreign language in one hour and not being able to ask any questions. I stuck it out for almost six months and finally decided this wasn’t for me. Also, as a woman, it was very strange to roll around with strangers. Now it doesn’t bother me one bit. My new instructor and the men I practice with encourage questions, and the moves are explained in great detail.
— Cindy

Why Did You Start

My uncle, a black belt, told me BJJ was the best martial art for women because it is designed so that a smaller opponent can still win against someone much larger than them.
— Jennifer
It awoke something inside me. Nothing matters when I am rolling. It’s my time. I love and hate it all.
— Leslie, Black Belt
I was teaching karate when the UFC was taking off. Watched ‘Choke.’ Learned that guard position was a viable way to control and potentially create submission opportunities. Decided to be a complete martial artist it was essential to learn this art. So in this way I am like many male martial artists.
— Bree, School Teacher
I’d come from a Thai boxing background which I had been training religiously for the last 7 years. The environment there was very militant, you had the utmost respect for your coach and jokes, and banter were left till the end of class. BJJ was a lot more relaxed, my instructor teaches to such a high standard whilst having a laugh and joke making sure everyone got the technique and people can openly ask questions related to this.
— Brenda
I needed that push, that physical activity that was for me, my chance to escape, and not think about what was going on outside the doors. I knew my girls were being taken care of, they were safe. I lived with my parents when I started, just went through a divorce, and needed something for me. I started out going to adult class, less than a month in I asked if I could go to kids class too. I needed more. I would drill with the kids, months later I became a coach.
— Tara
Sarah Mayer (1896–1957), the first non-Japanese woman to be awarded a black belt in judo

Sarah Mayer (1896–1957), the first non-Japanese woman to be awarded a black belt in judo

False Equivalence

Some guys will just expect me to break grips no problem, even when they are 80 lbs heavier than me.
— Lisa
I don’t need to be told, ‘Come on, BUMP!’ Um, excuse me, coach, have you seen the size of this guy on me, I’m trying. Size and strength don’t matter my ass!
— Tara

The idea that the practitioner should focus on technique rather than strength is necessary to sharpen skills. But to believe power does not matter at all is when practical self-defense becomes magical thinking — it's irresponsible and dangerous.

We often get the sense that our efforts are irrelevant because this is a ‘man’s game.’ I think flyweight UFC fighter Ian McCall said what a lot of men are thinking when he said of Ronda Rousey, ‘She’s the best woman on the planet. That’s cute. Cool. Well, you know, we’re doing men things.’ In other words, Ronda is good at what she does, but that is not the same thing that we men are doing, and it is not as important, no matter how many medals she has. I think we saw this very clearly with Ralek Gracie when he said that men would only be interested in watching another women’s match if the girls were ‘cute.’ I think even women themselves don’t always realize how much this kind of attitude affects them, but it is hard to be a strong competitor mentally when even your coach thinks that women competing is just ‘cute.’
— May
There are so many amazing women black belts that have a lot to teach. But they get so overshadowed by men. Let’s use Professor Hannette Staack. 8-time world champion, never on the cover of Gracie Magazine. But a male who won worlds once or twice is. What does this show the BJJ community?
— Leslie, Black Belt

Female athletes, from soccer to BJJ, represent their team and country against the world. Isn't it time we represent them back?

We face issues with finding good training partners that men do not face to the same extent, and yet when we don’t do as well as the men because of this, it is attributed to our gender.
— May
My entire BJJ life I have never had much exposure to women, nor high level. I have a first-degree black belt, and I still question my ability when I roll with brown and black. The hardest part is, am I really this level or was it just given to me because I sucked it up?
— Leslie, Black Belt
When it comes to weight, I know everyone makes fun of women and their ‘natural cycles,’ but your body gains 3-5 lbs in water weight each month. I take that into consideration when determining my weight class for tournaments or my diet leading up to it.
— Alicia

"Weight" is more complex and loaded for women than it is for men.

Being treated the same way does not mean that we want our gender and our experience ignored. Don’t patronize or minimize me but also don’t act as though being a woman has no effect.
— Grace
As an African-American, it’s especially hard to break past the social norm and practice martial arts. We don’t grow up realizing it’s an option and for sure we don’t see any of it on TV.
— Alicia

Considerations to Maximize Individual Learning

As a white/ blue belt, I learned BJJ at a different pace, and in a different manner than my male counterparts. My favorite training partner is Dani. She and I learn moves by looking for every nook and cranny of leverage, momentum, and tiny adjustments. We communicate, we ask each other for critiques.
— Shaya, Black Belt
Some of the moves could be adapted for females. There is a mentality that we should not cry if hurt or even frustrated. Kind of suck it up and get on with it. We are naturally smaller and not as strong as guys, a little more help would be helpful.
— Lisa
I’ve personally found myself modifying techniques because my arms, legs, and torso are a bit shorter. Also, women carry their weight differently, waist and upper legs, so their center of gravity is lower than men. Those differences are hard for a guy to understand, let alone teach to. That makes female camps and instructors very beneficial but not necessarily a requirement.
— Alicia
Men and women DO learn differently. We process differently, we conduct business differently. Men have a hierarchy to move the pack forward. Women have a group dynamic to move the pack forward. I have experienced this on the mat and at work. I have watched it happen in other squads at work.
— Jean, Police Officer
Adapting learning for women doesn’t really seem to happen in BJJ at least in the places I’ve trained. Mostly it involves lower expectations and permission to sit out if unable to keep up. I’d like to see more differentiation — not necessarily based on gender but across the board. It is a fairly primitive teaching model in many respects, at least at this stage.
— Bree, School Teacher

Female Instructors and Classes

Comic illustration by Rodrigo Herrera. Published with permission; all rights reserved.

Comic illustration by Rodrigo Herrera. Published with permission; all rights reserved.

There is an awesome female black belt in my area that holds seminars for women, but I know that if she just held a regular seminar for both genders, no men would come, and that is a problem. Female black belts have all trained with men that are much heavier than them and have very different body types than they do and therefore usually have unique and valuable perspectives on different moves and how they can be adapted for various body types.
— May
I have yet to take a class with a female instructor.
— Christine
I think that female camps are helpful, but female open mats that are open to women from all academies give women an opportunity to at least occasionally roll with people their own size. Having more female instructors and camps would also allow lower-belt females to see that this sport IS for them too. It’s like the Obama effect — a 2009 social experiment found that African-Americans academic performance improved when Obama became president, illustrating the power of in-group role models.
— Jennifer
A women’s only class? My emotional reaction is ‘No! Ladies, you need to jump in!’ But my intellectual answer is, ‘Yes, let’s get women on the mat.’ Let’s get women comfortable with some physical aggression that extends beyond the confines of rape prevention, self-defense, and ‘how not to be a victim.’ Let’s get women moving, confident, and strong and engaging a woman’s strength, which is NOT ‘being’ or ‘thinking’ more like a man, but really engaging in being a woman in its entirety. If the gateway for that is a women’s only class, then yes yes yes. Many women get trapped in the ‘need to be more like a guy’ mindset. I say, ladies, you’re not men. Be WOMEN. Engage being a woman.
— Shaya, Black Belt
These special considerations are not treating us differently as much as they are making up for the fact that we are already being treated differently in a systematic way that is unlikely to change immediately. I think men and women both fail to understand this sometimes. We are often treated as a uniform group, and in some ways we all do struggle with similar things, but hopefully this article will show that we all have different experiences and goals as well.
— May

The “Cool” Girl

It may be helpful at this point in the conversation to explore the social construct of the “Cool Girl.” Something men can expect of women and something women feel pressured to live up to. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn writes:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding.

Gender Preference

When being partnered up for drills, the girls are always paired together regardless of size. The men, on the other hand, are paired according to size. The women and men should be mixed.
— Christine
In my mind, if you can’t handle practicing with guys you know and trust, how can you effectively use the self-defense techniques you’ve learned in a real life situation with a stranger?
— Alicia
I don’t mind who I roll with as long as I’m learning. There is only one guy I will not roll with as he has injured me on two occasions. Sparring should be safe and not at 100%. We should not be bullied into rolling with a person that we feel is not safe to roll with. The instructor should know which students are suitable to roll with. Training with women is helpful as you can roll lighter and apply more technique than strength. I don’t always have to be defending, I can try new things without fear of getting smashed.
— Lisa
I have found men generally prefer not to roll with me if they can avoid it. I am, in their defense, a particularly small female. This is frustrating, of course because I almost always end up going with someone with a lower skill-level. Training with someone who is not as advanced as you is, of course, great once in a while, but when it is every class, it can hamper your advancement.
— Jennifer
I sometimes learn badly when working with a higher grade who feels they have drawn the short straw in ending up with ‘the woman.’ I’m slightly ashamed to say this can fluster me and in my attempt not to hamper their learning I can screw up more.
— Bree, School Teacher
Higher grades don’t waste their time overpowering women, they work clever defenses and focus on technique.
— Leslie, Black Belt
It’s more about body type and strength and how you respond to an unknown, unpredictable situation. The more ‘types’ you can engage, the more refined your technique.
— Shaya, Black Belt
I think it would have been great to train with women. It would be nice now, but really I can be just training with white belt men and do okay. It’s learning to adapt with what I have access to.
— Leslie, Black Belt
Often more advanced women get paired up with the white belts way more often than the advanced men. Sometimes this is even intentional discrimination on the part of the instructor. I once visited a gym and paired myself up with a blue belt man to roll only to have the instructor come over and place me with a group of white belts, even though these white belts were bigger.
— May

Training Partner or Father Figure: Ego, Patronizing Paternalism, and Sexism of Low-Expectations

‘It’s okay, I will spar with you because I have an injury anyway. I need to rest, I’ll fight you.’
— Bree, School Teacher
It drives me crazy when a white belt I am rolling with starts ‘mansplaining’ to me how to finish a choke or armbar that I very clearly already have locked on already, and then when I get it, they congratulate me and act like they let me get it as a teaching experience for me. This happens ALL THE TIME. I also hate it when they laugh and say something like, ‘don’t hurt me’ when we are about to roll as if the thought that I might actually be able to hurt them is hilarious. I do my best to tap them in the first minute.
— Jennifer

According to Dr. Brene Brown: "Appearance and body image is still the number one shame trigger for women. For men, there’s a really kind of singular, suffocating expectation and that is do not be perceived as weak."

One thing I really struggle with is respect, from guys. They see a woman and think she doesn’t know, or she can’t teach me.
— Tara
It can be really dangerous to women. If I tap the wrong guy, and his ego kicks in, he might really crank the next armbar to make sure I don’t get out of it, or when he starts losing decide he is just going to throw me with all his strength.
— May
If my instructors feel there is an ego present, they quickly nip it by giving the entire class a quick pep talk on ego. The student usually stops after that.
— Christine
I have a purple belt that I train with a lot and for every submission I get him with, he’ll get me with about 10. But when I do get him he gets the biggest smile on his face. He is genuinely so pleased that I’m improving and that I got him. I’m sure there’re others that would throw their toys out the pram, but I am lucky enough that the guys I train with really want the best for me and our team.
— Brenda
Condescension. It is delivered in different forms. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes cloaked in good intentions, sometimes it’s masked in insecurity. Years ago when I started, I randomly partnered up with this guy for a match. I was standing up out of his guard, and he promptly grabbed my heels and swept me. All the while, with a very serious, scowling look on his face. He swept me three times and then my instructor yelled, ‘Are you going to keep doing that or are you going to teach her something?’ He is very good about shutting assholes down. I never saw this guy treat male classmates this way, but when I sparred with him, he seemed to have a need to make sure I was out of my league.

Some guys absolutely believe down to their core, that women just need more help, no matter the belt rank. They roll light with us, to the point that a match is silly. They offer advice constantly. During technique at the beginning of class, they anoint themselves the ladies’ personal savior of BJJ with all their infinite wisdom. I am thinking of one lower ranking male in our class who does this. He will always ask to roll with the women in class, and then when we kick his butt, he will compliment us on our skills! He is also an advice giver, so rolling with him is double whammy of being annoyed.
— Shaya, Black Belt
Imagine one or two men in a class with women all the size of Lana Stefanac and Gabi Garcia [heavyweight female competitors]. And those are your training partners day in day out. Let’s see how long a man would last. Even if Gabi were a white belt, she would still give most men any size a fight. It’s extremely hard for women to teach men to understand them, and their struggles.
— Leslie, Black Belt
I get lots of guys telling me how tough or strong I am when I’m not doing anything more than them, just doing it while female, which I find annoying. I had a guy refuse to apply submissions, and he explained that he has to be nice to women. It took about a month of us talking it over and me ramping up my rolling intensity to work that out.
— Katherine
What I hear from women most of the time is ‘the guys crush me, I get my ass kicked, all I do is survive, they are all so strong, so big.’ Or ‘they spar like I am a child, they don’t know how to roll with me,’ or ‘they avoid me like the plague.’ They just wanted to be treated equal and with respect. From what I have heard there are a lot of shitty instructors out there.
— Leslie, Black Belt
I see the ‘male ego’ come into play all the time. It’s most obvious when a nice roll with a guy turns nasty once I get a sweep or a pass. He’ll start rolling harder, using strength and speed; his face will turn red from exertion or his forehead will wrinkle up. I’ve seen women ‘turn it up’ too, but much less often. It’s almost always 18-25 year old white/ blue belt men around middleweight.
— Katherine

According to Rener Gracie:

If it becomes clear newer students are there to serve as grappling dummies for advanced students, it could mushroom into something much more serious. The goal of an experienced grappler is to get others to his or her level. If that’s not present, get out. Don’t wait until you get injured or assaulted.

Becoming the De Facto Representative

I feel added pressure to perform better than the guys. I have to work twice as hard to apply submissions.
— Lisa
This is the history of feminism in a nutshell. Twice as good/ qualified for half the credit. Just look at Ronda Rousey. It took that kind of dominance to even get a women’s division in the UFC, and people still dismiss her.
— May

In media, comedian Tina Fey has often been used to explain how she had to be twice as funny as her male peers just to be considered their equal.

We’re expected to be feeble. So anything better is a bonus.
— Bree, School Teacher

Getting More Women Into the Art

I think women who sign up for ‘self-defense’ and get put into a sport-BJJ minded class or receive that type of instruction are less likely to stay.
— Alicia

Many men enter jiu-jitsu for the sportive, competitive aspect. It can become a continuation of a competitive life, or fulfill the type of competition they could not find elsewhere. For women, their initial draw may be from past trauma, or the fear of a possible future trauma. Context for the use of martial arts is critical to cultivate a lifelong practice.

Three times I have started out at a studio as the only female, and all three times, once women saw there was another girl there almost every class, we jumped from one girl to seven.
— Jennifer
By not treating and selling them as sex objects. Give the women respect. Put them on the cover of a magazine, tell their story.
— Leslie, Black Belt

Traditional images of male athletes may be a winning moment or a podium shot, the images of female athletes tend to focus less on their achievement or sport and more on their sex appeal. Consequently, this may discriminate against serious athletes who do not have the right "look."

It would also help if there were more gis in our size. We want to look like the rest of our teammates, not stand out in practice with our hot-pink gi because it’s the only one that fits properly.
— Alicia
The question isn’t ‘how can BJJ attract more women’ — it is not the responsibility of the art to change in that way. The question should be ‘how can more women become introduced to BJJ.’
— Natalie
Keiko Fukuda (1913-20130, dedicated her life to judo. She was the highest-ranked female judoka in history, holding the rank of 9th dan from the Kodokan, and 10th dan from USA Judo and from the United States Judo Federation, and was the last surviving student of Jigorō Kanō, founder of judo.

Keiko Fukuda (1913-20130, dedicated her life to judo. She was the highest-ranked female judoka in history, holding the rank of 9th dan from the Kodokan, and 10th dan from USA Judo and from the United States Judo Federation, and was the last surviving student of Jigorō Kanō, founder of judo.

It needs to start by changing the attitude to the women who have clawed their way up the belt ranks. Role models are important. It needs a better, more logical and explicit syllabus as it currently suffers from an obscure ladder of progress between grades. It needs an injection of pro-women attitude and education from the men at the top too. It also needs more explicit teaching of martial arts ethos.

Like many arts, it leaves out the philosophy in an academic way and hopes people will absorb the ethos. That isn’t good enough. Expectations should be clarified and reinforced constantly. To lose is to gain experience. Every training session is one closer to black belt. We are all here on the journey to self-improvement. The true martial artist is reflective, not bullying. You cannot leave philosophy to chance.
— Bree, School Teacher

There will always be a philosophy, if none is present, it will default into a cultish mentality based on the personality of the founder or head instructor — cult of personality. Or devolve into a might-is-right/ survival-of-fittest ideology. Yet the hypocrisy is, martial arts were created to give the weak an equalizer against the mighty.

Honestly, it’s like asking why more women aren’t firefighters — most women are just not interested in going through the physical/ emotional challenges faced in that environment. A lot of men aren’t either. You have to really want to do it, or have a passion for it, to commit to it long term. The doors in so many gyms around the world are wide open to women. It’s up to the women to choose to walk through the door, and to keep coming back.
— Natalie
Derogatory terms, ‘homo’, ‘poof’, ‘bitches’ may be heard but chances are you will quickly hear another voice explaining that that is unacceptable, disrespectful language which won’t be tolerated. This has been an initiative of my gym for some time. Not only does it reduce the use of disrespectful terms but encourages other members to challenge people using them. We’re not perfect and sad to say certain language and behavior has been bred and deemed ‘acceptable’ in our society — but at least we can all learn and develop a more accepting community.
— Valerie

We are able to speak freely with our families while maintaining some level of decency. Inappropriate behavior then is the opposite of family, it ruins families.

I recently rolled with a small, young blue belt visiting from Alaska, who told me one of her 250 lb training partners BROKE HER STERNUM doing knee on belly on her! How does that guy even exist in this world? Can you imagine being a woman at her school trying to recruit other women? ‘Hey! Come train here! Get your sternum cracked!’ Who could blame a woman for saying, ‘Hey, I’ll start with a women’s only class.’
— Shaya, Black Belt

Treatment of female BJJ practitioners is something everyone seems to have an opinion on, although according to all participants, it's something they've never formally been asked. Market research, focus groups, and surveys are fairly standard practices in most businesses. The standard martial arts business model, however, is based on an ancient system that catered to a homogeneous group of boys all from the same place. (Typically similar in background, size, age, and race.) The evolution of martial arts is predicated on what works now. Learning to kick someone off of a horse may be less relevant today. Similarly, so is running a business pretending everyone is the same. Yet we still maintain these practices because that's how it's always been done.

Mark Cuban says of this business model:

Wherever I see people doing something the way it’s always been done, the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done, following the same old trends, well, that’s just a big red flag to me to go look somewhere else.

Creating a culture for young homogenous male students out of legacy makes as much sense as learning to fight while wearing full medieval armor (which explains wrist throws because that's about as much mobility as you would have in armor). We make fun of antiquated techniques that have no application to the modern person, yet we don't do this for primitive thinking or practices. Adapt and make relevant, improve and make better; this is martial arts.

Some organizations are innovators in forward thinking. And some institutions are still stuck in the "stone ages": gauntlets, bullying, hazing, shaming, and dangerous training practices. (How many professional fighters lose out on money because their gym keeps hurting them.) The disparity in teaching is as vast as comparing old paper mills (an industry nearly destroyed by better technology) to Silicon Valley.

It was once revolutionary to allow anyone other than a young boy into a martial arts class. The student, in turn, adopted the qualities of a young boy to fit in and that's how they were treated. Times have changed.

It only takes 20 years for a liberal to become a conservative without changing a single idea.
— Robert Anton Wilson

On the Role of the Instructor

The instructor needs to ask why there are not many girls training BJJ. Could be that they are happy with the guys bringing in medals and not bother about how many girls there are competing. In the two competitions I had last year I felt I had no special help.
— Lisa
Women should not get special privileges. That gets men jealous, but you can’t expect women to pull off five chin-ups. Hell, most men can’t, I suppose. I think it’s much worse for an attractive girl, you have to be very confident because the sport is so intimate. It’s really up to the instructor, leadership by example.
— Leslie, Black Belt
Having an involved instructor that supervises rolling to make sure students are safe and rolling appropriately with someone their own size. Often when students choose partners for themselves, the biggest person and the smallest person are left without partners and so they end up going with each other. Having instructors assign partners can also reduce a woman’s feeling that she is unwelcome if everyone avoids partnering with her. Students can always choose their own partners if they stay after class to roll or during open mat times.
— May
Place more women in positions of authority and don’t be dismissive of women’s efforts.
— Jennifer
Men teach and the cute girl works the front desk — in hopes of signing up more men.
— Erin

There is an assumption when there aren't female assistant instructors, it must be they are not interested. The truth is complicated, they may be overlooked, or intimidated by the underrepresentation. Men leading and women working administrative duties is not new, these are traditional employment roles and what some feel most comfortable with. Not only should this change for an egalitarian civilization but especially because the need for martial art is the opposite of what is represented. The raw data continually shows it is women who need self-defense more than men (and usually against men), yet the way it is targeted does not reflect this reality. Then what is a reality-based martial art? Why do we keep telling ourselves to challenge our comfort zone if we do not follow our own advice?

Noticeable Progress

The main change is that men now know it’s frowned on to be sexist to the girls. So they mostly disguise it. That shows evolution. To parallel political correctness — once there was racism. Then it was more subconscious and — to an extent — shameful or a source of humor. Now we’re well beyond that. Women in BJJ are still a bit of a joke, unfortunately. At best, an afterthought.
— Bree, School Teacher
A female black belt was a unicorn when I first started!
— Leslie, Black Belt
I recently came across an article Helio Gracie did with the Brazilian edition of Playboy in 2001. In it, he says that women’s only purpose is to procreate and take care of their man/ children. Compared to this, we have made excellent progress in making room for women in the sport.
— May

(One of the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Helio Gracie's interview for Playboy.)

Unexpected Benefits

My previous two relationships ended as a result of domestic violence. This is not why I started training, nor what keeps me in class. It does give me a little peace of mind that this knowledge is now in my life. Most importantly, I can’t express how fortunate I am that my daughter is growing up surrounded by a martial arts environment.
— Christine
It will take you places you never knew were there. It will bring you such an inner happiness and frustration like no other. It will teach you survival then it will teach you to hunt. Do it to the best of your abilities. Fail and then try again. For me, it’s the ability to relax in the worst possible position.
— Leslie, Black Belt
In BJJ, you are literally putting your life in your partner’s hands every time they put you in a choke-hold. You have to trust that they are going to let go when you tap. This level of trust you have to develop with the people you train with leads to very strong and lasting friendships. You communicate with people on a whole different. I met my husband at BJJ, and some of my closest friends are from the first gym. I still keep in touch with most of them even though we are now thousands of miles apart.
— May
The sense of teamwork is powerful. Camaraderie is a potent force in BJJ. The ability to lose again and again, and be proud to keep trying. Resilience is the most valuable transferable skill.
— Bree, School Teacher
I’ve delightfully found that BJJ has given me increased problem-solving skills. You assess a situation, you determine what your goal is, what possible obstacles are in your way, how to remove those obstacles and achieve your goal.
— Alicia
Now I can do anything! I never thought I was good enough to do anything, I was abused, physically, mentally, emotionally, and I just wanted something to do to take my mind off the ‘stuff.’ I started BJJ and quickly became addicted, this was my drug of choice. This is something families can do together, we are a family of six, I started learning from an amazing man, who is now my husband. Our son is autistic, an orange belt, so yes, you can see he also trains with us. There is not a better feeling in the world than seeing your family being happy.
— Tara
It forces you to view the world in so many directions and positions, and forces to you become comfortable with the uncomfortable in a way which builds character like no other sport I’ve ever done.
— Natalie

On Being Heard

I have noticed that other women are usually afraid of voicing their opinions and saying when things bother them because you could very well get ostracized. I know there are people who roll their eyes at my feminist comments, but I also know that the other women I train with appreciate someone sticking up for them.
— Jennifer
Lower-belts willing to voice their opinions then going quieter up the ranks is an issue in other martial arts as well. The hierarchical culture can be oppressive.
— Bree, School Teacher

As you go up the ranks, you have too much to lose when voicing yourself.

Things Men Should or Shouldn't Do

Recognize that women have a valuable contribution to make to the sport. They’re not a pink gi freak show like ring girls in boxing.
— Bree, School Teacher

The "elephant in the room" is a metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed. This also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss. Whether in the workplace or media, gender is often that "pink" elephant in the room. Or in the case of the dojo, the "pink gi" waiting to be acknowledged.

(Via Mean Girls)

(Via Mean Girls)

The inconsistency in treating everyone the same is shown in the manufacturing of uniforms, where for women, the pervasive color is pink. This also comes with other stereotypes and expectations.

Why should men do anything different for women than they do for men, except offer everyone an equal opportunity to train and learn?
— Natalie
A lot of men talk about losing the ego — but they have no idea. Talk is cheap. Treat them as equal, treat them as a training partner, be humble, realize you can learn more from them than they can from you.
— Leslie, Black Belt

Final Thoughts

The thought I kept hearing repeated was, "I want to be treated the same — but not the same." A complex philosophical concept that requires unpacking.

What I have learned from this project is that women want to be treated as equals of men, without being treated like men. Treated with equal respect, equal value, equal recognition, and equal attention while being acknowledged for their individuality. (Implying they should identify as men or if they do identify as men, this would be a totally different article.) Not just women, I think this is what most of us want. We don't want cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, blanket methods — nonconformists love jiu-jitsu.

This is the conceptually challenging part, sameness and equality are correlated, they overlap, but they are not identical. This not only applies to women but everyone who doesn't fit the prototypical age, size, or athletic ability of the model jiu-jitsu player. If everyone is treated the same as Tom, then Dick and Sally suffer. Let's say you own a shoe company, and to be fair, you gave everyone the same size shoe but is that fair? If the size you decided on was a men's size 10, it's only fair for men with size 10 feet and no one else. What you can do is make different sizes and shapes for men and women, but make them all equally comfortable and evenly priced.

In American society, the default method of equality often means treat everyone like a rich white male. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it can mean treat everyone like a strong, middleweight male. Many of us who do not fit into that mold can be convinced that's what we're supposed to strive for.

Equality does not mean everyone should be the same. That is the opposite of equality; the creation of a homogenized uniform people — that bypasses equality — there would be no need as everyone would be the same. History is riddled with these attempts, and it always leads to great suffering.

The challenge is, how do you promote equality in a naturally hierarchical system such as the martial arts? You do the best you can. But you must try and give it consideration.

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
— Unknown

To the instructors, you already do this, and probably do it well. Maybe not for sizes or genders, but you are able to figure this out for different belt colors, or perhaps a variation of a technique for someone who is injured or less flexible. School teachers don't treat all students the same, parents don't have the same relationship with all of their children, but they are (hopefully) given equal respect, love, and care.

In the educational system, this is known as equality vs. equity. Something all teachers no matter the subject, math to martial arts, should be aware of.

Sameness and equality are not contradictions, it's mostly the same but not exactly, and we need it to have that wiggle room for fairness sake. Some fear highlighting issues will only create more disparity, that pretending they do not exist will bring us quicker to an egalitarian utopia. Since the beginning of the human species, women and men have existed, and we have yet to reach an egalitarian utopia. Maturity isn't about a utopia, but as a black belt sharply pointed out, it's learning to adapt with what you have access to for best results. Psychologically that takes willful awareness. In the spiritual/ martial arts approach that takes mindfulness. Willful ignorance is neither. Listening to the concerns of your less represented classmates or students can only make you better as an instructor, as an entrepreneur, and as a teammate.

Just as instructors tell their students, "Stop thinking you know it all and listen," instructors, too, must listen to their students.

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